Just when did it happen? When did I become one of those “old maids,” as we used to call them. It’s almost as though I blinked my eyes and three decades or so simply vanished.
You remember that term, of course. “Old maids” were to be pitied, weren’t they? Their lives were empty, bereft of love, of meaning. The ideal for women (as we had it from everywhere in the culture I grew up in) was marriage and children.
Growing up, I always thought I’d marry. I dated; I had crushes; I fell in love. But nothing ever quite worked out. I wanted to get out, go to college, work, see the world. Maybe later, I thought from year to year. I wanted to go to school. I loved studying and learning. But I wanted a husband and children too. Just not now, I’d think. Later.
Friends married. In college, I was in a lot of weddings. One day, I expected, one would be mine.
And there would, of course, be children. They were always part of the future that I thought lay ahead of me.
First, there was the BA to get. Then I went on to grad school for my MA. Baton Rouge in 1973-5 was my first taste of the world in a way. No longer in a dorm but living in an apartment, I knew the excitement of being on my own. Everything was an adventure. Graduate school was grown-up life, but what that life would be I still had only a vague notion of. Surely, I told myself, I’d see a bit of the world, work a little while, and then settle down, marry, and have a family.
During my first teaching job at Lamar University, I truly realized that I wanted to make teaching a career. I loved it. Unexpectedly. One of the two things I said I’d never do for a living (the other was working as a secretary), teaching became my vocation. I also recognized that I didn’t want to be in a revolving door, one of the many wandering adjuncts of the academic world. I wanted roots — a solid, steady position.
That meant I’d need to go back to school, get the Ph.D. By the time I got the MA, I’d somehow developed the notion that maybe I wasn’t bright enough. By the time I was in my third year teaching at Lamar, I knew differently. I’d fallen in love, gotten my heart broken, and yet looked forward to whatever was to come.
During my years studying at Texas A&M, I lived as most doctoral students did: immersed in my classes, in teaching, and enjoying a social life that revolved around the people I saw all the time.
Once those studies were out of the way, once I’d moved back to Egan just as I got my proposal accepted, I received a job offer for a visiting lecturer position at McNeese, my alma mater. It came on the day that we were committing my mother to a locked ward — she’d had some kind of a breakdown. Not knowing what to expect, I knew I was needed here, since Dad was still working.
By my second semester teaching at McNeese, Dad decided to retire — in part to take care of Mother. She was better, and functioning, but still rather fragile. My brother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and our family reeled with that. I threw myself into teaching, into writing my dissertation, into defending it. I received the Ph.D. and accepted a full-time tenure-track position at McNeese.
Once again I found myself beginning again, in a sense, this time in working toward tenure. My social life broadened, and I had a good time, perhaps too good a time at times.
Then I was tenured, and then Mother was very ill and died. Phil, recovered from the first cancer, was diagnosed perhaps 7 years later with a melanoma. Brain surgery. Recovery of sorts.
My house was filled with friends and I had parties. I dated. I had a couple of relationships, though nothing that worked out, or even came close to that.
My forties? The decade of death, as I came to think of it. Mother, then Phil. A Senior Fulbright to teach at university in Greece for a semester.
Work. Family. Friends.
Somehow I still kept thinking that something was missing. Yet that something evaded me.
My fifties? Work, family, friends.
At 62, I now realize that at some point in the last ten years or so I stopped thinking that there was a future I was missing. My future was actually being lived. It just didn’t include marriage and children.
And that’s okay. In fact, I suspect that I probably sabotaged my own notions of that “perfect” ideal future, with marriage and family. Perhaps I never really thought that marriage would work out for me, that I’d disappoint “him,” and thus avoided such a situation.
Certainly there are empty spots in my life, experiences I’ll simply never have. Yes, I’ve missed out on some things.
But sometimes we get so caught up in our own narrative that we fail to see our stories have things that others envy. I’ve got friends, happily married, who wistfully note that they’d enjoy being “free” to do what I’ve done. Theres a cliche that comes to mind about grass and a fence. It’s a truth, though, that in envying what others have we often fail to see just what of value we have.
By the time I was 50 or so, I used to wonder when I’d missed the happily-ever-after dream that surely was the life I was supposed to have. I also came to see that every step along the way, I’d made decisions for another life, one that came with hard work and joy and immense fulfillment. It was a path chosen.
As Robert Frost once wrote, that choice “has made all the difference.” Frost never said that the difference was negative — or positive. SImply, it made a difference.
My choices led me to who and where I am today. Do I have regrets? Of course I do. Do I regret not being married, not having children? At times, of course.
No longer, though, do I wail about that (20s, even in 30s. Too much drama). It’s a fact of life. But I savor and am deeply grateful for the many blessings of my life. It’s a comfortable life.
If there’s a pattern in our lives, some force or power that guides us, perhaps I was supposed to remain unmarried and without children for reasons I couldn’t know or understand. Some friends think I must have really screwed up in a past life and have to pay for it now. I prefer to think that I needed to be free, to be here, when and where I am, for the time that I was needed by Dad, for the role I was to play in his care.
This weekend, I stayed at home for two days in a row. I’ve only been outside to empty garbage. It was a lovely weekend. I wrote. I spent time sorting through and organizing my jewelry and craft materials in my office. I had a friend over yesterday to craft with me. I spent hours on working with the precious metal clay and firing my rather clumsy and uneven first efforts. There were domestic chores along the way as well.
And there’s no stress about papers to grade or anything like that. The week ahead will have some appointments and consultations about writing projects. I’ve got other appointments as well. But it’s work I choose to do. Time gets spent on my crafts, my writing, and I realize that I’ve become rather selfish in a way.
I haven’t spent as much time with friends as I should, or as I think about. I’ve become almost hermit-like at times. By the time I think about calling one friend, it’s too late. I’ve read and puttered around at home and focused solely on me.
Maybe I never really would have made time for a husband and children. Or would have felt resentment. I don’t know; I’ll never know. I just know that I have a life that is filled with many friends, with family, with students from decades of teaching who are now friends. I am enmeshed in a community that satisfies me.
Love is hardly absent from my life, albeit not romantic love. That would still be fun. But I don’t think I’ve failed if it doesn’t appear.
That old-maid image? I think I’m more the Aunty Mame type anyway, though shorter and heavier. I enjoy what I’ve worked for, what I’ve had the privilege of doing for a career. Being able to hit the road if I want to is relatively new again to me, and I’m getting used to it. If I want to read all night and sleep in, I can do that. I like dressing up and going out at times. I enjoy flirting.
Now, if George Clooney knocks on my door, I will of course let him in. My passport is good, and I can travel if he wants. But he’d also better get along with my life here.
Cheryl, I think you have lived a very full life. It just wasn’t in the cards for a husband and children. Look at me . 40 years with Cecil and it feels like no time has passed. Did I see that coming ? No. What is really great, I am realizing , is there is still so much time left for us! Sent from my iPad