A mutual friend introduced Calvin Garvey to Lena Keller when he was fifty-three and she was fifty-four. It was supposed to be a business connection. Her company sold something his company needed. The deal fell through. The connection persisted.
Both had been divorced longer than their first marriages lasted. Both feared repeating their mistakes. They saw each other for two years before they talked about marriage. Another year passed before they wed, with only her business partner and his son as witnesses.
Still aching from the fire and fury of their first marriages, they agreed never to fight. Because they didn’t know any other way, “no fighting” became “no conflict.” When Calvin’s twenty-seven-year-old wastrel of a son moved in with them, she held her tongue. She had a son, too. He hadn’t spoken to her since the divorce.
When Calvin’s son was still there six months later, she swallowed her irritation. When she caught him smoking pot on her back porch, she snapped at him but said nothing to Calvin. When she found out that Calvin had been lying about his son paying rent, she erupted like a volcano.
Calvin also had unspoken grievances. The fight raged like a California wildfire. Accusations. Recriminations. She said horrible things about his son. And he said, “At least my son talks to me.”
How could they come back from that? She cried herself to sleep alone in their bed. But in the morning, she found him weeping at the kitchen table. Before her night-owl brain could make sense of the scene, he said, “What I said was cruel. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
She didn’t know.
But they did not want to fail at marriage again. They went to counseling. They talked. They fought. They reconciled. They repeated. He learned to speak about his fears. She learned to name her injuries. He told his son to get a job and move out. She reached out to hers and learned to live with the fact that he didn’t respond. They decided on a fresh start in a new house that had enough room for the grandson that was on the way.
His grandson, not hers. The thought rankled. It also frightened her. It was so petty. What was wrong with her that she could resent a baby? She didn’t like what it said about her, and so she said nothing to Calvin. Then one morning she found him waiting for her at the kitchen table again. He said, “Lena, why won’t you talk to me about it?”
They went back to counseling. A shorter course this time. The framework for better communication was already in place. They only needed to expand it.
The boy is four now. He calls her Mee-maw. She has yet to see a toy she doesn’t want him to have. Calvin looks at her, smiles, and shakes his head. “Go ahead, Lena. He won’t be ours forever.”
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About “The Garveys”
As part of my creative practice, every week I select an exercise at random from a book of story prompts. This week’s assignment was to tell the story of a happy marriage. That seemed like a stretch. How could a story about happiness have narrative tension?
It was tempting to select a different exercise, but I have a rule against discarding a selection. The purpose is to stretch my skills. If I only do the easy ones, I won’t grow as a writer.
My first thought was to write about a couple facing some external conflict. I decided that doing that wouldn’t tell the story of the marriage itself. The tension needed to come from the interaction of the couple. A “happy marriage” doesn’t mean a lack of conflict. Happiness in marriage requires learning to navigate conflict in a healthy way. That’s not a skill that comes easy to many people. Calvin and Lena Garvey are drawn on several couples I’ve known who had to learn it the hard way.