Portrait of Marie
By John Taylor; 2011 June 09, Nur 05, 168 BE
Marie and I are having our twentieth anniversary this November. For me, she is love personified, truly a gift of the divine. Like any present from God, it spoils everything if you overthink it. It desecrates a gift to question it or treat it with anything but the high reverence it deserves. Should I for a moment dwell upon the dark side of things, I sink into a melancholic stupor, wondering if I am good enough for her or, worse, if I have been good for her. Surely she would be better off with a different man, someone stronger, healthier, richer, better. But here is another secret of love she taught me, that you must accept grace with grace. Love is a bounty. Like a babe born to poor parents. They must accept it and only pray that God will fortify them to provide for their precious, unqualified and unprepared as they may seem to be in their own eyes.
We have had rainy and changeable weather for the past few days and months. In such weather, migraineurs like me go off the deep end. But I find that a hug from my Marie in the morning, or two or three, is not only sweet pleasure in itself, but it is enough, very often, to stave off the looming rain clouds of a migraine attack. Her warm body, soft arms and the caress of her fuzzy hair on my face become a medicament to body and soul. Her touch relaxes me deep down and makes me whole for the rest of the day. She is my doctor, my placebo, my sanity, my delight, my passion.
I often admonish her that it is completely unfair how mother nature is treating us. Here she stands as gorgeous as the day we married, her figure thin and svelte, her halo of golden hair framing lips that are still plump and full (models have to literally brush their lips until they almost bleed get the pouty look that is natural to Marie), her freckles -- not one of which I would exchange for a whole chorus line of beauties -- as appealing as ever. Her school friends mocked her for those freckles when she was young, and when I look at those freckles and kiss them, I always am filled with righteous indignation that anyone could put her down, but especially for such a spectacular virtue. It is like ostracizing Einstein for being a nerd, or Picasso for being an artsy-fartsy. Anyway, there she stands in perfection like starry skies while here am I, fatter, uglier and greyer with every passing year. It is as if she walked into some time machine and locked me out, hopelessly in love, pounding on the door, begging to be let in to be with her.
When I decided to write this, I rummaged through our old photo albums to find the most important photo in my life, the one she sent me when we first became pen pals, in December of 1989. I received her letter, with that photo included, and felt astonished that a babe like that would deign to write to me, of all people. In the snapshot, a kitten sits on her shoulder, and she actually manages to be cuter than a kitten! That Tom Jones song, "What's new pussycat?" took on a whole new meaning. That gilded hair, the pert nose, the silken, freckled skin of her cheek were as ravishing as any I had seen. What a pleasure, what an honour, that a beautiful creature like that would write to me, all the schleps in the world!
I proudly displayed my portrait of Marie, my second Esperanto pen pal, to my father. He glanced at it and said, "Oh, that's nice," and continued what he was doing. How could anybody see her and not fall off their chair? Here I was, walking on air, my stomach pumped with helium, holding out her snap at arm's length like it was radioactive, which of course it was. Even now as I hold this photo my skin goes ratatatatat like a Geiger counter.
This picture, and a few others she sent, were all I had of her for months, almost a year, other than her handwriting in a language that I barely understood.
The Hand of the Cause, William Sears, adored his Marguerite of the "robin's egg blue eyes" not only for the usual reasons a man loves a woman, but also because she introduced him to his religion, she expertly taught him and gently led him into the Baha'i Faith. What greater gift of love than that of faith? Well, for me, my Marie of the subtly flecked green on blue eyes gave a gift almost as wonderful, she brought me into the embrace of Esperanto, the language we still speak "en famille." Since so few others in Ontario speak the language, it is truly a private language. And how many lovers literally speak their own language?
This is why I had written to the Universal Esperanto Association in the first place, asking that the members of an Esperanto club in Russia find a pen pal for me so that I would be forced by regular correspondence to learn Esperanto. I had tried to learn Esperanto on my own, without anybody to speak it to, several times through the years, starting in High School when I first heard of the Baha'i Faith. But I had always failed. Surely a pen pal would help. Instead, they simply published my entire letter in their official organ, the magazine "Esperanto," in its want ads section.
The first to respond was Aneke Scheuten-Buys, a Baha'i Esperantist in Holland -- I could tell it was a Baha'i by the date, though little of text of Aneke's letter was decipherable. Then came the kicker, my Marie’s letter, my second Esperanto pen-pal. As the months passed, dozens wrote me from around the world, from England, Sweden, Algeria, Iran, Russia, Germany, Japan and Bulgaria. These letters did motivate me to learn the language -- one American in Kalamazoo, Michigan was particularly helpful and patient in correcting my many grammatical mistakes -- but nothing came close to the desperate impetus of regular letters from a girl with the face of a supermodel.
I hasten to add that physical beauty was far from her only virtue, as her weekly, anxiously awaited letters quickly made clear. She was gentle, compassionate, considerate, kind and sweet. And most of all, she was honest, and she expected nothing less than complete frankness and sincerity. She insisted that I respond explicitly to every point she brought up.
Once, as I approached the mailbox, I impulsively stuffed into my weekly letter a "Sweet Marie" chocolate bar. Since she lived in recently communist Czechoslovakia, she would never have seen her name on a chocolate package. Plus, I wanted to show how the whole world recognizes her sweetness, not just me. Unfortunately, she was angry with me when the letter sorting machine chewed my fat, oversized letter and after a week it was sent back to me, resulting in a two week delay. Do not do that, she admonished me, what you say is far more valuable than any chocolate. What better compliment can you give to a writer than that?
She was, and remains, one of the most clearheaded, levelheaded and practical people I have met. Yes, I know, when you are crazy in love any object of affection seems levelheaded in comparison, even a complete loon. But in this case she really is all that; I can attest to it. After almost twenty years of marriage she remains my anchor in stormy trials. Lately she has been reading aloud her blog postings, translating from Czech to Esperanto. Her voice reading her own writing aloud remains strangely tranquilizing even now; like her hugs, her words and voice are exquisitely soothing, a balm to heart and soul.
Anyway, back to 1990. With each letter, I pored over dictionaries to get every word, every nuance of what this babe said to me. As I always did with nubile women, I made it clear from the start that I am a disabled person with zero career prospects. I was aware that cripples have no right to expect wives at all, much less trophy wives, as part of life's benefits. I always felt that justice required me to be upfront about the fact that I lose concentration at unpredictable times, and that a change in the weather or some subtle factor like food at the wrong time, or extra stress, caused a chain of migraines, one feeding the next, for days, months and years at a time. Besides, any deception about what I am would only break my heart into smaller pieces, and make everything worse. The stress of rejection only brought on another, bigger snake eating its tail -- that is, a phenomenon where one migraine's latter symptoms cause a new attack, and another and another, for grueling month after grueling year. I was never shy with women, but I was terribly fearful of the mind-storm what would hit me if I became entangled, attached, rejected, stressed or melancholic. I had no choice but to live a life of absolute celibacy.
I waited for Marie to break it off after I had written this to her, in my broken Esperanto, telling her exactly who and what I am. Every other had rejected me and I expected nothing different from her, compassionate as she seemed. Instead, in her straightforward way, after about three exchanges of letters Marie replied with a marriage proposal. She was not kidding, either, as I half feared. With great joy mixed with trepidation, I flipped through the Esperanto-English dictionary for the words to accept her proposal. The word for "yes" was, "Jes."
We kept our correspondence. It is filed away. I would like one day to go through our early letters to find out how, with such halting language skills, I got anything at all across to her, much less a one-way crossing of the Atlantic, a whirlwind visit and courtship, a joyous wedding and, two years later, the birth of our baby daughter, and all the rest that has happened since.
Marie was a humble repairperson working in a large factory. For almost a year she scrimped and saved every penny, eating little, avoiding social events, in order to make this thing happen. My disability pension was tiny and, she guessed, was unlikely to cover all our expenses. What is more, to my delight, she met the Baha'is in her city, Ostrava, became acquainted with them and even helped them put up posters for their meetings. To me this service to the Faith, even if she was not a believer, sanctified our endeavours. Surely God would bless her efforts.
During that year of correspondence everybody told me that I was crazy, that the risk was too great that such romances never work out. They were wrong, and here is why. What better courtship can you have than a year of letters only? For Baha'is who divorce, a year of patience ends a marriage. For us, a year of patience started our marriage. The birth by fire annealed our hearts as nothing else could have. If I had been able to hug and taste of my Sweet Marie then as I am blessed to do now, the flood of flavour would inevitably have washed all rational thought, and memory, to oblivion. It all would be lost forever by now. We could never have got to know one another as deeply before marriage as, through this hard bounty of God, we actually did.
I just read that the difference, the touchstone between love and infatuation is effort. Infatuation is felt, love is worked, decided, known through a lifetime.
If you are stricken by someone, you think you fall in love and you get into a state where you think of nothing else, you cannot sleep, eat, and on and on, it seems real but hard statistics prove that the chances of such passionate relations lasting beyond two years are slim indeed. You can stretch out your infatuation a few months by keeping it a secret -- somehow shame and a sense of wrongdoing preserves such trysts a little longer by isolating them in a vacuum. But in the end, nothing is built on a foundation of sand.
The difference between such ephemeral liaisons and real love is that one you get for free; you do not earn it, it just hits you over the head and that is that. Love demands much more. It has to be earned, it must be worked out by sacrifice, deprivation and hard work.
Marie's love still enthralls me to the bone, every day, after these twenty-one years because I know how real, powerful and potentially eternal our bond is. It goes way deep, far below surface feelings. We paid our dues during that year of hard labour and obnoxious, painful separation. In that time, we learned to be together even if our bodies are separated. When our bodies were finally united, we knew how to change their energy into constructive effort for the good of our family.
Somebody asked Paul Neuman why he was faithful to his wife, Joanne Woodward, when as a Hollywood star he could have had at the snap of his fingers his choice of willing, beautiful women. He answered, "Why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?" Rather crudely put, but he explained perfectly why Marie is, if anything, more beautiful now in my eyes than when we married.
In order to find the first photo of Marie that she included in her first letter, I had to dig through our old family albums, which I had not seen for many a year. When I actually saw in those old photographs what she looked like then, I almost had to shade my eyes, the beauty of my bride was so radiant. There was no denying that, in a certain sense, I was wrong about that time machine. Time in a superficial way has had its effects.
But, looking at my bride, not an image of her but in the flesh, after twenty years of maturation, she went from pretty to beautiful, more deeply beautiful than anyone ever I have seen. The blossom may have dropped, but the fruit is now ripe, ruddy and plump. Her beauty then was thin, dry, drawn out. Now it is full, mature, real, and has taken on so much force that it is almost frightening. For example, she just has to enter the room and I am electrified, plunged into a sort of ghost world where suddenly other women, no matter how beautiful, pop out of existence. There is only her, just my angelic bride, Marie.
It is futile to try to paint this portrait, in photos or words. Beauty points beyond this bottom-up world to the top-down, the divine reality. What good does it do to point out a pointer? When look into my bride's green eyes, I do not need pointers, for I see into eyes that will themselves see us in the glory of the World of Beauty.