LIFE, which is short enough and not always very sweet, belongs to the living, as deaths too often comes to remind us. A lady I loved long and devotedly, my wife since 1934, recently died at 73, and the heart of this article is that I remarried just 15 days later.
Indecent haste? Callous self-indulgence? A lot of people probably thought so. "Dear sir: You may be right," was H. L. Mencken's standard repartee to abusive fan letters brought on by his free-swinging essays, columns, books and ad lib quips.
Mencken's response always was the nonpareil. At my first wedding he wrote me: "I can only give you my blessing. My marriage, now in its fifth year, has been a whopping success -- and I rattle my chains with loud hosannas."
So it was with me for 46 years. Despite the anguish of one whose wife was periodically mad and suicidal, Mary and I had a loving, laughing marriage as our friends all knew, but with her death I determined, at 72, not to deny myself whatever joie de vivre remained. I write this hortatory message to my contemporaries: take cheer and do likewise. One happy marriage deserves another.
Given half a chance, love will find a way. Medical writers long ago demolished the theory that sex declines and disappears with age, and every elderly couple will learn on their own that a new partner brings stimulation and innovations. A common obstacle to remarriage is the disapproval of grown children whose objections, often unspoken or insinuated, range from true respect for the deceased parent, to threatened loss of inheritance and a wishful belief or ignorance that it's a case of all-passion-spent for elderly newly-weds. But the golden age belongs only to those who live it.
I was raised shy and timid, but at an early age I read and took heed of Davy Crockett's motto: "Be sure you're right; then go ahead." It impressed me indelibly. There would be scores of occasions in war and peace, in sports, politics and journalism, when many persons thought my judgments atrocious, and spoke and showed their disapproval. But I blundered ahead with no better than indifferent success in life, though blessed with fun, love and luck. If I keep my buttons, it will be that way to the end. I recommend Davy's advice to those recently bereaved and hit hard by the natural sorrow.
Mary's people, though well-fixed in the past with the usual number of Virginia manor houses and attendants, were professional by nature. Her grandfather was a beloved circuit court judge for 50 years. His portrait still hangs in half a dozen Southside courthouses. Her favorite uncle, after winning a World War I Distinguished Service Corss for valor, spent most of his adult manhood on state and federal benches. Another uncle was the surgeonin-chief at a large hospital. There had been money in the family from the Craddock Terry Shoe factory at Lynchburg, but it was drooping. There was talent on the maternal side: one of the uncles won a Smithsonian award for building a miniature steam engine. An aunt who studied with Mary Cassatt in Paris was honored in her lifetime by the Georgia Morgan Art Gallery in Lynchburg.
At the time we met and became engaged, Mary and I were both school teachers, jobs that were secure in the 1930s Depression. Better men than I were released from positions in which they performed well -- the business just wasn't there. I was already, at 26, being modestly published. So with financial advances from an indulgent fater, I resigned my safe teaching job and forfeited a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. I moved from the hunting shires of Maryland to a cheap hotel in Greenwich Village.
Crockett would have told me to write or starve, but I got lucky with the horsy magazines, being from the horse country, and struck a five-year contract with a prime publisher. Neither fame nor fortune came my way. After three children my wife had a nervous breakdown, from which she never fully recovered. But there was a ragtime of the day, "Ain't We Got Fun," and we did with muted hosannas. At the end, dragged down by a birth injury which neither of us quite acknowledged, Mary was in and out of mental institutions for the better part of three years, a wife by then in name only, until a Georgetown University Hospital doctor gave it to me in an emergency phone call.
"I'm sorry, sir. Your wife has just passed."
I would feel selfish to the age-group for whom this is written to omit the sequel. Mary and I had heard of a group of golf-playing retirees in Florida who pledged that when a member should die, his cronies should bear him to the cemetery and inter him, with as little of the law's delay as possible, in the clothes he was wearing. She and I, living in Foggy Bottom on the campus of George Washington University Medical School, learned of the school's unit called body donation and obtained and exchanged contracts with the school to receive us both at death.
I will not pretend I was without emotional disturbance when I notified the university norgue, arranged for the transportation and took care not to view the remains. I soon was in receipt of a thoughtful letter from the donations director who thanked us both for a valuable contribution to science and gave assurance the body would be treated with the utmost respect.
For a while I found it difficult not to shudder when daily passing the mortuary building adjacent to the subway station by which I went to work. The imagination can be cruel. To those who may come to my experience, I can say that the human imagination is also servient to its owner. I coached myself to understand the grim gray building, where I at the last would go. It was not essentially different from the village cemetery.
Lindy, my second wife, 69, had been a girl of exquisite beauty, granddaughter of a Maryland governor and founder of the Fidelity Trust Company. I had known her since our Baltimore dancing class. I tell her today that we were childhood sweethearts, but she says that is fantasizing. To her I was part of a prep school corps which she royally regarded as being individually and colectively in love with her. The boy whose affection she decided to reciprocate was a school chum, and we were barely past the college age when he the handsomest couple of theseason, and I was content to be no more than their close friend.
Hardly a year later Lindy's husband was my usher, and she traveled to Virginia for my ceremony where she glowed as gay a beauty as Scott Fitzagerald ever portrayed. To my credit I wasn't noticing. I had found the girl of my heart.
Lindyhs marriage wobbled along for 10 years and suffered the crib death of her first baby, a lovely daughter and the distress of a job-hopping husband. The match succumbed to one of those best-friend relationships with a man who once had openly vowed to have her for his wife. Charlie, successful as a thoroughbred trainer, was a tough one to beat, as I had found him in the steeplechases. Lindy moved in with her mother, and I paid a midnight visit where I pled the case for her sticking out the marriage, a useless and altruistic plea.
At that point I was firmly married with three children, books and magazine stories in print and an ROTC commission to be reactivated for World War II. Lindy went to Reno and returned to marry Charlie, who garnered a tidy fortune and stocked a picturesque farm in Howard County between Baltimore and Washington. Writing to them from the 2d Bombardment Group (Heavy) in the European Theater of Operations, I congratulated her on the arrival of a son and a daughter, but she did not answer back.
V-mail was available and free, and all of us Over There were writing to friends back home, chiefly to hear our names at mail call. I loved none but Mary, who wrote me virtually every day. then, there was VE Day and the unforgettable homecoming. Lindy was chiefly occupied in raising her children and running the farm. In an item of 1946, I found among notes: "Mary and I had attended a wedding reception at the Green Spring Valley Club where I encountered an extraordinarily beautiful lady, the wife of two of my friends (at different times). In the spirit of champagne and nuptial festivities, I bade her bring her husband, her sister and her sister's husband to Sweet Meadows Farm (my home) for more drinks which none of us needed."
Ten years went by, 10 years more, and it was not until 1976, while on a speaking engagement in Baltimore, that I was ever alone with Lindy, a platonic encounter. She was divorced and working for a living. Two more years passed, and with my unhappy wife in the Home for the Incurables, I ventured to ask Lindy for luncheon at the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. She had a job as a companion for rich old women whose relatives wished to see the least of them. I wondered aloud why she hadn't remarried.
"Oh, there's nobody. You see, I'm a burnedout case."
"No, I don't believe it. I only wish I were in a position to prove otherwise."
"Is this a proposal?" she asked with sultry eyes.
"It just can't be," I had to reply.
I desperately wanted to bring Lindy into my life, but there were taboos. I asked the assistant rector of my church if I could bring her to a service as a guest.
"There would be talk," he said gently but firmly.
But we continued weekly luncheons as I traveled the Metroliner from Washington to Baltimore, and we pined like persons 50 years younger.
At home in Washingto I fell into the shambles of a bachelor's life, going regularly to see my wife, sleeping in a bed that was made only on days the prt-time maid came.
As a journalist I had to rise early, but after a cocktail and lunch at the press club, I filed my daily piece and went back to bed with a tumbler of whiskey which refreshingly knocked me out for two hours. After that, feeding myself coffee and canned food, I worked long into the night on a book. My weight swelled by nearly 40 pounds. I drank again after midnihgt till I slept.
Then, quite suddenly it seemed to me, came the death call, and all was over.
My children and friends gathered at the church for a memorial service for which I had chosen the psalms and hymns that she had liked, and for the first time of the long ordeal it broke me down.
But I had a redeemer who will never wear a halo, if I may say so without disrespect to God and church. Davy Crockett got through to me. "Be sure you're right; then go ahead."
Many in my age group, as the obituary pages bear daily testimony, undergo this mortal separation, and I address them from the heart. Reconstruction of life for any survivor born near the beginning of the century should begin as soon as he can meet Davy's first requirement. For myself, I knew that Lindy was right for me, and it only remained to get on with it.
First, I took my daughter, mother of five, from the church to the Foggy Bottom home where Lindy made us a meal. The two had not met sicne my daughter was a child, but they were instantaneously compatible on the pertinent subject, which was myself. Lindy said she loved me, but nothing on earth would bring her to marry a drunk.
My daughter had gone through a bout of housewife drinking, but had joined an organization that combats alcoholism. This was the jury I face, but I pleaded nolo contendere. I didn't care for the water wagon but I promised a curfew on the midday and midnight drinking if only she would marry me.I would take only "happy hor" cocktails with her. That system worked so well that the 40 surplus pounds fell away in six months.
"Where's the rest of you?" scoffed a friend who'd been away.
The rest is all downhill. I visited the head man, the rector of my church, and asked instructions. He told me to go quite soon to the District courthouse for a civil marriage, and to werve the decent interval until the union could be sanctified in church. He said:
"It used to be customary to wait a year, and recently six months has become acceptable. But owing to your age, I should say less than that. Yes, in three months."
So Lindy and I, after being properly licensed, stood up in the District Court chambers of Judge Oliver Gasch, a classmate with whom I had recently celebrated our 50th Princeton reunion. We had only one attendant, an Air Force technicalsergeant who had begun as a handyman and ended as a friend. He drove us to and from the courthouse, and at home there was a surprise. The part-time maid, no less a friend after this, had brought out the long-unused linen, the often-unpolished silver. She treated us to a four-seated wedding luncheon.
Not many from my end of the century will be as lucky as this.