Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cherchez le jeune homme

Here comes yet another OWYM film – Chéri is set to hit U.S. theaters at the end of June.

Set in turn-of-the century France, the film follows the affair of retired courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her 19-year-old lover (Rupert Friend). Adding to the drama: The young man, the Chéri of the film’s title, is the son of a fellow courtesan.

The affair lasts six years. Complications arise when the young man’s mother arranges a marriage for him with a woman closer to his own age. I don’t know how the movie ends (although I can guess), so I can’t be a spoiler.

 But I can reveal the true story on which the movie is loosely based.

The movie is based on the 1920 book “Chéri” by the French writer Colette, whose life seems far more interesting than that of her fictional heroine. (For more on Colette, see this New York Times review of a 1999 biography).

At age 46, Colette began an affair with her 16-year-old stepson.

Uncommon love was a common theme in Colette’s work and life. She had already had affairs with women, bared her breasts in Paris music halls and divorced her first husband. The stepson affair would last five years and end her second marriage, to her lover’s father. Her third husband was 16 years younger than she.

All of which is to say that the recent excitement over younger men with older women is nothing new. It’s been frothed up by all things Demi and Ashton and by TV shows like The Cougar. But it predates all of that. It predates Colette, too.

 Still, there’s something about older women and younger men at the current intersection of media and culture that gets people excited. The recent movies and TV shows (The Reader, Cheri, Desperate Housewives, The Cougar),  the popularity of Demi and Ashton as supermarket tabloid fodder, and the revelation by AARP that three out of 10 single women between 40 and 69 are dating younger men — all of that bespeaks a fascination with this kind of uncommon love. And it says, too, that it’s not so uncommon after all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mother’s Day, Part III: Dear Siggy, Momma Ain't My Wife

When she learned I’d fallen in love with a woman 17 years older, my mother worried that somehow she’d ruined me. She worried that there was something oedipal in my love for Sheri.

I would be lying to say I didn’t worry about that myself. The worrying has been minimal and rare – the pebble in a shoe, the string of celery caught between molars. But because my marriage to Sheri lies outside the norm of most men’s behavior, every now and then I wonder whether a psychologist might come across this blog and nod and say in a knowing way: “He’s clinical.”

I imagine if Dr. Freud (photo captured from the Freud Museum website) had never mused about Oedipus and “Little Hans,” the boy he studied to arrive at his Oedipus Complex theory, I wouldn’t ever think about this. On first glance, Freud’s oedipal ideas seem silly to me, and I’ve been glad to find that lots of people these days agree. But his ideas are also part of the popular culture, and, according to an article this month in Toronto's Globe & Mail, apparently even men who marry women of their own age worry that they are marrying their mothers.

For me, those concerns lie deep in the background until something pricks them. Once, when my parents visited, and I was working on something in the kitchen and needed help, I almost called Sheri “Mom.” That turned the blood to ice. When a man in Belize suggested that Sheri was my mother, I immediately corrected him. In her blog posting about the incident, Sheri makes me out to be the hero, but what I didn’t tell her right away is that his comment left me wondering if I was abnormal. Why wasn't I at the beach with a woman my age? Might that have to do with some subconscious confusion over mother and wife?

Doubtful, really. Before I met Sheri, I’d had at least one girlfriend who tried to mother me, who tried to treat me as a child. That woman was my age. We didn’t date long. Sheri doesn’t ever mother me, nor do I ask her to. To me, that’s all the clarity I need to tell Freud what he can do with his theory. I married Sheri because I wanted a wife, lover, helpmeet, best friend. I know my wife and my mother well. They are different women. One I love for all the reasons a son loves a mother; the other for all the reasons a husband loves a wife.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother’s Day Part II: Judy meets Jezebel

What’s it like when your 27-year-old son announces he’s involved with a woman who’s 44?

Do you worry about his sanity? Do you picture the girlfriend as an aging Jezebel with a secret past? A divorced reject from the dating scene who can’t hook someone her own age? Is she some kind of weirdo?

Now imagine getting this news when you are only 48 your own self.

That’s how it was for Judy, the woman who has become my mother-in-law. She remembers that her first thoughts were not about me. They were — naturally — about her son. Ohmigod, what have I done to him? Is he looking for a mother figure? Ohmigod, I ruined my son.

She and Ed — my future father-in-law — headed for Carl’s Jr. in Tucson, where they go to drink Diet Cokes and figure out how to live with life’s hard questions. Ed calmed her fears. He told her that Michael’s choice would be a fine one, and besides, there was nothing to be done about it. It wasn’t anything you did as a mother to make him want to marry an older woman, he told her. He advised her to have faith in their son.

And that, bless her heart, is what Judy did. I approached our first meeting with more anxiety about her reaction than any Jezebel ever had. But she opened her arms and her heart, welcoming me warmly.

For my part, having a mother-in-law so close to my age occasionally has unexpected consequences. Judy and I share memories and music and the culture of growing up in the 50s and 60s. We laugh a lot, like sisters. In the early days of my marriage to Michael, it felt a little kinky to be sleeping with the son of my new friend. Wait... she’s my friend, but she’s also the mother of my husband. For Judy, it’s the same: I don’t feel like you’re a daughter-in-law, she tells me.

If there’s any trick to this business of being friends as well as in-laws, it’s in not letting numbers crowd out the affection. The numbers are real: Judy and I are 4½ years apart. But so is the gratitude I feel for her friendship.

Here is the main thing we share: I thank her for raising the man I so dearly love. And she thanks me for loving him so dearly.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mother's Day, Part 1

Some guy once told me that to see how your lover will age, look at her mother. So I anticipated that day in a western Michigan tourist town when I would meet Irene, Sheri’s mother, and see into my future.

Did Irene look forward to meeting me, this man, younger than some of her grandchildren yet dating her daughter? Who knows? But if anything concerned her she hid it on that autumn day. Older than my grandmother, she stood straight and handsome, graced with a manner of quiet assurance that arose as much, it seemed, from her Bible-reading and prayer as it did from her own character. She’d brought her new beau along, a rascally fellow named Claus who’d made his move some five years after Sheri’s father had died.

Claus liked puns and corny jokes, and, in my memory, stood shorter than my future mother-in-law, with whisps of white hair, skinny shoulders and a belly like a basketball.  We followed them to a restaurant for lunch, Claus driving a monstrous Detroit-made sedan, and I pushed our 4-cylinder rental to keep up with him. He challenged yellow lights and shifted lanes without warning. In our car, Sheri envisioned Claus at the wheel during the traffic accident that would kill her mother. I know Sheri sometimes felt ill at ease with Claus because she worried he would do something to hurt Sheri's mom.

It’s hard to watch people dear to you turn their heart over to a person you don’t know – a person who might hurt them because that other person is tattooed, or plays in a punk band, or works on Wall Street, or is Catholic, or drives too fast, or is seventeen years younger.

Irene and Claus married soon after I met them. And then, a little more than a year after that, he died – in bed. And Irene did hurt, after all.

We visited her at her apartment home in Grand Rapids the following Christmas – our first as a married couple – and I remember the great comfort I felt sitting on her couch as we talked about God and the spiritual life, about my Catholic upbringing, about family. We never discussed my age in relation to Sheri’s. I suppose she might have worried that I, so much younger, would break her daughter’s heart. But I like to think she recognized love and kindness and had faith in her daughter and in me.

Sheri’s mother died the next year. That was fifteen years ago. Recently, we had dinner with another HimPlus couple. He told us that he is estranged from his family because they didn’t approve of his marriage to an older woman. I felt sad hearing that, but also fortunate that Irene had not condemned her daughter because of me. When I think of my mother-in-law now, it’s not only because I'm thinking how Sheri might age. It’s also to imagine how I might change with the years. I’d like to grow into someone like Irene, who knows to keep private counsel in the face of what looks like strange love, because in the end all love is strange, and who knows to be glad for it.