When I was 26, I received an invitation to a fancy New England wedding. Sheri wasn’t invited – we’d only started dating – but I allowed as how I planned to attend wearing my best leather jacket and my fancy silver bolo tie. I was a rube – recently arrived from Tucson – who didn’t own a sport coat or regular necktie and who didn’t want to admit the complicated confusions of class I felt in Connecticut. I wasn’t fancy New England, but I was somebody! And if snooty New England didn’t want me and my bolo tie, the heck with it. “That silver tie cost more than two hundred bucks!” I told Sheri. “It’s fancy!”
I was acting like a child.
Poor Sheri. Older and in the midst of new love, she wanted to save me from myself, but …
It was complicated.
You can’t avoid it. Couples should help each other be better people. Isn’t that a great benefit of love? But in our case, Sheri’s effort to help me dress better could have whiplashed me right into back-to-school week at Sears, and I’m in sixth grade wanting that silky polyester disco shirt while she buys me a nice cotton jersey.
So here’s what happened. Sheri demanded I buy a sport coat and tie. It was not a matter of mothering. Her message was clear: I’m a woman, you should be a man. Grow up. Be my partner; dress like you belong with me. Recognize the requirements of occasion.
There was no condescension in her demand. If anything, there was respect. “You’re better than this,” she was saying. “Rise up, young man.” I felt ashamed, sure, that I’d reached 26 and still didn’t know how to dress for a wedding. But I didn’t feel mothered as I would have had Sheri bought me the sport coat and neck tie or even had she picked it out. She stood back as I worked with the sales clerk, offering an opinion when I glanced her way and shrugged a question. It was my show with Sheri as the audience (an audience with high expectations).
In the infinite variety of human couplings, there must be some older women/younger man romances that follow a mother-son dynamic and succeed. But I imagine most to be unsatisfying with more that fail than endure. A day or so ago I came across a “Dear John” letter Ernest Hemingway received from an older woman he hoped to marry. At the time, he was 19 and Agnes Von Kurowsky was seven years his senior. She’d nursed him through war injuries, and clearly that role played into a mixed-up dynamic in which she became both lover and mother.
In the end she wrote, “Ernie, dear boy …”
Dear boy? Addressed to Hemingway? It gets worse.
“Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart. … I am now & always will be too old, & that’s the truth, & I can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy – a kid.”
Then she tells Ernie how she’d tried to make this clear while they traveled together in Padua, but he had made it difficult because he’d “acted like a spoiled child.” But she prays he’ll “start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are. … Your friend, Aggie.”