Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Loves We Leave Behind

Choosing one life means giving up others

My father met my mother in a poker game. He said she was the best bluffer he'd ever seen. She sat with five men at a table under an elm tree that shaded them from the hot Kansas City, Mo., sun. Her talent for subterfuge lay hidden behind her sweet, serene smile. She beat them all. My father couldn't take his eyes off her.

It was her company's annual picnic, and he walked her home. The next week, from his home in Chicago, he sent her a post card: "Remember me? Please do, 'cause I'll be calling you one of these days. David."

She still has the post card. I'm not sure what made her save it. Though he already had his heart set on her, she hadn't chosen him yet, at least not consciously.

As my father often told us while we were growing up, it was blind luck that he was at the picnic that day. A salesman for a big electronics company, he was in town to meet with clients and happened to stop by the branch office that Saturday morning to make some calls. The telephone rang; it was the manager of a local radio station with whom my father had done some business. "Dave! Glad you're in town!" he said, and invited him to come right over to their annual picnic.

My mother was a writer at that radio station. If my father hadn't stopped by the office that morning, he told us, or if he'd gotten there two minutes later ... We shivered with a delicious horror at the opportunity, the life - our lives - that would have been missed.

My mother saw him when he was in town, but she dated other men, including a car salesman who entered our family lore. Soon after she met my father, the car salesman gave her a watch for her birthday. In those days the gift of a watch meant the relationship was moving toward engagement. But she returned the watch, and one night a few months later, she woke her mother and told her she was going to marry Dave.

A few months after the wedding, my father was transferred East. They settled in New York, in the house where I grew up.

I was eight years old when I met my future husband. He was in high school, a friend of my brother's. I remember him only peripherally, as I was much more interested in my brother's other friend - Francois, a Swiss exchanged student, dark, mysterious and polished.

Fifteen years later the man I would eventually marry came back to town for Christmas and stopped by my parents' house to pick up my brother for an evening out. When he saw me in the next room, he hissed, "Who's that?"

My brother looked at him strangely and said, "It's just Lisa."

He walked into the room, reintroduced himself and pretended he didn't know how to wrap his Christmas gifts. I pretended to believe him and helped. He came around a lot over the next few days. "I don't know who he's interested in," my mother told me, "you or your sister." I knew. But later that week I flew across the country to spend New Year's Eve with another man. Though I'd been chosen, I wasn't ready to admit it yet.

If the timing had been different, the distance less daunting and my heart not already - albeit unknowingly - engaged, I could have ended up with that man whom I went off to visit. Or if not him, then with someone else. Sometimes I think about that, how time sweeps us along and puts us in a certain place where we're faced with one option or another. By chance and by the choices we make, we leave behind whole other lives we could have lived, full of different passions and joys, different problems and disappointments.

My father could have missed that picnic. Or my mother could have picked the car salesman. She would have had other children and an entirely different future.

Other times - particularly when I come home late to a sleeping house, my husband and daughter curled around each other after drifting off during the third reading of Jane Yolen's Owl Moon - I think about the lives we would not have had if chance or choice had brought us to a different place. And I shiver, much the way I did as a child at the story of my father's near miss, at the thought that I might have missed this life, this man, this child, this love.


No comments: