This morning I lay in bed in that not quite awake state, with my eyes shut but listening to the birds chattering outside. The light changed ever so slightly in the room, as if someone had walked past the window and I looked up to see my grandmother sitting in the armchair in the corner of my bedroom. The morning sun shone on the floor at her feet and tiny particles of dust swirled in its path. For a minute I thought of pulling the covers over my head. But my curiosity took over.
She looked just as she had when she died 30 years ago. Her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, her glasses sitting on the bridge of her nose, with a book resting in her hands on her lap. “Good morning Sarah, I’ve come to see how you are doing. It looks like you’ve finally married. Any children?” I felt a little embarrassed dressed in only a t-shirt with Greg fast asleep beside me. Sitting up, I pulled the covers close to my chin. “No, I’m not married and I don’t yet have children.” “Well who’s this man next to you? And why hasn’t he asked you to marry him?” “This is Greg, my partner, and we are living together first before we jump into marriage.” My grandmother looked him over with a disapproving gaze. “Well I suppose the times must change but is it really a good thing? If the man’s getting everything he wants without marrying you what motivates him to make the commitment?” “Nana, I think living together is a good thing, it gives two people a chance to learn about each other. I like knowing that a man is with me because he loves me, not because he’s married to me.
My grandmother shook her head in disagreement. “But what stops people from leaving as soon as the going gets tough? How do they grow together as a couple if they have the option of simply packing up and moving on to the next person? I should worry that nobody ever makes a serious commitment to each other, that they never learn what it takes for strong love to flourish. If you don’t marry how will you ever experience what it is like to give a part of yourself to the bigger entity of the marriage. How can you grow together as one?”
I’d forgotten how forthright she was. “Nana, it isn’t that people don’t marry anymore, they do. But that doesn’t stop them from living individual lives. Marriage doesn’t force them to give themselves to the union. Of course, that may be why the divorce rate is so high.” My grandmother nodded in agreement. “Yes, no doubt that’s why. Sarah, you have to work at everything, even love, to reap the rewards. It’s the working, the journey, that creates the reward. If you don’t enter into it you’ll never have the love you deserve. You have to give up a part of yourself for the union, but it fills in quickly with so many other things.”
My grandmother had a way of jumping to the root of a problem. “Yes Nana, it sounds all very good but in today’s world people value individuality. They don’t want to give up even a small part of themselves. I’ve come close to marriage a couple of times, but I never quite made it to the commitment stage. I’ve always lived my life as an individual, not so much because I wanted to, but because no one ever wanted or needed anything more from me.”
My grandmother’s brow became furrowed. Her expression more serious. She opened the cover of the book in her hands, but closed it again. I could tell she was thinking over her words. “Sarah, I loved your grandfather very much. But when we first got married we didn’t allow room for the other. Life was very bumpy. We wanted to spend our days living quite differently. I loved having people over for tea or dinner. I wanted to travel and visit friends. I had quite a few friends all over the province. But your grandfather didn’t have as many. He was happiest reading or working in his study. The first year was terribly hard. I wanted to go my way and he wanted to go his. We were both strong individuals pulling and pushing at each other, wanting to hang on to our own ways of living. “Over time we learned to let go of our habits, to give up part of ourselves for the other, and we created a new way of being, of living harmoniously together. We worked at it. I gave up visiting my friends all the time and instead took up reading.”
The shock on my face made my grandmother smile. “You only knew me after I became an avid reader. It was your grandfather who got me into it — a gift he instilled in me. He too gave up part of himself. He stopped working so much in the evenings and the two of us entertained guests. He made some great friendships that he might not have otherwise. We both modified our ways of being. But we both shared similar beliefs. Your grandfather had high standards for himself. He never caused another person to suffer, he never cheated or lied, and he always behaved as a gentleman. I respected him and wanted to be like him.
Sarah, your grandfather and I shared the same ideals. We both believed in love, we both valued it, and I think that allowed us to give ourselves completely to the marriage.” I remembered how my grandparents were before my grandfather died. They were inseparable, the two of them walking together, holding hands after fifty years of marriage. “I believe in love and I value it,” I said, “ but in today’s world my values seem like relics from the past. Independence is the way to be; people place their careers before their marriage, they spend more time at work than they do with their partners.
The idea that two people can grow together seems almost impossible. We’re faced with so many options and individual choices. Giving up our individuality for the union created by a marriage isn’t done much anymore. But I’m hanging on to my values and I hope that when the time comes I’ll be able to do it.” My grandmother nodded and smiled. She closed the book on her lap and vanished. All that was left were the tiny particles of swirling dust dancing in the morning sunlight.