Plot Line

plot-line

Janet and Bill Martinson hail from somewhere near Casper, Wyoming. I suspect they got those scholarships to Harvard because there wasn’t much competition from their little state. Neither of them ever struck me as brilliant.

They’re not both Martinsons any more. Janet reverted to her maiden name after the divorce. Then Bill married Connie, who took his name. The usual confusion among their cohort. Their old cohort.

They’re not my age. They’re my parents’ generation. Bill and Janet were born around 1950. Their oldest son, Dave, was born in 1976 like me. He married my best friend Val.

I visited Val and Dave last month. I stayed with them, bunking on the futon in their little extra room, so we had energetic talks over morning coffee and tired giddy evenings chatting or watching videos. The night before I left, we were into the subject of life/work balance. Val and I sat at each end of the couch, cradling mugs of herbal tea. Dave was in his favorite posture, prone on the rug in front of the fireplace, surrounded by books. He told us that Janet had recently explained how she came to be a mostly-at-home mother instead of pursuing a career.

Val had heard the story from Janet at the same time, but she didn’t say a word. She let Dave tell it all. I could learn a few things about relationship maintenance from Val. My girlfriend hates the way I sometimes get excited and interrupt her.

Dave said Janet told them that she planned a career. She studied music theory and art history, and she was probably going to be a college professor. She didn’t meet Bill till they were both in Cambridge, which was kind of odd given that they came from the same low-density area. Bill was also in the music department, although he was always on the performing end. He intended to make a living as a musician.

(They were hippies. They met in 1969, fell in love and moved in together the following fall. They got married after graduation, in 1972. Their wedding was in Cambridge. No one came from Wyoming. The bride wore a peasant blouse and a friend-made long purple velvet skirt. From the few photos it looks like Bill had on a Nehru jacket, but he says he can’t remember what he wore.)

According to Janet, the young Martinsons headed to San Francisco in a VW bus. They settled in Oakland, where she could pursue a graduate degree. Bill started playing piano and any other keyboard instrument, in a succession of small bands and also in studios. He was a member of the union and rather proud of his card.

The pregnancy with Dave wasn’t planned. Janet said he was conceived after a raucous harvest party with a slew of friends. They were into natural birth control. She took her temperature every morning to ascertain when she was ovulating. As far as they could tell, Dave was conceived a full four days after the ovum emerged.

When they found out Janet was pregnant, they considered termination. Everyone did then. But they agreed that any gamete so tenaciously determined to exist deserved a shot. Janet proceeded to grow plump (she’s a short woman and she was a slip of a thing when young, but she put on weight with age and babies, and is now almost as wide as she is high).

Janet said the one source of disagreement in their early marriage was about her working. Bill didn’t mind if she got casual employment (bookstore or café), but he aimed to provide the family income. The subject didn’t come up that much when she was studying for her masters and working part-time, but they each knew the other’s position.

And she said the biggest surprise of her life was how much she adored motherhood. She fell deeply in love with Dave the moment she held him. She was amazed at how gratifying she found her new role. She was in a Lamaze class while pregnant and participated in what’s now called play groups after Dave arrived, so she knew many of the other mothers experienced ambivalence. She had friends who loved their babies but missed their jobs, who confessed to resenting the loss of privacy and time, but that didn’t happen to Janet. It was like she was born to nurture infants.

She took a break from studies. She stopped working to care for Dave full-time. And she made no effort to prevent subsequent pregnancies. Every two and a half years she gave birth to another child.

According to her, if she hadn’t grown the fibroid tumors that necessitated a hysterectomy in 1984, there’s no telling how many kids they would have had. As it is, Dave has three younger brothers. (All of them are fat. Janet never did learn how to turn off the nurture spigot.)

Bill didn’t make it big, professionally. Most don’t. As far as I know, he worked diligently and even traveled a lot, but the best he did was eke. Luckily Janet got involved in a nonprofit when Dave was six and ended up learning how to write grant applications. She took that skill home and was able to earn enough to pay the rent and buy food. She got the boys clothes second hand or made/repaired garments herself. Bill’s earnings allowed the family to buy the used car and to make the occasional family trip (always to Wyoming, to see extended family).

“So you’re telling me Bill got his way by keeping Janet barefoot and pregnant?” I asked, finishing my tea.

Val laughed. I love Val’s laugh. Dave didn’t seem to appreciate it though. He gave her one of his below-the-brows glares. “That’s not funny,” he growled. Maybe I don’t want to get relationship lessons from them. My girlfriend never growls at me. My old boyfriends didn’t either. Then again, I’ve always been attracted to small-framed people and I have no problem intimidating them. I’m a big girl myself, and I like me that way. I never had any problem with the fact that I take after my mountain man dad. Val is almost as tall as me at 5’9″, which may be why sex never happened between us (that and the fact that my BFF turned out to be irredeemably hetero).

So Dave growled and the subject of conversation changed. But it stayed with me. After we said goodnight and I tucked myself into the comforter on the futon, I replayed some of it. I extended the story too. I knew that Bill and Janet split up when Dave was twelve. Bill met Connie. He stepped out and fell in love and left. Then he and Connie got married and spent the next five years trying to get pregnant (her idea but he was willing). Meanwhile, Bill’s mother died and he inherited the old family home in Wyo. They moved there, figuring it would be a better place to raise the child they didn’t manage to engender.

Connie had made a living as an event planner in California (she and Bill met at one of her events). She also owned some rental real estate in the valley, where she’d grown up. Her job didn’t move with her to Wyoming, but the rental income did. And she’s an energetic woman; she ended up turning the house into a B&B and making a decent living.

Bill kept playing piano. He managed to be supported by not one but two wives.

WTF? Why was Dave believing the tale his mother spun?

I sure didn’t believe it. I know Janet, and I’ve never seen career motivation qualities in her. The woman is so Gaia she could sit for a portrait. A short soft fertility symbol, wrapped in textile work and kitchen crafts. Maybe a counselor or a realtor or, yes, an event planner like Connie, but not a power girl.

And Bill? So much a hippie I want to spell it heepie. I understand that guys who were born before WWII had big ego-investment in being the family breadwinner. But the 60s and 70s got rid of that paradigm along with the mandate that boys have short hair. I don’t know any bearded tie-dye-loving musicians born in the 50s who would insist on the little woman staying home. And look at Bill’s transit. He never earned enough to buy a house. He let not one but two out of two wives support him.

I knew I was on a bit of a tirade then. My girlfriend would have been making me laugh at myself if she’d been with me. But I’ve got a thing about personal narrative. If it doesn’t make sense, I’ll bet there’s parts being suppressed. Dishonesty or delusion. There has to be more or other to the Martinson marriage story, for it to hang together. My girlfriend gets this about me. Val gets this about me, and she used to share it herself, but she’s stuck in love in a relationship with a growling man, and she may be working on her own rewrite.

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