My husband, Bill, and I had a disagreement over the word broken
. Was the faucet broken when it leaked?
I thought, yes
He thought, no
. If you turned the lever to just the right position, it no longer leaked. “See?” he said. “Not broken.”
This disagreement took a while. Tense voices.
“It is too.” I turned it to the off position. “See? Broken.” I held my finger under the steady drip, drip, drip.
“It is not.” He pulled it back to the not-leaking position. “See?” He opened his hand, like he made magic. No drip.
At one time, these disagreements had the power to unravel us. Arguments followed by days of distance where we spoke to each other in brief questions, overly polite answers. All over a leaking faucet, a sharp tone, or a task not done on the timeline one or the other of us had set in our own head but never spoken aloud. The day in, day out mechanics of a life together.
But we were learning to navigate these moments. A deep breath, a stepping away to our separate things, a return.
“Faulty then,” I said. “It’s a faulty faucet.”
“Let’s get it fixed,” I said. And by fixed
, I meant replaced
I would have hired someone to replace the faucet. But the next day Bill was in the bathroom on his back, his body half-in and half-out of the cupboard, flashlight beaming a better view, toolbox next to him. “I think I can fix it,” he said.
, Bill meant repair
He grew up with two siblings and a single mom. Money was more than tight. It was often gone too early in the month. Faulty things were repaired and repaired and repaired. My family wasn’t wealthy, but we had some to spare. We discarded, we replaced.
As a kid, Bill moved 13 times in 13 years. He had a father, a man his mother lived with, a stepfather, a mother, a stepmother, and another stepmother. He had a sister, a brother, a stepsister, a stepbrother, a half-sister, and more stepsisters.
I lived the first 18 years of my life on a ranch in rural Oregon — in the house my grandparents built and that my grandfather and father also grew up in. With the exception of a new baby sister when I was eight, the family I was born into was the family I had. In our house, every wall and cupboard were familiar. For a change of view, Mom rearranged the furniture every few months. For fun, my four siblings and I swapped bedrooms on a regular basis.
Curiosity carves the path through our differences.
One weekend, the first year after I moved into Bill’s house, he went out of town. I spent a whole day dragging sofas and tables, lamps and shelves, into a new layout. It was hard work. It was fun. I couldn’t wait to show Bill. He came home late on Sunday evening. I’d turned the lamps on low, to enhance the rearrangement.
He walked in the door and stopped.
“I moved things around,” I said. “Do you like it?”
“Sure,” he said. “It looks nice.” But his face had a flat look that didn’t look like liking.
A few hours later we were in an argument because he was so quiet, and I wished he’d been more enthusiastic about my hard work. I thought it was because he still saw this as his house and didn’t think I had a right to change things.
When we calmed down, we traced our steps back to that moment he opened the door. When he saw that everything was different.
With every move through Bill’s childhood, his mother put the furniture, as much as it was possible, in exactly the same place in each house. On the first night in their new home, she tucked him and his brother in. She leaned in and whispered, “Here is your bed, here is your pillow, here is your blanket, here I am. Everything the same.”
Our differences thread through our days. Bill cooks most of the meals, learned from a mother who gave love through food. Early on, when he cooked for me, he told himself this was his way of giving to me. I cleaned the house, learned from a grandmother who showed her love through creating a beautiful home. I thought he would see it and feel given to by me.
We felt hurt when the other didn’t appreciate our hard work. The love in it. It took us time to understand, the giving is also for ourselves. These comforts of our childhoods are a soothing learned amid discomforts.
For a while in Bill’s childhood, his mother loved a man who drank too much and angered too easily. He directed that anger at Bill. Preparing meals with his mother before the man came home was a safe time.
My father drank too much and the alcohol made him distant, kept him gone through the dinner my sister and I helped prepare. We put his plate in the oven on Warm-Bake.
It took time for me to learn to consume the food Bill made as love. To let go of memories of my father sitting alone at the kitchen table, head drooping down over dried-up meat, congealed gravy, limp green beans. To open my eyes and mouth to these fresh vegetables, the steam and scent of the stirfry.
It took time for Bill to see the vacuumed carpet, the laundered sheets and shiny bathroom mirrors, an arrangement of flowers on the table, as reflections of my love and not a reminder of his mother trying to ward off the anger of an angry man. It took even longer for me to see my relentless striving for a clean house as anchored in my own need for control, containment over feelings I did not know how to name.
Disagreements rose up in the ways we expressed our love: his in grand and intense rushes, with droughts of quiet in between. For years I thought he was too sensitive, too easily hurt. I saw my love as steady and consistent, with the occasional sharp jab. At times he questioned the depth of my love for him. I felt alternately overwhelmed by his love or longed for more of him.
Why would I say something hurtful when he was feeling so close to me? Why was it so easy for him to turn off his rush of love at one small slight from me? What did he mean by hurtful
? What did I mean by small slight
We learned to pace each other. He slows down and lets me catch up with my own bursts of love.
But still, even after 30 years, the weight we attach to a word (or the tilt of a head, a tone of voice, a pat on the arm) can send us sideways. What does he mean when he says he will be home “pretty soon”? What do I mean when I say, “I am disappointed”? What does it mean when I say, “You do that all the time”? When he says, “You are gone a lot”? What is all the time
? What is a lot
In my memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story
, I explore how we were each shaped by our histories, and how this shaping is reflected in the small and vast differences between us, as well as the one big difference central to our marriage: he did not want children. I did.
Curiosity carves the path through our differences.
How did Bill become a man who didn’t want children? How did I become a woman who did? What do I mean by broken
? What does he mean by fixed
One afternoon when I was at my desk, aware that Bill was outside, but mostly focused on the screen in front of me, Bill came in. He poked his head around the doorway to my office. He was sweaty.
“I weeded the whole entire yard,” he said.
By now I knew whole
in one sentence was part joke and part boast. He wanted me to pay attention to what he did.
“The whole and entire?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Whole. Entire.”
Our yard is large. He wasn’t out there for more than an hour. He didn’t know all of the weeds. He wouldn’t have pulled that nuisance that kept showing up in the marjoram.
“Did you weed the strawberries?” He would have weeded the strawberries.
“Yes,” he said.
I let this love in. I let myself feel his hard work as love.
“Nice,” I said.
That faulty faucet lasted a while longer, until it broke for real. We replaced it together. That is another whole entire other story, about who follows the written instructions, whether the gaskets go here or there, which way to turn the wrench when you are lying on your back, upside down, looking up at the curve of pipes.
÷ ÷ ÷
Jackie Shannon Hollis
is a storyteller, speaker, and author of the memoir, This Particular Happiness: a Childless Love Story
(Forest Avenue Press). Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines, including The Sun
, High Desert Journal
, and Slice Magazine
. Jackie grew up on a ranch on the east side of Oregon. Her early jobs included taking orders at the windows of the Shoe String drive-in and driving a potato and wheat truck. She now lives in Aloha, on the west side of Oregon. Always curious about the ways we humans relate, Jackie and her husband, Bill, lead workshops on communication, conflict management, and building successful relationships. Jackie brings her love of connecting with others and the joy of shaping words to creative writing workshops she facilitates through the Multnomah County library, for people experiencing houselessness and other hardships.