Note: Several years ago, I created the characters of Uncle Samuel, a childless widower and an attorney, and his nephew Hobson, a bumbling man in his mid-20s often baffled by life. In 2013, some of Uncle Samuel’s letters appeared in my book “Learning As I Go.” Even then, Hobson was courting Abigail and receiving sound advice on that relationship from Uncle Samuel, who is my fictional self, if I were a wiser and more honorable man. Below is the latest chapter in this story of Abigail and Hobson.
Dear Uncle Samuel,
Though I know you as Sam from church, Hobson has used “Uncle Samuel” so many times that I now think of you that way. And when Hobson and I are married next spring, I suppose you will become my Uncle Samuel for real.
I’m writing you this note because I can better order my thoughts in print. Unlike conversation, I can edit myself, and add or delete words so as to be as clear as possible. Besides, I might begin weeping if we were face to face. The computer keyboard will hide my tears.
As you know, I love your nephew, and though you are always teasing and correcting him, he has far fewer flaws than you imagine. He is wonderful to me, and has shown fire and enthusiasm about sharing our lives together. He has found the key to my heart, unlocked the door, and has captured me, all of me, so much so that life without him is now unimaginable.
And yet I am frightened, Uncle Samuel—no, terrified—when I look around and see so many broken marriages and relationships.
Let me explain. Last Sunday over lunch, my parents told me and my three siblings—you will likely remember our ages range from my own 24 to my sister aged 12—that they were separating from each other and were considering divorce. Even though I had detected fissures in their marriage, the news shocked me, and it absolutely devastated my brothers and sister. Did you ever cry as a child while at the dinner table so that the food and the salt of tears mingled in your mouth? That sums up our meal together.
And it’s not just my parents. A close friend from college, two years older than me, married right after graduation and is now recently divorced, fortunately without children, but she has become bitter about love and marriage. Then, I learned from my mother after the luncheon debacle that several couples she has known for years are either struggling in their marriages or are getting a divorce.
It’s not just marriage, either. Many of my friends, male and female, have suffered battered hearts or found themselves in relationships that left them muddled and twisted. One young man my age, a landscaper, fell in love with a girl whom he adored, yet after she dumped him, he vowed never to love so wholeheartedly again. Another example: a cousin fell in love and gave herself to a man whom she later caught in a compromising situation with her best friend.
Uncle Samuel, Hobson tells me you have helped him several times with counsel and advice, especially after the death of his parents, so I’m hoping you can help me, too. How do you make a perfect marriage? How do two people in love stay in love? How did you and Alison love each other for so many years before her death? How can Hobson and I avoid becoming like my parents?
You pay me a great compliment by making me your uncle. As you know, I am delighted you and Hobson have plans to become husband and wife. Heaven knows you’ll have your hands full with that boy, but you are a capable young woman who should be able to keep him grounded. (I do wonder: Are you as fanatical a Carolina Panthers supporter as he? I hope so. Otherwise, your Sunday afternoons from late August through December promise solitude, while gatherings of beery fans bay at that immense television Hobson purchased last year).
I am sorry to hear about your parents. Your pain is familiar to me. My mother and father divorced when I was exactly your age; my brother, Hobson’s father, was 16 years old. That divorce destroyed a part of each of us. Someone once wrote that the end of a marriage is the death of a little civilization. I don’t think anyone ever put it better.
As to your future with Hobson, I will begin with some bleak truths and then address the hope and beauty of marriage.
You should first know the perfect marriage doesn’t exist. Each marriage is different in its own way, but I’ve never known anyone who had a perfect marriage. How would one even define “a perfect marriage?” There are happy marriages and unhappy marriages, but no perfect ones.
Love, relationships, and marriage are fundamentally mysteries, sometimes delightful, sometimes horrible, but always, at bottom, conundrums. A man of uncommonly good common sense, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote: “The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever afterwards: and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at one another.”
Alison never threw furniture or anything else at me, but I am certain there were times she wished to do so.
You speak of infidelities, betrayals, and bitter recriminations. Unfortunately, these disasters are part of being human. And while sexual infidelities are awful, other betrayals also produce gaping wounds and enormous pain. As an attorney, I have dealt with men and women who cheated on their spouse financially, who regarded their spouse with utter contempt (sometimes rightly so), and who felt so dominated by their partner that they had lost their sense of self.
The church to which you and I belong rightly labels some of these transgressions “sins,” but few people aspire to sin. Most people bumble into sin the way they bumble into the kitchen for breakfast. They make mistakes; they follow bad advice, often their own; they wreak terrible destruction without intending to do so.
I want you to remember something you may already know. Love is a sloppy business, sometimes hard and cruel, and everyone who loves at some point suffers. Everyone. Most of the adults and even some of the children you pass on the street are heart-scalded, bearing the hidden wounds and scars that life and love bring to all human beings. Some of them, like your college friend or the landscaper, may never recover from these blows, but the good ones, the people like you, Abigail, get to their feet and move forward.
So that’s the bad news about love and marriage: no guarantees, no perfection, and no fairy tales without some thrown furniture.
Here’s the good news.
All people are gems in the rough, my dear, and marriage is one tumbler made for polishing up those stones. Some couples find this process unbearable, and so separate or divorce, but others discover they shine brighter because of the adversity and trials they have shared together.
When I see you in my mind’s eye, I think of a stanza from Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore”:
“Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman as straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper!”
That woman, sweet Abigail, is you.
You will be all right.
With love and prayers,
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.