I come from a large family. My parents were both born and raised in the Midwest, and moved out to the west coast with my brother before I was born. California is beautiful and the weather is mild, but for my mother, it just wasn’t the same as the endless fields of corn, the trees blooming in the spring and turning from green to glorious gold and orange in the fall, a snowy winter’s day, or her beloved brothers and sisters who filled her early life with such joy. Needless to say, that meant family vacations were not spent on some exotic beach or crowded amusement parks. Vacations meant summer road trips to visit my parent’s home town. I couldn’t have been more excited- Family! Aunts and uncles and cousins who all still lived within walking distance of each other, who welcomed us and fed us and kissed my cheeks, and filled my childhood memories with love.
We always drove to visit our family because my dad was secretly afraid to fly. He would tell us it was an opportunity to see the country, and he was right. I remember driving through Nevada and seeing the lights of the Vegas strip, driving through Utah so hot with no A/C in my dad’s camper but being amazed at the beautiful colors of the desert, and finally the first glimpse of the Colorado River. We would follow the river for a bit as it would peek in and out of the landscape and my brother and I were so thrilled. There it is! The Colorado River!
Eventually the landscape would flatten out and the hills were replaced with green plots of land. The road was long and flat before us, but even my brother and I knew that we were getting closer. Then the rows of corn would come, neat rows of green as far as they eye could see. It reminded me a little of the ocean at home- gently rolling hills like an ocean of corn, and way off in the distance there would be a farmhouse or a tractor or a grain silo. That’s when my brother and I would start. “How much longer? Are we close?” We knew that when those green fields thinned out and became cities, family was near. We were anxious to see the top of the golden domed capitol building that meant we were just minutes away.
Usually we stayed at the house that my dad grew up in, that now my uncle and his family lived in with my grandfather. We had cousins there our age, and we were the best of friends. As we got older, we became inseparable on our summer visits- I loved seeing all of my family, but couldn’t wait to get back to the house that smelled like my uncle’s pipe tobacco and had a toy train set in the basement. My cousin Mary and I would lie in the grass next to the house in the evening, picking at the clover and talking and talking as young girls do. As the dusk turned into dark, the fireflies would come out- we didn’t have them in California, and I thought they were so magical, flashing and glowing in the evening light. I wanted to catch them in a jar and take them home, to keep that magic with me, but I knew they wouldn’t last. Those days of innocence, of family and love- they will remain my fondest memories of growing up.
Last year, the summer after we were married, my husband and I decided to take a road trip to visit my family. We didn’t take a real honeymoon after the wedding, and I was so excited for him see where I spent my summers growing up and to meet my family. We drove the same route that I had traveled as a child with my parents and brother, the same familiar sights for me, but all new to my husband. We Oooh’d and Aaah’d at the lights in Vegas and marveled at the beautiful colors of the Utah desert, and then- there it was! The Colorado River! He couldn’t believe that it started so small, that THIS river carved the mighty Grand Canyon. We followed it along for a while, again, peeking in and out of the landscape just like it used to do when I was a kid. Eventually the landscape flattened out and the neatly plotted land stretched before us as we drove into Nebraska. “Look,” I said. “That’s corn!” He didn’t believe me. How did I know that was corn? It didn’t LOOK like corn, it wasn’t tall enough. I laughed and laughed, and he thought it was funny that I knew what corn looked like. “Knee High by the 4th of July,” I said. It still had time to grow at that point, and he laughed when I said that even corn starts out small. We both were anxious at this point to reach our destination, and were like a couple of kids asking each other, “How much further?” We kept checking the GPS as we would get closer and closer, counting down the time until eventually the fields thinned out and cities started forming. Soon! And I loved that he was as excited as I was! Once I saw that familiar golden domed capitol building, I knew that we were in the home stretch.
We pulled into the driveway of that familiar house, and so many memories came flooding back. It had been years since I had visited, too many years and too many people gone now. Those familiar scents of my grandfather’s cigars and my uncle’s pipe tobacco were long gone. I took my husband on a quick tour of the house and told him stories of Mary and I sleeping on the screened porch in the hot summer, and walking everywhere to visit my relatives. Now families had grown up and moved away or passed away, and were no longer within walking distance of each other like they used to be. The neighborhood had changed a little, but some of the fixtures had remained- the Italian market that our cousins owned, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church where my parents were married. We took a quick drive downtown to meet others for dinner and my husband admired the juxtaposition of the old brick buildings standing alongside new, modern office buildings as tall as anything you would see in L.A.; the old and the new working together to make a beautiful city.
My cousin Mary is married now and lives outside of the city on ten acres of land. She and her husband work in the city, but they live just a short drive away in a home that doesn’t butt up to anything but their garden. They grow veggies that they actually EAT. Zucchini as big as your forearm, beautiful tomatoes, and green beans that are either cooked today or canned for later. Mary’s husband is quite a chef, and always has something on the grill. We were treated to quite a feast that night, complete with welcoming neighbors and a four-wheeling adventure through the hay fields. The best part of the evening, though, was riding out to the pond on my cousin’s property. Her husband drove us out there on their “mule”- it’s like a rugged, souped-up version of a golf cart- and turned the engine off. There we were next to the pond, in the moonlight, with nothing but the crickets chirping and the frogs croaking. It was so beautiful. It was then my husband saw the fireflies. Floating in the air in front of him now that we were stopped, flashing their lights and then disappearing. He had never seen them before, and it had been so long since I had seen them myself I had begun to think I had dreamed them. It was like the magic I remembered. At that moment, it was all perfect.
My family loved my husband. The had accepted him immediately and welcomed him with open arms, both literally and figuratively. He cried one evening as we were driving out to Mary’s place, he had never known that families could really be like this- families that cared for each other and were involved in each others’ lives. I was so proud that he was now a part of my family, and so happy to share it with him. I looked forward to our future together, and to starting our own traditions. Each day with him on that trip, introducing him to more family, exploring new places together, made me fall even deeper in love with him.
Even now I can picture him, his smile so big, laughing at something that one of my cousins would say, wanting to take my sweet little aunt home with us in his pocket. How could I know that it would all come to an end just a few months later? Was he cheating already, even then, as he cried to me that he was so happy he found me and made him a part of my family? Was it all just a lie from the beginning? The cover up of his past, running away from his responsibilities and being a grown up- when did it all become too much for him? Was it then, when he realized that now he was a part of something bigger that just himself, or even his kids? The truth is that I will never know. I will never understand how he could hurt me so much and throw our life together away as if none of it mattered. Maybe THAT is the lie, that none of it mattered- perhaps it mattered too much and he didn’t know how to handle it. And the worst part is that he hurt the very people who accepted him and loved him from the moment I introduced him as my husband. My sweet little aunt? The one that he wanted to take home in his pocket? She was in total disbelief when she heard the news of our breakup. She told my cousin Mary that she would never have seen it coming. The thing is that none of us would have, especially me.
It has been just over a year since I caught him cheating the first time, only 10 months into our marriage, and it’s now six months since I left him after finding him cheating again. The pain isn’t always so intense these days, but silly things will set me off like talking about my favorite chair that we purchased together for the apartment. It’s the good memories that creep up on me that make me the saddest, the happy times that we shared together like that vacation, not the anger that I feel over his betrayal. I have come look at my marriage like those firefly summers- beautiful and magical in that brief moment, that season of love and light and laughter, but not able to survive in the confines of reality. I long for those days when everything was perfect, and I ache still at the loss for what could have been. That possibility, that magic- it was not worth the effort for him, I guess, but will forever be a part of me.