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For Valentine’s Day

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Maxine Kumin died this week at age 88. In “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year” she writes about her (then) sixty year-long marriage:

Instead of marrying the day after graduation,
in spite of freezing on my father’s arm as
here comes the bride struck up,
saying, I’m not sure I want to do this,

I should have taken that fellowship
to the University of Grenoble to examine
the original manuscript
of Stendahl’s unfinished Lucien Leuwen,

I, who had never been west of the Mississippi,
Should have crossed the ocean
in third class on the Cunard White Star,
the war just over, the Second World War

when Kilroy was here, that innocent graffito,
two eyes and a nose draped over
a fence line. How could I go?
Passion had locked us together.

Sixty years my lover,
he says he would have waited.
He says he would have sat
where the steamship docked

till the last of the pursers
decamped, and I rushed back
littering the runway with carbon paper. . .
Why didn’t I go? It was fated.

Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand,
Flesh against flesh for the final haul,
we tugged our lifeline through limestone and sand,
lover and long-leggèd girl.

“Limestone and sand” hint at the inevitable challenges, sorrows, anxieties, disappointments that inevitably accompany sixty years, or six. Not mentioned is a horrific horse riding accident that nearly killed Kumin and left her convalescing for months, or a last year of declining health. A hand over hand haul it is, more often than not, even for lover and long-leggèd girl.

I think today of friends, two couples, one married nearly sixty years, the other perhaps fifteen, a second marriage for them. Both women now watch their husbands slowly receding into the fog of Alzheimer’s. Limestone and sand take on ominous features as lost memories, trouble with dressing, worrying over how much to supervise, balancing safety and smothering, and the ever present fear that one morning he won’t know this face across the table overtake the daily terrain. Haul indeed. Choices made years ago have placed them here. Another choice might have spared them this particularly difficult final haul. But “how could I go?” I hear them saying. Passion, not mere obligation, locks them together. So, hand over hand, flesh against flesh. . . .

Victor Kumin could have made another choice almost seventy years ago, sparing him this particularly difficult Valentine’s Day alone. But how could he go? So today he waits, sitting where the mysterious steamship will dock. . . . The leaping embrace, the hand in hand skipping along the path, the bouquet of roses, the sexy card usually take center stage today. Celebrate them! But honor as well the hand over hand, flesh against flesh tug of the lifeline through limestone and sand. Here, too, even in the final haul, can be found lover and long-leggèd girl!

John H. Thomas
February 14, 2014

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