1. Life & Culture

The pandemic has enforced togetherness. Is that good for a relationship?

The writer reflects on the end of his parents' long marriage.

As we head for our 50th wedding anniversary in 2021, I never thought Karen and I would be able to spend so much quality time together in 2020!

[Dear Readers: My wife never reads more than the first paragraph of my stories, so she will be delighted with that head fake above, never knowing what I am about to share.]

The truth is that Karen and I could use a break — from each other. In the “old days” (last year) we had lots of opportunities for refreshing separations. We spent hours apart for work, for separate visits with our daughters, for shopping, for coffees and lunches with friends. Nothing adds more to our marriage than a round of golf for me and a gardening spree for her.

There are always times when couples are squeezed together. We love visiting our daughter in Atlanta, but that means eight hours in a car up, three nights in a motel and another eight-hour ride home. Nothing bad happens. There are no arguments. We really like each other! But when we get home, what we need is a “mini-divorce.”

She watches TV in the Florida room. I watch in the man cave. She goes to yoga. I head to the bookstore.

Given our current house arrest, my fear is expressed in the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t have to look far for evidence. I just have to look at the experience of my parents. Dad died at the age of 87, mom at 95. In their last decade together, friends would inquire about them. “Oh, they have been married for 61 years,” I would say, “and they have never been unhappier.”

We all suffer from the illusion that longevity in a marriage is a sign of contentment. If you are lucky, more often it’s a sign of endurance. In the case of my parents, it could turn to resentment. As Dad’s health declined, he became more dependent on Mom. She was a surly caregiver. He was more likely to respond with sarcasm than gratitude.

When I would visit them on Long Island, I’d often have to separate them like children, taking my dad to the park or my mom to the mall. Here was a typical exchange.

Dad: “When are you coming back?”

Mom: “None of your business. And while I’m gone, don’t do anything stupid.”

Dad: "I did something stupid — 61 years ago.

Mom: “Go to hell.”

Dad: “I’m already in hell! I’m married.”

If this makes you think of the parents of George Costanza on the sitcom Seinfeld, I have done my job.

My mom’s concerns about Dad doing something “stupid” were not without merit. In our family, we refer to it as the “Incident of the Toilet Gun.”

My mom had collected many friends over the years, from the neighborhood and the nearby Catholic parish. She was part of an army of volunteer moms settling in the suburbs after World War II, raising us baby boomers. As she aged, she would find herself attending more and more funerals, first of her friends' husbands, and then of her friends themselves.

My dad was a great adventurer in his day, a U.S. Customs officer for almost 40 years, known for his leadership and his physical and moral courage. He was so handsome that in 1952 he was cast in a government training film called Smugglers Beware. It was shown as a short film before a feature movie at a huge New York City theater. I was 4 years old, and my father looked 40 feet tall.

In his job, he met presidents and foreign dignitaries. He made a famous drug bust at Kennedy Airport. He was pictured in National Geographic magazine welcoming the crate that contained the Mona Lisa on her tour of the United States. He was a man of action, and his favorite TV show was MacGyver, the guy who could turn a soda straw into a missile launcher.

In the last years of his life, that was as about as exciting as things got. A vast world of action shrunk, as it will for most of us, into a room with a TV and a bed near a bathroom.

While Mom was away, he went to the bathroom and, alas, plugged up the toilet. Dad was an excellent handyman, so he went down into the cellar and dragged up the usual tools — including a snake — and tried to get the toilet to flush normally. Nothing worked. He knew a plumber in the neighborhood, but my dad was nothing if not the epitome of self-reliance.

He had an idea. He went down into the cellar again. Step by step, he ascended the stairs. He had something in his hands. A gas-powered leaf blower. Oh boy.

He leaned over the toilet bowl. He stuck it in the toilet. He fired that baby up.

Sixty years of marriage is a good run, right? When you go to the church you take these vows. Better or worse. Richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. Until … well nobody died, so we’ll just characterize what happened next as “worse,” rather than better.

“You should have seen the mess!” Mom declared over the telephone. I could tell she was reliving the moment, as she would for months and years into the future. “What was your father thinking? You know, Roy, your father’s not the man he used to be.” Gosh, Mom, I thought. Who is at his age?

I have been thinking of my parents a lot lately. They have even appeared to me in dreams, but not together. Not yet. I recently came upon a photo of them taken in 1947. It appears that my mother colored it by hand, as was the practice of the day. They look beautiful, and very happy. But, why wouldn’t they? Mom was expecting a baby. And what a joy I turned out to be.

I am, of course, leaving out from this narrative how much they loved each other, and what good parents they were — most of the time. My brothers and I learned so many of the standard virtues: love of family, community, neighborhood, country, God. They were loyal and thrifty, devoted to our education, giving us opportunities to excel in academics, sports and the creative arts. I have this little image of them near my dresser. I look at it every day. It was taken in 1986. They were married for 44 years at the time. They are arm in arm, winners of a jitterbug dance contest.

Roy Peter Clark's parents won a jitterbug contest when he was an adult. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

I could end it there, but you deserve to know the sequel of the leaf blower story. A writer from Tampa heard me spin this yarn at a conference and a couple of months later, wrote me a letter. He and his wife flew to Arizona to visit their new granddaughter. While they were there, the toilet got clogged. He and his son-in-law tried the usual fixes but nothing worked.

They headed to Home Depot and explained their problem to a helper in the plumbing department. “Have you tried a toilet gun?” he asked. A toilet gun?

So they tried it. A hard plastic and rubber tubing with a plunger device on top, like the kind you would use to set off dynamite. Near the top, you insert a compressed air capsule and a round paper ignition cap. You stick a thin tubing down into the toilet hole. And then fire away!!! Oh, not yet. Before you fire, you place a plastic cover across the top of the bowl to control the splash. Then you fire. Works like a charm.

That writer had a thought. He suggested that the leaf blower disaster was not an example of my father’s creeping incapacity, but a sign of his engineering brilliance. “He was just a plastic cover away from pure genius.” That revision of history has made my dad shine in the eyes of his sons in a new light, as the Poobah of Plumbing, Prince of Porcelain, the Ayatollah of the Toilet Bowla.

I called Mom and broke the news. “Dad was a genius!” She wasn’t buying it.

As for my wife and I, I am sure we’ll be having a honeymoon next year to celebrate our 50th. She’ll be on a cruise ship in Alaska looking at the aurora borealis. I will be in Rio de Janeiro on Ipanema Beach, learning to samba.

So, readers, what are you and your partner doing to release the pandemic pressures of close companionship?