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Jane Smiley has taken to the first line of the editorial page of the
New York Times to celebrate the institution of divorce. The legal
annulment of marriage is quite a marvel, thinks Miss Smiley, when you
cast your mind over the millions of ill-matched couples who stay
together out of sheer inertia — or fear, fear of being disreputable.
You’d think from the central position she gives to the inconveniences of
divorce that we were still in the Dark Ages. Whereas we’re free! But
free from what? I knew you’d say that.

Miss Smiley has done her own “little survey.” Examining the marital
history of her own closest friends and relatives, Miss Smiley comes up
with some fascinating perceptions, which she says tells us the same
thing as any cursory review of the last 50 years tells us about married
life in America. Which is what, exactly? Miss Smiley offers us a
familiar catalogue of marital discontents while stopping sensibly short
of urging the abrupt abolition of marriage.

I must have some grievances of my own, and I’ll do my best to present
them to you. First, my grandmother, who was one fast article. Born in
Quebec, of parents born there also, she came blazing out of childhood
and married — I believe it was — at 15. He was a French speaker and
Catholic, of course. They were both baptized and had their First
Communion; their married name was La Foy (the archaic French spelling
of “faith”), and they had a baby they named Walter. But married life
displeased my grandmother for reasons I have been unable to discover, so
she got divorced and married another Canadian — Catholic, French
speaker, the genuine article. Here we hit an irregularity. She got
divorced again, married again, and ran away with her new husband, but
this time to somewhere new, the capital of the intellectual West –
Worcester, Mass.

Next she had two children (including my father), got divorced again,
moved to Boston, and started a love affair with a Jew. Here the family
thought she had overstepped the limit, which was compounded when my
father married another Jew (my mother), had three unbaptized children
and, feeling perhaps that it had all been a great mistake, began a very
durable love affair with my Aunt Lilly McMasters, a durable friend of my
Aunt Kitty Hurley. He bought Lilly a house on Cape Cod where my father,
his brother, his half-brother, my Aunt Kitty, my brother, my sister and
I spent every weekend. I have no idea where my mother spent her
weekends.

Nights she sang in clubs and cabarets (The Coconut Grove). My father
was manager of Boston’s queen theatre, the Colonial, which provided him
with an abundant social life. We lived in Brookline, directly across
the street from the house in which Jack Kennedy was born. And I, with
the feeling I was rising in the world, jumped the Charles River and went
to Harvard. Still rising, I won an appointment to the Naval Academy
(Annapolis), then a Fulbright scholarship to study in France. As it
happens, I met quite a few girls, between Boston, Harvard, Paris,
London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome, Athens, Cairo, Singapore,
Shanghai, Peking, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York (in that order). Many
of them very nice indeed. But this is the strange part. I met one
girl, married her, and have stayed married all this time — becoming, as
Miss Smiley puts it, part of the mainstream community of adults.

Well, as you can see I come from a Hell of a family, disreputable
from many viewpoints, but I’m still a happily married man. And if my
wife dies before I do, I most certainly will not cry, “Free at last!” I
will be lonely. Very lonely indeed.

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