October 12, 2006
Scenes from 50 years of marriage
If I were to write a sequel, it would be, "I Didn't Know I Would Be Married for 50 Years, and to the Same Woman."
Well, Rachel and I are marking our golden anniversary this month, surrounded -- at least via e-mail -- by three lovely daughters, three stalwart sons-in-law, and eight lively grandchildren, all, as Garrison Keillor would say, above average.
My wife was born and raised in Jerusalem, and that's an important point. Before our marriage, I hardly ever dated Jewish girls, and when my friends expressed their surprise that I was tying the knot with Rachel, we would counter, "But she's not Jewish, she's Israeli."
Readers with an Israeli spouse of either gender, or who have spent considerable time in the Promised Land, will understand what we're talking about.
When conversation lags at dinner parties, people will sometimes ask how we met. I'm glad you asked, because there are actually two versions.
In the Hollywood treatment (currently in development), we met during Israel's War of Independence.
Rachel had joined the underground Haganah at age 15, served in the Signal Corps (anyone here remember the Morse Code?) and survived the siege of Jerusalem. She was one of the last to communicate with besieged Israeli troops as the Old City fell to the Jordanians.
I had come to Israel from Berkeley as a volunteer and served in an "Anglo-Saxon" anti-tank unit.
In the movie version, I jump into a foxhole under a heavy barrage of enemy fire, landing practically on top of a beautiful sabra named Rachel -- and the rest is history. Unfortunately, under the full disclosure strictures of this publication, the real story is somewhat less dramatic.
A friend, who had been my company commander in Israel, threw a party at his home in the Hollywood Hills, partly to welcome me home after a year in Spain.
It was a jolly affair, but I noticed -- as single guys are apt to -- a beautiful girl sitting quietly in a corner, her large expressive eyes taking in the scene.
I learned later that she had been sent by the Israeli foreign ministry to work at the consulate in Los Angeles and had been here for only a few months.
Anyhow, at the end of the evening, I made the bold move to ask if I could take her home. She answered yes, and I told her she would have to ride on the back seat of my motorcycle, and she responded with the 1950s equivalent of "no problem."
Of course, when she told the couple who had brought her that she was going home with a guy she knew nothing about except that he traveled by motorcycle, her friends said no way. In a classic response, Rachel told them that she was a big girl and would make her own decisions.
I knew right then that here was a woman who would stand by her man, fight off Indians -- oops, wrong movie.
As it turned out, rather anti-climactically, I had actually come to the party in my mother's old Chevy, but Rachel had already proven her mettle.
Those who know sabras well are aware that they are a forthright breed, who speak their minds, and when they come to the States do not realize that social intercourse in this country is perforce larded with piles of b.s.
So Rachel is painfully honest, which sometimes startles her devious-minded husband, but fortunately it is her integrity and character that have been passed on to our children. There were other cultural misunderstandings. The day after our marriage, my dewy-eyed bride announced that she would make a special breakfast for me. I saw visions of pancakes, my favorite nourishment, with heaps of strawberries, blackberry syrup and whipped cream.
When I came to the kitchen, there was Rachel proudly displaying an Israeli breakfast bowl of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and other frightfully healthy stuff.
Rachel maintains that I surveyed the breakfast table and murmured, "This is just scrumptious, but I think from now on I'll make my own breakfast." I don't know if this is true, but in any case -- though my wife has become a renowned cook -- I have made my own breakfast ever since. At my 80th birthday party at the UCLA Faculty Center, I told the assembled well-wishers that without Rachel, I would not be standing before them. That was not just a nice turn of phrase. Since adolescence, I had suffered from periodic depressions, but pulled out of them in a couple of weeks.
Some 20 years ago, the depression deepened month after month, until I descended into "the unrelenting horror of a complete biochemical brain meltdown," as William Styron, who went through the same experience, described it. I still cannot imagine what Rachel and our children went through.
I had long therapy sessions about my childhood and the relationship to my mother, and kept going down.
After six months, I could take it no longer, swallowed a handful of pills, washed them down with vodka and lay down to die.
It was Rachel and my daughter who discovered my inert body, rushed me to the hospital, where I woke up 24 hours later with a pumped-out stomach and my wife sitting by my side.
Fortunately, the doctors at UCLA discovered that the depressions were caused by a lifelong imbalance of the chemical serotonin in my brain, an affliction not remedied by psychoanalysis but an appropriate drug regime.
On our 25th anniversary, I wrote a letter to Rachel, and everything I said then goes double now.