Sunday, April 26, 2009

Queen of My Own Castle

Sometimes you hear the most profound statements when you're doing something totally innane. This morning I was in the pet aisle at Walmart picking out a jumbo size container of cat litter (two cat household), when I overheard a petite silver-haired woman thank another lady in the same aisle for getting her one of the containers she couldn't reach. "I was looking for a man," she quipped, "but I couldn't find one." I wanted to walk up to her and say, "Me either, but I survived pretty well without one." Where did that thought come from? Oh, me. The woman with a pair of anti-social cats and a twenty-seven-year-old daughter squeezed into her tiny, two bedroom condo. Emphasis on HER. "Yep, that's right," I wanted to confess to this total stranger, "I have my own home, my own bed, endless nights of chick flicks, and total ownership of the remote control." I also would have gone on to tell her that this year I'm celebrating my twentieth anniversary as a post-marriage, independent woman. Break out the champagne!

Okay, so maybe I wouldn't have really divulged my personal life story to this poor woman just shopping for kitty litter. Especially one who probably never could have imagined life as an unmarried woman. Even if she had wanted to be independent or had the temperment/ desire/financial capcity to do so, she undoubtedly would have found the idea of remaining unmarried for two decades (and presumably many more), to be, well, sad. Catastrophic even. Oh, maybe there were moments she might have fantacized about the possibility, but, as a woman who probably came of age during a world war, the idea of remaining single by choice would have been incomprehensible. I can reasonably guess at this because I grew up with very traditional grandmothers. If either was alive today, I'm betting they would have been praying novenas for me. Please God, send Elaine a decent man, one who isn't too good-looking so he won't have other women chasing after him. My paternal grandmother, especially, might have gone off in a rant of indecipherable Italian, believing that the only role of an unmarried daughter was to take care of her parents or unwed brothers. That's the way things were. Lucky for me, my three brothers are married, and my parents know I can't even keep a houseplant alive.

It's not as if I planned it this way. Few of us do. But after managing parenthood single-handedly and enjoying several longish, monogamous relationships along the way, I finally came to wonder, isn't this just fine where I am? The day I signed the papers on my condo, I made family history, in a way, by being the first woman to own her own piece of real estate. I was breaking new ground. Taking the path less traveled. Being a pioneer. And it felt really, really good. Well, except for the sleepless nights, the anxiety attacks, and an outbreak of hives, but still, all first-time homeowners go through the pain and agony of mortgage approval. With keys in hand, I suddenly felt a sense of pride and power I'd never experienced before. I was queen of the castle. I had equity. It was a sobering feeling: here I was, just two generations away from standing at a kitchen stove all day, up to my elbows in meatballs and rigatoni.

Fast forward to 2009, and women owning their own homes is no big whoop. My mother is one of them. Many of us--especially with grown children--aren't hankering to give up a portion of our hard-earned medicine cabinets or make room in the closet for HIS stuff. We may choose to, but the expectation that there is a huge void in our lives that needs to be filled by a husband is fast becoming as outdated as silicone breast implants. We have choices.

My friend, Marguerite, who's a feisty little Italian like myself, told me one day that she was dating someone after many, many years of self-denial. She had three kids to raise by herself, thanks to a deadbeat dad, and just never had the time. When I asked her if it was serious, she flicked her hand in the air and said, "I don't care. I'm having a good time, and I don't want to get married again."

In her 1998 bestseller, In the Meantime, Iyanla Vanzant would have called Marguerite's arrangement a "meantime" relationship--one you enjoy in the meantime while you're waiting for the right one to show up. That was encouraging news to women back then who feared divorce after 40 condemned them to a sexless, loveless life.

Eleven years later, the meantime has become "me-time." Not selfishly indulgent, but living life without waiting for something to happen. I have another friend, who bears a freakish resemblance to Annie Leibovitz, who is set up financially so she doesn't have to hold a 9 to 5 job. She spends her time traveling to Peru and other lofty places, fulfilling herself creatively as a photographer. There have been men along the way. She'll even confess that she wouldn't mind finding one to share closet-space with. But if he doesn't show up, so what? She has a full and, I'll admit it, enviable life.

Those of us who breathe a little deeper, stretch a little more broadly, in spaces of our own--lives of our own--usually have gone down the road quite a ways. Some of us may have lost our significant others and simply feel they are irreplaceable, and choose to remain unattached. Others may have started out yearning for the "right one" that Vanzant promised would show up one day, but, as one year passed into the next, chose not to put a time limit on their independence because they've found unexpected joy in self determination. For some, it's professional fulfillment, or the ability to pursue an artistic unfolding. Others find their relationship needs met through friendships, children, romantic involvements that can last a day or stretch into years.

Rules? There are none. Each of us is making them up as we go along. What works for me, may not work for you. It may not work for me a year from now. Heck, I might even find myself falling head over heels for an Australian sheep farmer, and decide to pack my bags and book this life. Okay, he has to look like Hugh Jackman. Small detail.