My Secret Husband

I couldn’t appease my mother by marrying my boyfriend — mostly, because I already had

Photo: Marius Hepp/EyeEm/Getty Images

“He seems so nice,” she said while I was visiting. “Why doesn’t he ask you to marry him?”

“Mom,” I groaned. “I’m not a Barbie doll sitting around hoping Ken will pop the question. We’re equal partners. If we want to marry, we’ll decide together to marry.”

This wasn’t exactly a lie. It just wasn’t the whole truth. The story of our romantic relationship was more complicated. As I helped my devoutly religious mother make up two beds in two rooms on two different floors of my childhood home — no daughter of hers would “live in sin” under her roof — I wondered how to break the news to her. I was a rebel without a cause. I was an unconventional conformist. I was outwardly resisting a tradition while secretly upholding the institution.

What I’m trying to say: I was married.

Let me explain.

The summer of 1974, I graduated from high school, turned 18 and, with money earned at the mall, bought a round-trip ticket to Switzerland. I had a vague six-month plan to “see Europe.” Three-plus years later, I was back in the United States for the first time. I hadn’t seen my family in as many years. We’d spoken only once. In those pre-internet, expensive long-distance call days, we relied on snail mail. I sent postcards. I wrote aerograms. Whenever I had a stable address, they wrote back. We’d spoken only once when I phoned home my first Christmas away. From India. It did not go well.

I cannot exaggerate how unusual this all was for a girl like me.

The only people I knew who had traveled overseas were in the military. And some of them didn’t come back.

I grew up in a large, Irish Catholic family in a comfortable blue-collar neighborhood, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The mothers on our block were homemakers. The dads worked as roofers, bricklayers, and gas meter readers. My father carpooled about 45 minutes each way, to an oil refinery where he was a purchasing agent of the pipes, valves, nuts, and bolts necessary to keep the place operating. Our next-door neighbor worked the line at the Ford factory. Our neighbor to the other side had a job at a printing company. I never fully understood what he did for a living but he wore a gray uniform with his name, Art, embroidered on a patch above one pocket. He brought home cardboard boxes full of blank paper because “they were throwing it away at work,” and gave them to my mother because her six kids loved to draw. Art’s own kids, he said, showed no artistic talent. One time, he accidentally delivered a box full of printed material and sheepishly explained he had to immediately return it to his workplace before anyone noticed it missing. That’s when my mother became suspicious that she’d been receiving stolen goods and refused to accept more and that was the end of our drawing supplies. I never really believed I’d grow up to be an artist anyway.

I knew life could be short and was determined not to waste a minute of it.

Two girls in my high school class got pregnant senior year. A third sat across from me in social studies class knitting loopy pink-and-blue booties for, she said, her hope chest. Some of my friends had full-time jobs lined up after graduation. Others planned to continue living at home so they could afford to attend the university’s urban campus. A handful joined the military. I didn’t know what I wanted other than none of the above.

My oldest brother was killed in Vietnam when I was 13 years old. He was only 19. I knew life could be short and was determined not to waste a minute of it.

When a girl in my English class said she’d signed up for a meditation course in Italy and was having second thoughts about traveling alone, I jumped at the chance to join her. I landed a job in the kitchen in exchange for room and board and all the meditation time I could steal. Three months later, my friend confessed she was eager to return home instead of exploring the continent as we’d planned. So I set off with a boy I’d met busing tables to see the world like a couple of misguided Marco Polos.

We hitchhiked through Italy and Greece to Turkey where a woman picked us up with the warning that we were risking our lives with our thumbs. After that, we hopped rickety local buses overland through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India when the boy phoned his parents for money and within hours, was back in England. And I was alone.

I’d been in India about two months when I met Jonathan. He’d grown up in Wales, attended university in England, and lived in Nepal. He was in Rishikesh for a mini-vacation. Long story short: We fell in love, worked in the Himalayas for about 18 months, then moved to England for an additional 18 months.

The first time he asked me to marry him, I said no.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love him. I did. But I was still young and the odds were the marriage wouldn’t last, so why bother? When we decided to move to the States, Jonathan was denied a visa. The fact that he had not lived in his home country of Wales for several years was a red flag to immigration officials. They considered him a high risk, the type to overstay a tourist visa and become an impossible-to-track undocumented immigrant. However, if he were to marry an American…

So, the second time Jonathan proposed, I said yes. But under one condition: We’d have a quick civil ceremony and tell no one. If we were still together in a few years time, we could talk about doing a “real” wedding and invite family and friends. Remember, I hadn’t seen my family in three years and didn’t want to show up at their doorstep with a husband in tow.

That first visit home felt surreal. Everything looked the same. I’d changed. But it seemed as though no one was particularly interested in knowing how or why. The idea of announcing that I’d returned with a husband was out of the question. So I kept quiet.

Jonathan and I moved to Oregon. We were young and broke. More than a year passed before we could afford to visit Minneapolis again. The occasion was my big sister’s traditional white-dress-and-veil wedding. This wasn’t the right time to announce our own. Again, I kept quiet. Another year and a bit rolled by before our next visit to Minneapolis. This time, it was for the baptism of my sister’s baby. Again, our timing was off.

If we weren’t too broke to stay in a hotel, I might have gone on rationalizing why our matrimonial union should remain in the closet forever after. But Jonathan grew tired of the guest room accommodation charades.

So I decided to tell my mother. By phone. The conversation went something like this:

“Mom, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” I began.

“Yes?”

“Jonathan and I are married.”

“Hmm.”

“In fact, we’ve been married for quite some time.”

“Sure.”

“I thought you’d be happy.”

“Mmm.”

I was confused. The woman had been bugging me for more than three years to get married and here she was sounding perfectly disinterested in my big announcement. It made no sense. I thought the phone had gone dead. But then I imagined the gears turning in my mother’s head about this back-dated secret wedding and understood her reluctance.

“Mom,” I said. “I am not pregnant.”

I believe her shout of “Hooray!” still can be heard echoing through the universe.

The story is funny only in retrospect.

But Jonathan and I have had the last laugh. Forty-three years, two daughters, and one grandchild-in-the-making later, we are still mostly happily married.

And I’ll gladly tell anyone.

Career journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and life-long spirit-quester.

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