"AT TWENTY-SIX" by Jennifer Wineke
On my 26th birthday, a few days shy of 2015, I broke up with my boyfriend of almost three years, acting mostly on a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do.
In the months since then, I’ve been coping the only way I know how: by developing a New Plan, which alternates between feeling like the crystallization of my heart’s truest desires and like I’m frantically hurling ideas at myself, hoping something, anything, sticks.
A few weeks ago, I flew from L.A. to Maryland, where both of my parents grew up and where they and two of my sisters now live. We spent an afternoon visiting my aunt and grandma, who has lived with my aunt since a fractured pelvis spiraled into a health decline a few years ago. Though she’s doing just fine now (and will be celebrating her 89th birthday soon), she has started to dole out her possessions more eagerly, talk frankly about her funeral (“I just want you all to have a crab feast”), and refrain from committing to anything more than a month away. Recently a lifelong neighbor and friend passed, leaving her with virtually no friends left. While she’s as spunky as ever, she’s made it clear that she’s ready to go.
My aunt is our family’s historian, keeper of dozens and dozens of scrapbooks, and during our visit, my family piled on the couch and sifted through them. Knowing that we won’t have many of these moments left, I wanted to come up with a way to commemorate the occasion.
So I picked out photos of my grandma and mom at 26 years old and asked them to tell me what they could remember about that moment in their lives. Their words are below.
This was taken in 1951, when I was just a few months pregnant with my first child. You can see in the picture that I’m showing a little. I had married Bob the year before, which was late for a woman to get married at the time, but I didn’t care – I wanted to have fun as long as I could. I was proposed to three times before I said yes to Bob. One guy even stopped by my house on the way to his wedding, just to make sure I didn’t want to marry him (I couldn’t stand him). I sent a “Dear John” letter to another guy who proposed to me while he was in the service. I was waiting for him to come back, and he survived combat, but then died in a truck accident while he was on R&R in Hawaii. We were about 18 then. See, you didn’t really sleep with them when you were dating back then, so they wanted to marry you. Now it’s different – the girls get a free chance at it, too.
Bob and I met on a blind date at my friend Becky’s house. We went out dancing at Casino Royale, a nightclub, and he was a great dancer. We had a lot of fun. We dated for a couple years, got engaged on New Year’s Eve, and were married by April.
I almost didn’t go through with the wedding, but I wasn’t sure how to get out of it. My mother had planned everything, I had so many showers…how was I going to tell people? I almost changed my mind. But here I’ve got five beautiful kids, so it was worth it. Thank God for my five kids.
We were married for 28 years, separated for two, and officially divorced two months before he died. So I’ve had 35 years of freedom – yay! And I’ve had a blast.
This was in Cocoa Beach, Florida, probably around June or July in 1987. Joe’s work sent us there for about a month, and your sister Suzanne was just a teeny baby, a few months old. I remember because when your aunt visited us she put her in the water – did that trick where you blow on her face so she holds her breath – and I was so nervous. We lived in a little one-bedroom apartment right on the beach.
Joe and I made a deal early on that if his job was going to send him away for more than a month then I would go with him. Hardly anybody else brought their wives; I only remember one other wife there. And we saw people having affairs. But Joe was good, and we had our deal, so he asked if he could bring his wife and baby, and they said yes.
Once we had a huge party on our beach patio, with a keg and everything – that place was great for parties. I remember there was this surfer guy who used to hang around all the time, and it was funny, we looked up during the party and he was just sitting on our couch, sand all over him, sipping on a beer. I found that to be so hilarious.
I quit working right after Suzanne was born, so this was my transition to being a housewife. If you’re going to be a housewife, this is the way to do it – hanging out with your little baby on the beach. I was loving life. I look pretty relaxed, don’t I?
I remember I had gone to get my hair highlighted across the street from our apartment, and the lady dyed it way blonder than I wanted. I didn’t like it at the time, but now I think it looks good. It’s funny, it looks just like your hair does now.