My Five Husbands, ©Elizabeth Funk 2012 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
One Sunday morning after brunch at my parents' country club, Mom grabbed my arm.
"That's her," she whispered. "That's Reva Brooks."
"Who's Reva Brooks?"
"Keep your voice down, dear."
"Who's Reva Brooks?"
"She's the one who married Manny Brooks—the one with four husbands."
Manny Brooks, our family dermatologist, had lost his first wife to cancer a year earlier. Now he'd married Reva, new in town and the talk of Minneapolis.
Who in the world had four husbands? Lana Turner, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and of course Elizabeth Taylor. Glamour girls all! Not this slightly plump fiftyish woman with streaked blonde hair. In her beige silk pantsuit and green jade pendant, Reva Brooks looked just like all the other stylish ladies of a certain age in my mother's circle.
Could I ever have imagined that four decades later, I'd actually have Reva's record beat by one husband? All along, I've been minding my own business, living my life, and getting married . . . once, twice, three, then four, then five times. It's one of those things (well, five of those things) that just seemed to happen along the way, evolving out of circumstances at hand. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The young virgin bride walks slowly down the aisle trailing white satin, her hand clutching her father's arm. With tears in his eyes and a quick kiss, he hands his daughter up to the tall (very tall for a Jew) young groom waiting with the rabbi at the altar...
I am the bride, Aaron the groom, I am twenty, he is twenty-six, and we are ready. Aaron says he is. I say I am. But underneath it all, I have no clue. Perhaps Aaron doesn't either.
On our wedding day, my father presents us with a brand-new Edsel from his auto dealership. A sleek sedan – marshmallow white with lime green stripes along the sides.(I don't want to say that the fate of Edsels had anything to do with the fate of our marriage, but it's a symbol to keep in mind.)
It all began a year and a half earlier – in 1958 - and I'd just returned in disgrace from Barnard College in Manhattan, where I'd wasted my opportunity for an Ivy League education. You have to understand: New York City is no place to put a college. While my textbooks lay unopened on the desk, I was off gaping at the fancy stores along Fifth Avenue or soaking up jazz in Greenwich Village. And sleeping through too many classes.
Now I was back beneath my parents' roof in Minneapolis again, a spoiled embarrassed child, wondering how I could've screwed up so badly. The oldest of three sisters, I had always been the good girl who set an example. Now I was just another flunkout, a humiliation I could never have imagined, totally mortified by the comedown of having to finish my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota.
"Heard you were back," Debbie Sharp said on the phone.
In our town you can't keep secrets. At least not among the Jews. The Goodyear Blimp might as well have flown over with a sign in big block letters: "THE DUNCE IS HOME." Now Debbie, a girl I scarcely knew, was calling out of the blue, wanting to set me up with Aaron Strauss, a pal of her boy friend, Marty.
"I think you'd like Aaron," Debbie said brightly. "Very dry wit. By the way, be prepared, he's really tall."
What did Debbie know about who I'd like? I hadn't seen her since Confirmation in tenth grade. But that was how it was in the Jewish community in Minneapolis in the 1950s. Everyone was connected. And I fit right in despite the fact that I didn't even realize I was Jewish till I was twelve. That's a long story…but I'll try to shorten it.
After I was born, my parents, believing their children should learn something of their mixed heritage (Dad was born to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Mother was Jewish on her father's side and Swedish, French, and German Presbyterian on her mother's side), joined a synagogue. I was consecrated at Temple with the other four-and five-year-olds and received my own little baby Torah.
One day in Sunday School that fall, our teacher Mrs. Gradstein told us kindergartners about Hanukkah, then asked, "Do any of you children have a Christmas tree?" Proudly, I raised my hand, and the teacher asked me to stand. "Every year," I began, "on a special night between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Daddy rounded us up, 'C'mon, kids, let's go!' I told how we'd drive to the Boy Scout tree lot on Fifty-Fourth and Lyndale with its rows and rows of trees with red ribbons, smelling all piney. We'd pick out the biggest, best one on the lot, and Daddy would tie it into the trunk, drive home and drag it on its side through the kitchen while my mom followed him with a dustpan. Daddy would push the trunk into the three-legged stand in the living room and then he'd stand back and say, "Isn't this magnificent!" Mom would be waiting with boxes of shiny gold and red balls and shimmery silver icicles and an angel for the top - -
"That's ENOUGH, Elizabeth," Mrs. Gradstein said, interrupting me, "Sit down."
In her green dress and her black teacher shoes, Mrs. Gradstein stood in front of the class lecturing loudly about the abomination of assimilation. "Children, when you go home, you tell your parents we Jews do not have Christmas trees!" talking to all of us but looking at me.
Confused and teary, I delivered the message: "Teacher says we're an abomination, we can't have a Christmas tree." When my parents complained furiously to the school principal, he apologized if I was upset but it was only because Mrs. Gradstein cared so much, she was just doing her job instructing the youngsters about our Jewish traditions.
"When you have a tree," he said, " it's part of a Christian observance."
"You don't embarrass a little girl like that," my father said angrily. "Anyway, my wife is half-Christian, and we'll have a tree every night if we want to."
And so it was that my parents resigned from Temple and joined the Unitarians (along with a lot of other lapsed Jews) and sent my sisters and me to Unitarian Sunday school. And I forgot all about being Jewish. No one in our neighborhood or in my school was Jewish, and our annual Passover Seder was just another holiday family feast with my Uncle Max insisting on reading from the little books with Hebrew on one side and my father urging, "Hurry up, Max, let's eat,"
But that was the time, right after World War II, when revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust were emerging daily. Given what the Jews had suffered, including some of our own relatives, my parents became concerned that my sisters and I had lost touch with our heritage. They were already sponsoring several surviving cousins in their journey to this country and so they returned us to Temple for religious school - and suddenly, I was Jewish again.
Trapped in that hot, crowded, seventh grade classroom, where the boys threw spitballs, the girls whispered and gossiped, and the teacher tried to teach Jewish history over the din, I wondered what all this had to do with me, and I yearned for the quiet Unitarians. The reality of who I was only dawned on me when I saw the play Anne Frank. I, who had always kept a diary, resonated to Anne's story. What if I'd been born in Holland instead of Minneapolis? She could have been me!
Gradually I listened more carefully to the Jewish prayers, absorbed the rhythms of Jewish rituals. When the Sunday school girls included me in their conversations, I learned a whole new set of social rules. And that was how my newly Jewish self merged with my mother's very specific ideas of how a young woman should behave. Like most daughters of the 1940s and 1950s, I was brought up to assume that when you grew up, you got married, my destiny as Harriet Homemaker (but only after a college education) planned from the start. The pressure on us Jewish girls seemed particularly specific. Nab a professional man: doctor, lawyer, merchant (like my father). Once you married, you stayed married till death did you part. That was always how it was. That was always how I assumed it would be for me, too.
Now that I'd hit that age, nineteen, when marriage might be just around the corner, any man I met was a possibility. Although I usually didn't like to accept blind dates, Aaron just might be a suitable candidate.
When the doorbell rang that Saturday night, I tried to make it downstairs before my father answered. It was no use. While Aaron stood awkwardly in the front hallway, Daddy's gaze traveled upward and back down again. "Got enough oxygen up there?" Glancing down at my father with a pained expression, Aaron stuck out his hand. "Aaron Strauss." Aaron was tall. Taller than anyone I'd ever dated. Skinny and dark-haired with olive skin and green eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "Strauss? Any relation to Clary Strauss?" (The one famous Jewish criminal in the Twin Cities.)
"No sir, no relation."
"G'bye, Daddy." Grabbing Aaron's arm, I yanked him toward the door.
"You get her home in one piece." My father's warning trailed us into the night.
Aaron had a full evening planned. First, an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Vertigo, during which I grabbed his hand in the scary parts but he was a perfect gentleman, no hanky-panky and my own box of fresh buttered popcorn. Afterward we went dancing at Augie's with a live band. Aaron whirled me round and round while I tried not to stumble, my neck aching from craning upward. In between dances, while we sipped lemonade, Aaron talked sports at a dizzying pace, basketball play-by-plays alternating with off-color jokes I didn't get. We picked up a pizza and took it back to my house, where everyone was fast asleep. I tried not to yawn over the pepperoni, hoping Aaron would wind down soon. Finally he said he'd better be going and walked me to the front door, where I carefully averted my face. 1950s Nice Girls' Rule #1. No kissing on the first date. In my diary I wrote, "Went out with Aaron Strauss. No chemistry. Nothing in common. This is one guy I'd never marry."
When I first retired from my job directing recruitment for a research project on twins at the University of Minnesota, I could scarcely wait for the next stage. My husband and I would have more time to see friends, to visit State Parks, to get out of town in the frigidity of our Minnesota winters. All those things were pleasures we'd looked forward to. I also knew I'd keep on writing for several hours daily before dawn, just as I'd been doing for years. I'd had articles and poems and essays published in both literary and mainstream magazines. And I'd written two book-length memoirs, one for each of my granddaughters. But all of a sudden I found myself ready to take on an entirely new project, writing a book about the subject of marriage in which I'm the star - not just once but five times. FIVE MARRIAGES! Did I really dare reveal all that private stuff in a book? Was I actually willing to allow people I don't know to read all about it?
Okay, I thought, if I didn't take a chance now, when would I? After all, doctors don't lie when they tell you that you're losing inches, one by one. If I didn't hurry up, I'd evaporate. So here I am, an old Jewish lady in years but still feeling young in spirit. And I've been having a very good time telling my story.
As to the bare facts, I received a BA in English and MA in Education. My children and grandchildren are all raised and I live with my husband in a condo in a Minneapolis suburb.
Never in a million years could I have imagined I'd marry five times.
I can't say I'm proud of it nor am I ashamed. Once would have been plenty! So how did someone like me, an ordinary woman brought up in the 1950s, have herself a less than ordinary life, at least marriage-wise? Well, things turn out differently than we expect sometimes. I have been married, single, divorced, and widowed, not necessarily in that order. (Hey, I have to create a little suspense here.)
The book, My Five Husbands, is divided into five sections, one per husband. Each section describes the way I coped - or didn't cope - with the husband in question. I doubt there is an emotion I haven't experienced along the way, given the variety of these men I married. I have run the gamut from the greatest joy to the deepest sorrow. and what I feel now is extremely peaceful.
In the middle of her 70s, what girl could ask for more?