My friend Arlene recently asked me to be the maid of honor in her late-in-life wedding. No sooner had I accepted when I started bragging, "I'm going to be an old maid of honor." Those of us in our 60s laughed, but then it brought back the bygone label "old maid"—a nasty name for unmarried women. Or "spinster." Both words conjure up images of wrinkled old biddies wearing corrective shoes and bifocals, living alone with a single goldfish swimming in a glass bowl.
Those of us who survived the '70s and its bastard daughter, the '80s, remember: that's what they'd think about women unmarried beyond the age that society deemed "appropriate," or past childbearing age. As if the insult wasn't bad enough, there was an "Old Maid" card game. Pick the old wrinkled biddy out of somebody's hand of cards, you lost, right then and there, practically ostracized from the game like old maids were scorned by society.
I never married and had children, so technically by the end of the '80s I was an old maid. My eggs, which spent most of the '80s over easy, were now completely fried.
My family had our fair share of unmarrieds—two old maids and one bachelor, my personal role models. Because of these trailblazers, I grasped that you needn't get married and have children to validate your life. You can work and live alone, and nobody's head would explode. You'll still get invited to family weddings. People will whisper, but you'll have a seat and a piece of chicken Kiev.
I've always been ruffled that there was no derogatory label for men who never got married. Old butler? Crusty unmarried fart? Angry old man? Men who don't ever get married are called "bachelors," even swinging bachelors. It was not only acceptable but envied. Exotic.
My mother's brother, Uncle Ron, was a bachelor. He lived in Phoenix and visited the Kasper family of six in New Jersey every few years. Dad teased Ron accusing him of visiting whenever the thought of marriage and kids came to mind. Two days into his summer vacation with the chaotic Kasper household "killed that idea." Everyone laughed.
But Ron never did marry, he ended up adopting more than 10 dogs and becoming a hermit. Mom was always worried about his sad, lonely life, deathly afraid he would die, and nobody would ever know or care, then his dogs would go hungry and die along with him like a suicide pact.
My mother's favorite aunt, Beth, was what one would call an old maid. In fact, that's exactly what Dad called her behind her back; to her face, she was "Hello Beth." By the time she hit 65, she'd retired and enjoyed her meager pension, yet still dressed like she was coming over to take dictation, not visit her niece's family. Her hair was mousy brown and curled tight on her head, like she'd just removed the aluminum clips and left the pin curls coiled like tiny cobras.
Aunt Beth was a Mormon who drank. She'd have her fingers wrapped around a rocks glass of scotch before she unpacked. "Scotch on the rocks," she'd say, like we didn't remember. Who could forget the time she drank until she fell sideways out of her chair, taking it down with her? The fall didn't even wake her, but from then on we'd put her on the couch.
One time, I teased my 90-pound aunt, "Aren't Mormons supposed to not drink?"
She laughed, "That's just in Utah, sweetheart. This is New Jersey."
When I got older, I asked Beth if she'd ever been in love. After a belabored pause, her eyes dropped to her hands while she parsed out the most melancholy tale—she had been madly in love with the same man for 50 years! I couldn't even picture it. Beth teared up when she finally said his name aloud: Steve. They had a romance of some sort, but she left out huge, juicy chunks of the story, leaving me to assume he was married. Aunt Beth loved Steve for 50 years and she never told him. My mouth opened to make a silent scream when she told me why: "It wasn't any of his damn business. It mattered to me." That's why she never married.
Suddenly, my role model emerged as a bereft woman who died alone with a broken heart, getting snookered night after night, trying to wash the touch of Steve away.
When my mother died, I called my uncle, her brother, for the first time, ever. She'd begged me to stay in touch with Ron. I never had anything to say to him, I couldn't find a common bond with a hermit who spoke to dogs. After "Hi, how are you?" our conversations dried up to empty space. Then I'd excuse myself, tossing the phone back to Mom like a game of hot potato.
On this summer evening, we must have talked for an hour, but it flew by like a paper airplane. We laughed, we pondered, we sighed over life. Then I asked him why he'd never married, already assuming that he was most likely gay. Instead, my uncle unraveled the saddest story. He had been in love! In his 20s, he met the girl of his dreams, but she broke his heart. He spent all his money on a ring that she rejected—and "not very nicely," he said gently. Fifty years later, her name was still too hard to say out loud. His dogs never hurt his feelings, so he preferred them. I thanked him for his truth, hung up and cried over my poor dejected uncle's life.
My role models weren't trailblazers at all, but two sad, lonely people who spent a lifetime yearning for someone they would never really know. They each turned to their own way of coping. Beth died in a hospital with a second cousin at her bedside. When Ron passed, nobody was there but his five dogs—just like he wanted it.