Tom and I were married in 1989. On the eve of our wedding a friend asked him how he felt about getting an instant family. My boys were 11 and 15 years old. He replied that it was going to be great. “The hard part of raising kids is already over.” He figured they were practically grown. And the boys loved him. They even invited him for a sleep over. “Mom has a really big bed.” They told me that they liked the idea of having a man around the house full time. At least that’s what they said. A few short weeks after our brief honeymoon, we discovered just how difficult becoming a family was going to be.
They turned on him. They complained about everything and the “You’re not my dad” line was practically on an hourly rotation. Ben, the 11 year old, took me aside and said that he didn’t think it was working out. “Why?” I wondered. “I don’t like the way he makes eggs,” was the only thing he could come up with. Sam, the 15 year old, just stayed out of the house as much as possible mostly at the local skate park.
And Tom, who was the only child in his family, was not used to having competition. He was cranky. About noise, especially boy noise early in the morning. The sound of them slurping cereal made him insane. And he didn’t like sharing special snacks. Or having to compromise on the TV schedule. I was constantly negotiating the tsunami of two pubescent boys with the thunder clouds of a spoiled child . It was ugly.
And it got worse. Sam would disappear for whole weekends at a time on vague skateboarding missions without adult supervision. When Ben got to high school he became a chronic truant and found a new hobby spray painting everything in the neighborhood. Tom suffered through a bought of depression. I spent countless months on projects I invented in the basement and went to counseling. We even took separate vacations. And in the mean time, we managed growing responsibilities at work. Our marriage was being tested everyday.
Little by little things started to sort themselves out. Sam turned 18 and cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandparents had given him and went off to travel the world as a professional skateboarder. Four years later, Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship and moved out of the house. Excited empty nesters, we booked a romantic budget trip to Europe!
And then in year 10 of our marriage a letter arrived by certified mail. It was from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It said, “We regret to inform you that while you are married in the eyes of god, your paperwork was never properly filed with the State of Wisconsin.” It went on to explain that we had a year to file a special form called a “delayed certification of marriage.”
Stunned, Tom made us a drink and we reread the letter together a dozen times. What did it mean? Was it a “get out of jail free” card? How strong was our commitment to one another? How would we feel if the letter had arrived a few years earlier, in the midst of the firestorm that was our family life? Since there was no urgency and we were busy with work, we decided to just think on it for a few weeks.
And then the Journal Sentinel came out with an article. It said that during a period from roughly 1988 to 1990, the church where we were married failed to complete the necessary legal paperwork. The reporter discovered that the issue was uncovered when a woman who had also been married during that period, applied for a passport in her married name. When the government informed her there was no person with that name matching that social security number, the shit hit the fan.
I didn’t change my name so it never came up when I got my passport for our trip to Europe. But we’d been filing joint tax returns the whole time. This was difficult to understand.
The article also cautioned people affected by this mishandling of really fucking important paperwork, that it was not a “get out of jail free card.” Looks like a marriage, smells like a marriage. The untangling of any union would require time in court.
Tom made us a drink and we discussed our course of action. Together we decided that the letter was really a gift. That we could take our time, the whole year allotted to us, to think about the years that we had survived, our lives as they were now, and the kind of relationship we wanted going forward. We established a weekly date night. We found new interests in common like visiting art museums. We rekindled our friendship and passion. We went on vacation with my adult sons, mended fences, laughed about the years that we had survived together, and truly reconnected.
Weeks and months went by and soon we were coming close to the deadline. With five days to spare and the signatures of two witnesses who attended our wedding, we filed that delayed certification of marriage form. We finally became the family we wanted. The rest will be easy.
This month Tom and I celebrate our 28th anniversary. Or maybe it’s technically only 18.