"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

May 14, 2017


"So I’m in my wedding dress, waiting for the ceremony to begin, when a woman walks up to me and announces she’s my fiancĂ©’s first wife...”

My eyebrows shot up but I waited for my new confidante to clarify: the man of her then-22 year-old heart never mentioned he already had a wife in Persia, or Iran. It was 1977 and he and Mary were engineering students at the University of Texas El Paso (her home town), where she’d fallen headscarf-over-heels.  Her parents approved and so had his; she even learned Farsi in preparation for their future in his homeland.

“…but I wasn’t willing to be Wife #2, taking orders from Wife #1. He couldn’t understand my objection, so that was that.”

Mary came from an old family originally from Mexico, and her taste, manners and sense of style were impeccable. It was the mid-1980s and we were pushing 30; childless dependent-wives, as they called us, of Army fellows.  We were also second-wives with distant step-children, but we differed in that she was on good terms with hers

It was 1983 and we’d all just arrived in Darmstadt, West Germany. We bonded over mussels and Sangria (ugh) in a Gasthaus near our temporary quarters. It was her first tour in Deutschland and she was unhappy with the strangeness of everything, so since it was my second I understood and helped showed her the spaetzle, so to speak. Oddly enough we began working for the same (underfunded) resource center (re: the news clipping), and scrounged around Germany for this-and-that, accompanied by our Indian driver, Sheeka, who kept us in stitches with tales of life in New Delhi.

The kink in our relationship was our husband's ranks, so at times we walked chalk lines to avoid official reprimands on our spouse’s records, the fascists. Mary’s husband, “J”, a West Point grad, was recently promoted to Major, and my Ex-Man 2 was senior-enlisted. Military clubs are usually segregated, but our small base included the ‘top 3’ with the officers,and gave the lower enlisted their own. So Mary and I would head over after work to meet our husbands and, too many times, stay well past Happy Hour. It seemed we all did at the time.

Mary maintained a dichotomous life where she played the proper officer’s wife to a ladie’s Tea; yet preferred (mildly) misbehaving when no one was looking.  J enjoyed a good laugh but was definitely more serious about life in general and his career in particular. He would scold Mary in private but was also happy she felt comfortable enough with at least one other person to let down her gorgeous, brown hair, particularly since he was often away on missions.

I tried not to stare at the scarf completely covering her scalp when Mary came in late to work. We've all known bad hair days. Her first lame excuse was that the German hairdresser misunderstood: “I told her I wanted ½” OFF the length, not ½” LEFT on my head!

I stared until she finally confessed:

Her house-guest of over a month, a young dependent-wife waiting to join her husband at his new assignment, had appeared just fine at first; but things turned sour, particularly after J left for a lengthy training exercise.   The guest didn't really want to leave her 'single life' just yet, which became apparent after her husband secured living quarters and kept waiting for her with open arms.  Mary finally gave the gal a shaky-ultimatum, which was the best she could muster.

So the previous night the guest offered to cut Mary’s hair to save her money and Mary accepted. She wasn’t sitting in front of a mirror, nor paying particular attention, as the house-guest commenced clipping in the back. They chatted until Mary saw several Rapunzel locks on the floor, but at that point there was nothing to do but a buzz-cut.

"J's going to kill me when he comes home tonight!”

I doubted she was the one to be murdered, but what could I say? The house-guest was gone two days after J returned.

Following the wedding fiasco and one semester shy of her electrical engineering degree, Mary dropped out of UTEP and began acting crazy, going out with girlfriends and trying her best to make young men’s lives miserable in response to her heartache and betrayal. If I recall the story correctly, on her first date with J she gave him the slip, literally, through the ladies room window.

But J, older and divorced with 3 children, saw something irresistible in her that night and kept sending flowers and invitations until he wore her down. Mary hadn’t thought it was possible to trust another person enough to love but she learned to with J; maybe not with the fiery depth of her first love but with the comfortable security of a good, good friend.

1985: I quit that job to complete my own final credits full-time but my second marriage was crumbling.  As it turned out my Dad was dying of cancer, so with B.S. in hand I returned to the U.S. to help with his business in Manhattan. After that our lives crossed every few years as Mary and J were transferred or I traveled myself. J paid hefty child-support, and Mary in particular looked forward to the day his youngest daughter graduated from college so they could afford to travel even more.

Over the years and in the most beautiful penmanship Mary poured her heart out in cards and letters, as I did to her but in my childish scrawl. I received a congratulatory card for my marriage to Tino in 1994, and enclosed was a letter which, once writing began, revealed much of my friend's unspoken turmoil:

“I have gone through depression, anger, loneliness and I almost thought I was looney. I always thought that as J got up the ladder it would be easier, but NO! It’s worse – sometimes I cannot cope with all the politics, the constant social obligations, the pettiness and all the privacy that is taken away from you. I had to get a grip and realize that I just had to not let it get to me, but it is still hard at times. I saw myself getting old and my body changed and I was constantly crying and angry and I could not say or show my feelings to anyone. I miss having a good friend near."

Apparently no one explained menopause to her, either. Didn't matter I couldn't solve her problem, but feeling safe enough to let it out like a pressure relief valve is often enough to keep going.

“J made full Colonel…(ya-da-ya)… and a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and also on mine. I cannot work full-time because of certain obligations and commitments. I work as a substitute teacher, more than enough for right now. I have been running and lost 20 pounds. J is my friend, my lover and husband and has helped me a lot (but) I am getting tired of the military's regimented lifestyle. I guess I feel like they have taken away my freedom, my worth and my soul. You can't say too much except smile and pretend you love it all."

It’s hard to imagine, then, that there was a period of time (early on) when my admiration for Mary turned to jealousy; which she detected and wisely put some distance between us until I worked through my envy. How I managed that I can’t recall; I can only suppose my desire to continue our friendship outweighed the need to have my ego stroked. Whatever it was, my green-eyed monster eventually departed and that was the last time I’ve been jealous of another person for anything other than their well-behaved dogs. I am grateful for that.

Tino died suddenly three months after our wedding, and while visiting his relatives in Holland during the holidays I popped over to Germany to lick my wounds among friends. One evening I accompanied Mary and J to one of those fancy-officer-do's. Despite the smile on my face I was miserable and simply wanted to die, and gave Mary several favorite items, including the little black dress she’s wearing (above). I chose the Moo-Moo look for most of my mourning period.

I explained how glad I was the last words Tino and I ever spoke
to one another were, “I love you,” , accompanied by a kiss, when he dropped me off at work. You cannot possibly understand how comforting that is unless you’re already regretting harsh words, in which case I am sorry. Mary was quiet for a moment, remembering the silly spat she and J had before he left for golf that morning. There’s no guarantee the person walking out the door will every walk back in

Late 1997: “Good news!! We are retiring the end of June. I am so excited!! We will travel in Europe for 2-3 months and then fly home. We will try to visit with you, too.”

By then my own mid-life adventure was underway with Ruff Life. The following April ('98) I mailed 16 mimeographed pages from Puerto Rico, describing the harrowing experiences of my sea-going life. My letter missed them since Mary and J were traveling, I learned in a forwarded postcard from Salerno, Italy dated that September, in which she declared how beautiful; how wonderful; how fun life is! 

I still recall my joy when Postmaster Annette handed me the long-awaited response to my manuscript, dated January 1999:

Mary passed away on 25 November – the day before Thanksgiving – in Hannover (following complications from an illness). Thank goodness her mother came over to visit and got to see her for 4 days before she died.

“I don’t know what to do with my life now; all the plans were for Mary and me to travel and do things together, and I never even thought of life without her until she was suddenly gone.  As you know, it’s really lonely and hard to think about anything else right now. Life really sucks!”

Annette played Big Sister as I sat in shock, grieving for my friends. No, no, this can’t be happening again, not so soon.  Mary and I were the same age: 43.  Tino was only 47. How unfair can life get? Little did I know I’d be saying goodbye to Annette in a few years, when she was only 48.

J eventually bounced back and in 2001 reported: “On a brighter note, I’ve met and sort of fallen for a very sweet lady,” who later became his 3rd wife.  “C and I have talked about you – I’ve told her many stories about the old days – what a tale!!”

I really wish I could re-live the old days with Mary but oh well.  Her wise words to 'hold my head high' through whatever situation I encounter have remained with me over the years, bolstering my courage and pride when needed. Her Catholic faith was very strong and her prose to me always included, “I ask God to take care of you,” and the like.

So whenever I start to feel sorry for myself or worry about the future, I think of Mary, or Tino, or Annette, or Lee, or even Dad, who was my current age when he died. And remind myself that at least I’m still vertical.

“Andrea, I think with time and a lot of work I am going to get better- or feeling better -about myself. Life is a bitch (oops!) at times!”

And then we die.

P.S. I've wanted to write about Mary Jean Yeisley for years. I can't help sad endings, but it's ironies like these which remind us of life's fragile twists and turns. Not to preach.

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