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Fern and Joe: An Introduction
Fern: I’ll go first. I usually do. I envision writing this as a back and forth: a conversation. It was my idea to do a column with my writer-husband. And Joe, being Joe, went along.
Joe: Could I stop you?
Fern: I guess not. We’re married now for almost 33 years. A second marriage for both of us. It’s worked out. We’re almost always nice to each other. And grateful. Joe does all the grocery shopping, the cooking and he fills the cars with gas. I do housework, the wash, pay the bills and make most social plans. Dividing these chores did not involve negotiation since we’re both doing what we like. Joe finds shopping recreational. And I enjoy housework. It’s like Zen.
Joe: We’re both writers and retired professors of creative writing. In fact our first date sprang from a writing group we were in. At the time Fern and her husband were in the process of divorce and they had been separated only a few months. By then, I had been a single parent to my two daughters for five years. I always liked Fern. At English Department parties, I often found myself gravitating to the room or group she was in. She was smart with an East Coast acerbic wit that appealed to me.
Fern: And you were always funny. I value funny.
Joe: In our writing group you were a tough critic.
Fern: Well, you were a little too easy on others when the writing didn’t quite work.
Joe: I used to say that showing Fern your writing was like getting naked, coating yourself in fish oil and jumping into a cage filled with ocelots.
Fern: Oh, come on. I was just honest. I thought you were a really good writer. In fact, it would be difficult to have a partner whose creative work I didn’t respect.
Joe: Fern liked me well enough over the years to introduce me to her single friends. I even went on a few blind dates she fixed me up with. Glad none of those fix-ups worked out!
Fern: I remember you at English department picnics with your little girls. As a single dad, you were always so patient with them. Although you did seem beleaguered. Still, in some way, I think men have it easier when they have custody of their children. I mean, they are admired. Single moms are the norm. I remember that the secretaries in the English department used to watch the girls sometime.
Joe: I did the best I could. After I was divorced, I dated, but didn’t expect to have a partner to share all that responsibility with. And I certainly didn’t expect it would be you.
Fern: Then one summer morning I came by Joe’s house to drop off a manuscript I was working on for our writing group and ended up sitting on his porch to chat. I was talking about being in a college town where I seemed to know everyone, embarrassed by the fact that my husband left me for one of his students. It seemed like such a cliché. You were wonderful to talk to. I think it was me who casually said that maybe we could go out to eat sometime.
Joe: I said: “How about tonight?” because my ex had the girls that weekend.
Fern: We went out for Chinese. At the Mandarin, a restaurant that was torn down last year on Lincoln Way. I remember that mutual friends passed by our table and said, “Hi Fern …” then a double take, adding . . . “and Joe.” They looked shocked. My first husband’s name was also Joe. For a long time, I referred to you as “Joe Geha.”
Joe: In fact, for a while I was the only man I knew who was called by this first and last name in his own house.
Fern: I came home that night and said to my teenage daughter: “I think I’m going to marry Joe Geha.” She said: “Mom, does he know?”
Joe: I didn’t. After dinner we took a walk; I was thinking how much I wished that this was a real date.
Fern: Joe and I were both over forty when we married, and both of us had lived through some hard times, too. Actually, to say that in middle age we came into this relationship with baggage is an understatement. We came packed with steamer trunks – just the way you came into this country in the first place.
Joe: I was born in Zahle, Lebanon, halfway between Damascus and Beirut. I didn’t speak English until the first grade and was teased for my accent, embarrassed for the strange foods my mom used to put in my lunchbox—leftover ground cinnamon lamb, greens cooked down with olive oil. Right away, I stopped everyone from calling me Zuzu – the Arabic diminutive for Yousef – but wanted “Joe,” a real American name.
Fern: I also came from an immigrant background, but the third generation distanced me from the Old World, a place of such bitter anti-Semitism that my grandfather gave thanks every day for living in America. (I remember Papa petting the family dog and saying: To be in America, even a dog is lucky.) I was born in the Bronx, living in a big apartment with my parents, grandparents, and a single aunt, all whom spoke Yiddish in the home. Everyone I knew was Jewish. The public school I went to was closed on Jewish holidays.
Joe: And then, here we were, getting together in Iowa!
Fern: I suggested that we put on the wedding invitations: Another Arab-Jewish-Iowa-Potluck. I actually once wrote an article about that for a book: Essays on Inter-Cultural Love -- even though I told the editor that I didn’t think ours was really an intercultural marriage. Arabs and Jews are more alike than different. Intercultural would be if I married a Norwegian Iowa Farmer. Or a Southern Baptist.
Joe: Or if I married someone whose family had come over on the Mayflower.
Fern: We really have pretty much the same values. And political views.
Joe: Differences might have made interesting material for writing a column ....
Fern: But the marriage would not have lasted.
Joe: You are much more political than I am. Or at least more interested in what’s going on in the country. And more attuned. I get kind of sick of it all. Tune it out.
Fern: I watch Fox news sometime. And I turn on right wing talk radio when I’m alone in the car. I like to hear what other people are listening to, what they believe. Although it drives me crazy. I know what station I’m on within seconds, because of the tone. Usually contemptuous.
Joe: I don’t know how you can do that. Me, I lose perspective, so every now and then I have to step back from the deluge of current affairs and read history instead, explore new recipes to cook. Or I go down to the basement to paint. In other words, as Bob Dylan put it, “I must go where it’s quiet.” For a while anyway.
Fern: I’m a sharer. Then, sometimes – together on a long car ride, or early in the morning before coffee -- I ask: “Sorry, am I talking too much?”
Joe: And I usually respond, ”That’s ok. I’m not listening.”
Fern: See? Like I said. He’s funny
Fern and Joe now joined Iowa Writers Collaborative.