When Forgiveness Demands No Apology.
In some ways, 2009 was one of our worst years and it peaked for me in the now infamous Tupperware fight. The year before we lost 25,000 dollars on a failed adoption when Carly decided to keep the baby. Then, in 2009, the economic downturn hit us hard and a real estate investment went south. We had to move. The timing was impeccably bad. My husband was buried, staying at work until midnight each night to meet a deadline that coincided with the date on which we had to be out of our old house. I moved the family on my own. The neighbors pitched in, but I broke down anyway. Once, after everyone had left, after I had smiled cheerfully at everyone and thanked them for their help, I sat down in the middle of the kitchen and sobbed. I sobbed for all things I had to do on my own; I sobbed for my absent husband who could not be of any help; I sobbed for all the arguments we had gotten into under the stress of it all; I sobbed for all the friends I was leaving; I sobbed because I felt exiled from the neighborhood that had nurtured us and our children for the last ten years. I cried a pitiful flood of tears, there on the mercilessly hard floor. I sobbed until there were no more tears and I could see no point in crying any longer. None of the boxes had moved while I cried. Nothing had been cleaned or organized or put away. I picked myself up off the floor and went back to work, because there was nothing else to do but that.
Later that night I went to bed alone and exhausted. At some point in the middle of the night, my husband came home. I woke to find him there in bed with me, sleeping as he always does, on his side with one arm draped over me. When I stirred, he rolled over and I rolled with him. This is what we always do. It’s like a dance we do in our sleep. One of us stirs and we both roll over. And now I drape an arm around his waist. Sometimes we dance this way all night long. But that is rare. Usually, at some point in the night, one of us loses the rhythm and we end up apart. But we always fall asleep this way. Well… unless there is a fight. In that case we keep strictly to our corners of the bed.
The physical strain of the move, the deadlines at work, the adjustment to a new neighborhood, the disorganization in a new house, all this stress peaked and exploded two weeks after we thought the worst was behind us. How did that fight over the Tupperware containers get started? Oh, I remember now. It began with the freezing bowls for our ice-cream maker.
We are all hooked on homemade ice cream and we make it at least three times a week. That evening, when I opened the freezer, the ice cream freezing bowls were in there, as they should be, but with some leftover ice cream still in them. “Who did this?” I called out annoyed. “You can’t put this away like this.” Most the family was there, mulling around the kitchen and family room. None of the kids fessed up to the crime. “Come on,” I said, “you guys know better than this. Who was being lazy?” One of the kids pointed to my husband. “Look at daddy. Look at his face. Daddy did it.” I turned to look at Bruce, and sure enough he was wearing that sheepish grin that I know so well. The smile that is both cheeky and cautious, as if to say, you won’t get mad at me for this… will you? I know how much you love me.” But I was not in the mood for his cute smiles. Why did he let me scold the kids without saying a word? Why didn’t he fess up, when I asked the first time? I was mad and I started lecturing him. “You can’t just put the freezing bowls in the freezer with the ice cream still inside. Once it’s hardened, you’ll end up scratching the inside of the bowls getting the ice cream out. And if you don’t wash the bowls, I can’t make ice cream the next time. Why didn’t you put the leftover ice cream in a Tupperware container and wash out the freezing bowls?”
Bruce’s smirk was gone. It was obvious he was not going to get off easy since I was clearly in one of those inflexible moods. He offered a lame excuse, “I don’t know where the Tupperware containers are?” “You can ask!” I shot back. “Well, I couldn’t find you,” he snapped, as if that excuse would put an end to the matter. I was yelling now. “You don’t need to find me! Every kid in the house knows where the Tupperware is. You could ask any one of them.” “Well, I looked for you and I couldn’t find you.” At this point, I was downright furious and he was just fanning the fire. Why didn’t he just admit he didn’t want to bother cleaning the bowls?
It seems he realized now that his last comment was a big mistake and chose a different approach. “I’ll take care of it for you right now” he offered cheerfully, as though he were doing me a favor. “Where are the Tupperware containers?” he asked. I, however, would not be appeased by this obvious attempt at sidestepping his guilt. I yanked open the drawer with the Tupperware containers. “Here they are!” And I started pulling out a few serving-sized containers and slapping them down on the counter one after another. “Well, where are the lids?” he asked. His irritation was starting to show. “Right HERE!” My words were not a simple answer to his question, they were a retort. I yanked open the next drawer down and turned to walk away. Bruce began fumbling in the drawer of lids. That is when he made his biggest mistake, the fatal error that would declare me the winner of all Tupperware arguments from now until eternity. After about six seconds of looking, he announced with annoyance, “I can’t find the matching lids!” And then his tone turned accusatory, “I thought you were going to get Tupperware that all matched.”
Whenever Bruce starts a sentence with the words “I thought you were going to….” I automatically brace myself for a fight. Sometimes, this phrase is truly harmless, but it has been the launching pad for arguments often enough for steam to rise off my head as soon as the first three words have crossed his lips. Whatever semblance of restraint I had before this moment evaporated in the two seconds of stunned silence that followed it. I enunciated my words carefully and slowly, “I… can’t… believe… you… just… said… that!” Then I launched into a tirade. The words shot out as fast and relentlessly as a stream of bullets. “I WOULD have all matching Tupperware, but do you see THIS?!” I plucked a flimsy round container out the drawer and slammed in down on the counter. “And THIS?!” I grabbed a rectangular container with rounded corners. “And THIS and THIS?!” Now I am pulling every mismatched container out of the drawer and banging them down one after another. Bruce raised both hands defensively, as if he expected me to launch these containers directly at his face. He tried to talk me down, but his words could not be heard. I am still yelling. “I wanted to throw these out! I tried to get rid of them several times, but YOU… YOU would not let me! It is because of YOU that I kept them!”
It was good Bruce kept his distance because I had the strongest urge to shove one of those mismatched containers right down his throat. Bruce was not arguing with me anymore. He was speaking softly, “Cindy, you need to calm down.” “NO,” I yell, “YOU CALM DOWN!” “Cindy, you need to stop.” “NO, I WILL NOT STOP, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO TELL ME WHEN I MAY OR MAY NOT SPEAK.” At this point, the kids were all staring at us. Bruce was still saying “Cindy, you need to stop” and I was still saying “NO, YOU STOP!” and then our argument deteriorated into a third-grade playground spat. “No, YOU stop!” “No, YOU stop!” “No YOU stop!” and it didn’t end until I said, “You just want to have the last word!” and he said “No, I don’t” and I said “SEE! YES YOU DO!” and that was the end. I had the last word.
The thing is: I knew he was right. I DID need to calm down. I was completely out of control. I knew it from the moment I started slamming the Tupperware containers on the counter. But somehow I couldn’t stop myself. And none of it was really his fault, expect for all that “STUFF” of his I had been moving without his help. Boxes and boxes of stuff I had no permission to throw out. But that really wasn’t it either. It was exhaustion, worry, loss, all of it stuck inside with nowhere to go. And once it let loose, there was no stopping it. In truth, I wanted to yell; I wanted to be angry; I wanted to say the word “NO!”, shout it with a firmness that cannot be defied. Because, maybe, when you feel life is making decisions for you, when the course of events leaves you no choice, you just want to be able to shout “NO” at someone, anyone at all, even if it’s not their fault, even if they are not the enemy, even if you know it won’t change anything. No! No! No! No more losses! It’s enough already.
We did not speak the rest of the evening. Later, I calmly gathered up all the mismatched containers and threw them in the trash. Bruce calmly fished a couple of them out again. Neither of us got upset. Neither of us said a word about it.
That night we went to bed and lay on opposite sides with enough open space between us to park our broken-down Dodge Intrepid. Bruce rolled over to face away from me and fell asleep. I lay flat on my back with my eyes wide open staring up into the darkness. How long was I lying there unable to relax, unable to turn off my brain, unable to roll over onto my side to fall asleep? “Bruce,” I said suddenly into silence, my voice at full volume. “Bruce! I can’t sleep.” He didn’t answer at first. Then he said flatly “I have a headache.” “But I can’t sleep!” I said more forcefully now. “But I have a headache.”
What was it that made me feel just a little more willful than usual? Was it residual frustration, the lingering effects of loss, the last bit of tension on a wind-up spring that has not yet spun itself out? In twenty years of marriage I have always been the one who says “NO” in the wake of an argument. The silence was still hanging in the air, filling the space between us, refusing to be ignored. “Look!” I said, “I have been a passive participant often enough. It won’t hurt you any to be a passive participant once in a while.” It wasn’t really a romantic thing to say. And it wasn’t really a request either. It was more like a fact. Take it or leave it. And he took it. He rolled over to me, still half asleep, and laid a floppy arm across my chest. And we loved each other. And we fell asleep in our usual way. First his arm around me. Roll once. Then my arm around him. And then we were out.
The next day I threw out two Tupperware containers that Bruce had rescued the night before. Then I went out and bought some more containers that matched the set I had kept. Bruce saw the new Tupperware on the counter and laughed. Later that evening Bruce fished an old mismatched container out of the trash and I raised my eyebrows at him. He gave me that sheepish grin and said he was going to hide it at work. I laughed.
Neither of us ever apologized for the infamous Tupperware fight, but we did talk about it later. We talked about how over-the-top I was and how positively crazy I behaved. And we talked about how stupid he was to make the comment about the matching Tupperware. And I teased him for it, saying he was destined to go to Tupperware-Hell, a horrible place where you are surrounded by mountains of plastic storage containers, but none of the lids fit. And if, after a million years of searching, you do manage to find a lid that fits, then that container will leak.
I love this memory. Somehow this day feels like an important moment in our up and down marriage. A day when Bruce let me have my anger and his love. A day when forgiveness was generous and uncomplicated, when the formalities of apologizing were dismissed and it was okay to just let it go.
(P.S. We have never fought over Tupperware since. Occasionally though, a rogue Tupperware will show up in the drawer along with my matched set. Honestly, I have no idea where Bruce gets these. I just throw it out sneakily when he’s not looking. Please, if you know my husband, do not tell him this.)
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