Choosing between Marriage and Romance
When a starry-eyed, young Italian woman named Francesca first met Richard Johnson in Naples at the end of WWII, he was not only a handsome American GI who came to liberate her country from the scourge of Fascism. He was also a passport and ticket from poverty and despair to a dream of fulfillment in the promised land. She followed him back to Iowa after the war, where they married and settled down on the Johnson family farm in Madison County. She thought Richard was everything a partner should be -- a loyal, gentle, caring husband, a good father, an honest, responsible, hardworking provider for the family. Together they raised a son and a daughter to adulthood, saw them marry and move on. Then Francesca and Richard spent the rest of their peaceful lives together managing the family farm.
That was all her family knew or thought about Francesca for all those decades she lived as a caring housewife and mother, but that was not all there was to her or all there was to tell. Upon her death, she bequeathed to her children a diary that told the tale of another Francesca and another life. It was a tale about four days that told a story that lasted a lifetime. It was the story of a young Italian woman with dreams that soared sky high -- dreams of passionate love and romance.
Some 20 years after her arrival in rural Iowa, the dream she had given up when she married Richard arrived at her door. His name was Robert Kincaid, a middle-aged photographer for National Geographic who roamed the world in search of stories and images to fascinate those who could only dream of adventure. He was a carefree wanderer, a loner without home or family bonds. He travelled from port to port meeting fascinating people, liking and loving and carrying fond memories, kind words and beautiful images away with him.
He came to Madison County to photograph some old wooden bridges, but what he found and what he left went far beyond the pictures that he took. He discovered a woman of deep feeling and refined intelligence who had locked away the dreams of youth deep in her heart and thrown away the key. Meeting him, those dreams of freedom sprang suddenly back to life. Meeting her, for the first time in his life he felt the irresistible urge for lasting connection and belonging to another person. In a mere four days, while her family was away at the state fair, Robert and Francesca discovered so much of one another and became so closely bound that he felt they were no longer separate people. It was impossible to say who was more deeply altered by their meeting. He was ready to give up decades of independence and she was prepared to walk away from her whole life and family, just so they could remain together.
When faced with the choice, he selfishly thought of his own need, but she selflessly thought of the devastating impact it would have on her good husband and growing children. He offered her the world. She had the insight and maturity to recognize that the moment she walked away with him, everything would change. Instead of looking forward with anticipation at a new and unknown future, she would look back with guilt and regret on a life abandoned with ingratitude. The magic of their brief meeting would not survive the humdrum routine of everyday life. Hadn't she dreamed once before and awakened to a less starry-eyed reality? They had met briefly in a common dream and would have to satisfy themselves with the memories of that ecstatic momentary experience. Heartbroken, she chose to remain on the farm. Decades passed. They never met again, but they lived out their lives constantly thinking, dreaming and cherishing one another. After his death she received a box of his most precious personal belongs, including a letter and a book of his photographs entitled Four Days.
Did Francesca make the wrong decision by marrying Richard and settling down to a quiet life on a farm? Did Robert suddenly realize his whole path through life had been a mistake? Both seem very unlikely. Human beings are too complex to be reduced to simplistic explanations or formulas of right and wrong. Life is not merely a set of cross-roads, forked paths and missed opportunities. Our needs, aspirations, capacities and potentials are unlimited. Life presents challenges and offers opportunities for the soul to develop some of those capacities, meet some of those needs and fulfill some of those aspirations. Our lives depend on those choices.
Had Francesca refused to follow Richard to America, she may very well have ended up as a farmer's wife in the tiny Italian seaport town of Bari where she was born. Or she may have married a drifter, roamed the world and longed for the peace and stability she had foregone. She had chosen instead a path that gave her physical freedom, economic security, social acceptance and psychological well-being. But it could not exhaust the longings of her soul which are infinite. Robert arrived in the mid course of her life to show her all she had missed and reignite the unfulfilled longings deep inside. He awakened a romantic love in her she had never felt before. He made her realize that she was more than the sum of her present life. Indeed, we all are. However much she was tempted, she knew she could not walk away from all life had given her and all she owed in exchange, in order to fulfill a romantic longing for freedom, adventure and romance. She had needed and wanted love and security and found it. Now Robert helped reawaken a part of herself that lay buried beneath. She felt more alive and infinitely richer for that experience. She discovered a part of herself she had not known or had long forgotten. Robert left, but that part remained with her.
What is this feeling, this experience that gripped two mature adults and shook the very foundations of their lives and personalities, never to be forgotten? It is romance. The meeting of a complementary personality who awakens dormant aspects of our own personality and touches us deeply at points where our routine life does not delve. That touch may be felt positively as an expansive opening of our being or negatively as an unwanted exposure of hidden attributes. Either way, it is intensely alive and it can be life changing. Confusion arises when we conclude that a person who raises this intense feeling in us is necessarily the one who can bring us the greatest happiness and fulfillment in life. That is not necessarily true. Romance is an adventure that requires constant risk and perpetual self-giving. Comfort, security and possessiveness have nothing to do with true romance. Robert was correct when he said that this type of relationship happens once in a lifetime. That is not because opportunities for love and self-giving are rare, but rather because we rarely give that expansive, unconditional opening to life and other people.
Francesca and Robert found four days of intense, ecstatic romance, because they accepted one another as they were without wanting to judge or change anything to make it different or better and because they gave themselves to one another without asking or expecting anything in return. Few people are capable of accepting another with that purity and totality. Fewer are capable of giving themselves without asking for anything in return. By the end of their brief romance, they both painfully and urgently wanted more, but they chose instead to settle for dream they could remember always. They had discovered the truth that romance and marriage do not often go together.
The value of an experience can best be assessed by its consequences, rather than in the heat of the moment when emotions overtake us. What were the consequences of their four days together? Even though they never met again, this experience imparted a deeper meaning and value to their lives. It made them feel more alive and caring. Perhaps it made Francesca a more affectionate wife. When her children learned the truth after her passing, it affected each of them profoundly. Her son realized that he had not sufficiently appreciated the woman he married or tried hard enough in his relationship with her. Whereas her daughter realized that she had submitted to the humdrum routine of marriage and stopped trying to discover more purpose in her own life. Francesca’s dream lives on in her children. Was there something unique about Robert that enabled he alone to awaken romance in Francesca or could she have awakened the same romantic feeling in her relationship with Richard or someone else? The person, the timing and the circumstances facilitate the awakening. She had come to the age when her children were grown up and preparing to leave, so a search for new meaning was natural. Had she tried consciously, she might have discovered greater richness and meaning in relating to her children as openly as she related to Robert, or in taking up a career to challenge her intellect and sensibilities, or in striving consciously to become a more giving wife. Richard was a good-hearted man, but physical and unsophisticated. Yet had she tried to discover his own suppressed needs and aspirations, she may have made his life a heaven on earth and blossomed in the process.
Their social environment also played a role in the outcome. We learn how Lucy Redfield has been condemned and outcast by the small town mentality for having had an extramarital affair. Francesca could not help thinking how her relationship with Robert would be viewed in a similar light. Recognizing their common bond, she broke the local boycott and became fast friends with Lucy, yet still waited several years before disclosing the secret of her own affair. Had Robert lived nearby she may never have responded to him or her response may have quickly dissipated by fear of social condemnation. The fact that he came and then left helped her keep alive the dream. There are many possibilities, but the essential truth is that we discover romance in ourselves. The other person only facilitates that discovery.
We all may long to experience it and dream of living it, but how many of us have the strength and courage to live always unprotected, exposed and vulnerable, to give all we are to another with no assured returns of any kind? Those who are capable of that attitude can discover romance in any relationship, because the romance lies within themselves. Those that are not may wander the globe finding new partners in every port, but never finding the treasure that lies within them.
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