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Instead of a 30th Wedding Anniversary, a New Beginning

Two major milestones—a 30-year anniversary that wasn't and a move to New York City—have left Jeannie Ralston with a mix of emotions.

I got married 30 years ago today, which should be a big deal. And it is. Except we didn’t make it. Rather than spending it clicking wine glasses with the man who became my husband on April 4th, 1992 (that’s my dad walking me down the aisle above), I’m unpacking boxes and bags after a move from Austin, Texas, to an apartment in the East Village of New York City. And I’m OK with that. More than OK, but still there’s a tug at my heart today because the timing of this post-divorce chapter—returning to the Big Apple exactly 40 years after I first moved here post-college—has prompted a flood of contradictory emotions.

I’m feeling sweet nostalgia for the people my ex-husband and I were when we joined hands at the altar of a small, adobe chapel on the Texas-Mexico border. He was the love of my life then; I’m quite sure I was his. It was a small, strange ceremony. We were married by a justice of the peace, but my mother said that the talk the JOP gave was the better than any she heard from a man of the cloth at the weddings of her other five kids. In his sermon about staying connected to each other over time and distance, he mentioned that he was a HAM radio operator and that he regularly talked to explorers from Antarctica. I stopped the JOP in the middle of his oration and said that my beloved had just been in Antartica and had called me via a HAM operator. We were awed by the idea that this man who was marrying us may have been the same person who facilitated our patched-through call a few weeks earlier. Somehow the world seemed to be working in our favor–a sense that I would maintained for a couple of decades.

I feel great sadness for what could have been, what I thought our last chapter would be.

I feel great sadness for what could have been, what I thought our last chapter would be. When we reached our 25th anniversary, my parents paid for a trip anywhere we wanted to go as a reward. Our biking trip through Scotland was so fun, such a powerful bonding experience, that I imagined more trips like this in our future. I know this sounds pitiful, but I always imagined our connection was so tight (despite the day-to-day travails any marriage faces) that if I died he would play Natalie Merchant’s song, “My Beloved Wife,” and cry.

I’m also feeling optimism and gratitude for the opportunity to leave Texas and my life as a wife behind me. So many memories and milestones of my married life occurred in Texas, and it seemed that to really start again, I needed to make a geographic break. When I friend offered me her beautiful apartment in a fun, bustling part of the city, I again felt the world was working in my favor. The location, the energy of the city, the price of the apartment made it easy for me to say yes. Nothing else made sense. I decided I would spend at least a year here as sort of a palette cleansing between my long marriage and whatever came next.

Read More: Now That It’s Official, Is There Any Good Way to Mark a “Divorce Day?”

Getting Out of Dodge

I packed up my car in Austin on March 15th, and with my friend Kim, down from New York to serve as my co-pilot, I drove to Charleston, SC, for the NextTribe trip there. Then after Kim returned to New York, I visited with my mother and some family members in my hometown of Kingsport, TN. The last push took me through Harrisburg, PA, where I spent the night at an interstate hotel, and then on into the city last Friday.

As I approached the city, with my Prius so packed I couldn’t see out the back window, I took out my phone and recorded what I consider the most inspiring skyline in the world. Of course, I had Sinatra’s “New York, New York” playing. What else? The line that really resonated: “I’m gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York.”

Almost instantly I was back to becoming a hard-ass New Yorker–at least on the road.

Coming out of the Holland Tunnel, I was ecstatic to be back in the city. As much as I wanted to rejoice and soak in the grandeur of my surroundings, I had to concentrate on the harried traffic. I hooted at my audacity when I beeped my horn at a slug of a driver on Canal Street. Almost instantly I was back to becoming a hard-ass New Yorker–at least on the road.

As I made my way to the East Village, I passed two fashion shoots and sighed with delight. It was a gorgeous spring day; cherry blossoms were making their showy appearance on every street I traveled down. It was in 50-something degrees on a Friday afternoon, and seemingly every beautiful person in the city was out for a stroll.

When I pulled up in front of the apartment, Lila, the owner of the apartment, and Kim, who was there at the beginning and the end, came out to greet me. I rolled out of the car and hugged them hard. Then the tears began. I hadn’t realized how tired I was, how much the move had drained me, until that moment. I cried out of relief–to have made it to this moment after so many months of planning and anticipation–and pure joy that I had a welcoming party at this crucial stage in my life.

Embracing a New/Old Me

When I arrived in New York in June 1982, I stayed at a women’s hotel on 57th Street for a couple of weeks. Not the famous Barbizon, but a Barbizon wannabe. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, I had been awarded an internship at McCall’s magazine (remember that?). With $700 in my pocket from my parents, I booked a one-way ticket to New York City and was determined to make my way on my tiny salary ($10,000 a year—no joke). I was terrified coming to the city not because of its size or crime rate, but because I was sure the really smart people, like the Ivy Leaguers, were going to eat my lunch. I had many strikes against me–coming from a small city in Appalachia, a twangy accent, no impressive college pedigree, a decidedly earnest and naive approach to the world.

I was terrified coming to the city after college because I was sure the really smart people were going to eat my lunch.

My hotel room had a creaky twin bed and the bath down the hall–I was appalled that soot would fall into the tub every time I closed the bathroom door. I wondered if Diane Sawyer had experienced such a lowly beginning. I remember that the Tony’s were happening that first night I spent in the city, and I marveled that such glamour and excitement was so close. But still so, so far.

For my first day of work, I wore a smart royal blue suit with a pussy bow blouse my mother had made for me. It took me a few months of living in the city–getting hip to what was cool and not–to recognize how prissy that outfit was. I had looked like a flight attendant. It wasn’t long before I gave the whole outfit to Goodwill.

Somehow, I succeeded in my job at McCall’s (I think it had a lot to do with my gushing appreciation for any task that was assigned to me) and I soon had a salary large enough to pay back my parents the money they fronted me. But I always felt like a bit of a rube, an outsider from the sticks. Still, I managed to do well in my various jobs and have a good time too—meeting new friends, dating an assortment of men, partying through the 8os in big-shouldered jackets and dresses. I met the Texan who would become my husband in May 1990—on assignment for Life Magazine (I was the writer, he was the photographer)—and in the summer of 1991 I left the city, somewhat reluctantly, to join him in Austin.

Returning last weekend, I realized I wasn’t terrified as I had been before. I don’t feel like a complete outsider. I have a history with the city and this East Village neighborhood, because I visited Lila in this apartment many times before COVID. And I have pals here—from my time living here in the 80s, but also from my work as a freelance writer and then as editor of NextTribe. Many NextTribe writers live in the city, and I’ve come to consider them friends. It’s fabulous to already have a Tribe when you make a big move like this.

The Meaning of This Day

Today, I want to spend time appreciating my marriage and all that came from it. Namely, two thoughtful, hard-working sons who are now grown and launched. Also, decades of adventure and excitement, a life more interesting than I could have imagined for myself. As I’ve said before, I consider it a successful marriage–29 years is nothing to sneeze at–just one that unraveled due to the pressures of empty nest, retirement (him), a new business (me) and COVID.

Today is a dividing line for me.

I don’t plan to talk to my ex today. I remember that he used to get so annoyed when his first wife called or emailed him on what would have been their wedding anniversary. But she was a four-year wife with no children. I was the long-term wife. Still, I’ve already had closure with him—saying goodbye to him and reaching a calm, civilized place before I left Austin. If he contacts me, I’ll be happy, but I’m not expecting anything.

Today is a dividing line for me. I will acknowledge the pain and frenzy of the past year. The heartbreaking decision to divorce, the legal wrangling, finding a temporary home in Austin, more legal wrangling, cutting ties with Austin, packing to move. All while running NextTribe. I will be grateful for the lifetime of experiences and friendships that have gotten me to this new, exciting phase. Then I will go out and live what I think of as my “Second Twenties.” I may even throw my hat in the air.

Read More: The 4 Best Lessons I Learned From My Fun-Loving Dad

By Jeannie Ralston


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