(Erin Otwell / The Free Press)

Finding Ilene

I’ve been married five times, once per decade starting in my twenties. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve finally found the one.

While I have not lived past lives, I’ve had many past wives. And as it turns out, those do win you some wisdom. 

In my seventy-two years I’ve been married five times, once per decade beginning in my twenties. I’m not proud of this, but it does help define me. Some may call me naive, and I’m sure some of my ex-wives would call me worse. 

From those marriages came two children, two stepchildren, two grandchildren, and an all but empty bank account. And naturally, some lessons.

My first wedding was in 1973. She was 21 and I was 22. We were both young, inexperienced, and idealistic.

We lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We owned a house and I had a good job as a teacher. I enrolled in guitar lessons at a community college and started, almost immediately, to write my own songs. I earned my radio operator license and was a disk jockey at an independent music station. I wrote album and concert reviews for the local paper. 

But on the inside I was confused. I had a good life, but I wanted a bigger one. 

I fell in love with my coworker at the school, divorced my wife, and moved to San Diego, California. Both of us found new jobs within days. We got married one year after we moved there, had a beautiful baby boy, and bought “that house.” It was idyllic. I was attending graduate school part-time and working full-time. 

This was the era of women’s liberation and I was right there leading the charge, insisting that my wife and I have a hyphenated last name. I was the one who had the subscription to Ms. magazine.  

We were the model young professional, progressive couple—but still, a model. A facade. Not knowing what a healthy marriage looked like, I did a woefully inadequate job. I wasn’t making enough money to support us. Every month was a struggle. We didn’t know how to give up nice things. I couldn’t fix anything, which you have to do when you own a house and can’t afford to pay someone else to repair what’s broken. So, as it goes, divorce number two came along, accompanied by a healthy dose of karma. I was the one who got dumped this time, and for a much more traditional guy who knew how to fix broken toilets and repair car engines.

I met my next wife, a therapist, on a blind date. We were together for two years when, after being given the “marriage or it’s over” proposition, I popped the question. Standing before the rabbi at the ceremony I kept thinking, ”Really? Again?” She had a daughter, I had a son, and our parenting styles weren’t compatible, which led to arguments, which led to distrust, which led to divorce less than a year later.

I met my fourth wife on a Jewish dating service and got married two years after we met, when she got pregnant. Things fell apart immediately but I didn’t want to be a single dad again, seeing my child every other week, as I was for my son, so I hung in there. Nine years later, I knew that separation was the best thing for both myself and my daughter.

Divorce is never easy, but with wife number four it was excruciating. Papers were signed in December 2009, but custody wasn’t finalized until 2015. 

Thankfully, in that period, I met Ilene. 

It was February 11, 2010, a Thursday, soon after divorce number four was put to bed. I met her in the parking lot of a Rite Aid through the magic of My goal, when I made my profile, was companionship. Someone to go to a concert with, share a meal with, laugh with. There wasn’t a lot of that going on lately. Laughter, I mean. 

And then I saw her. Sitting in her SUV, talking on her cell phone. It was 9:15 p.m. 

Ilene had to pick up some things at the drugstore, so I accompanied her. Valentine’s Day was just a few days away, so I bought her a red plastic heart filled with M&M’s, one of her favorite candies. 

We went to Jack in the Box, the only restaurant open at that time of night, and we talked and talked. It was easy. She’ll tell you that there were a number of things working against me—the aforementioned divorces, of course, and my 9-year-old daughter (she had just finished raising two of her own), and my dominating 95-year-old mother who lived a few exits away in a retirement community. 

But in spite of all that, she consented to a second date. She told me she agreed only because I was cute and she was shallow. I didn’t care. I had to see her again. 

Today, Ilene and I have been married for over ten years, which incidentally breaks the record for my longest marriage. And we’re going strong. Other than my two children, Ilene is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Ilene loves who I am, and I love who I am when I am with her. She is the funniest, most sarcastic person I know, and she has allowed my own sense of humor to blossom, though she’ll deny that I’m as funny as I think I am. (She’s wrong, by the way.) 

If I had known better, I would have never married until I had a stronger sense of self. My insecurity was such that when a partner put out the ultimatum of “marriage or it’s over,” I readily chose the former. And why not? Obviously, she wanted to be with me, and isn’t that all that I really wanted? I thought so. 

I say Ilene guides me, but I think it’s more accurate to state that Ilene tries to guide me. I was not, at times, a receptive student. I hasten to add that is still the case. My wife is a wise person. I am, let’s say, getting there. Ilene can be infuriating at times and I have to remind her that I am her husband, not her child. But she’s the one who has opened my heart and mind to possibilities I never dreamed of, and I have, in my older age, realized that I don’t know all that I think I do. 

All this because of and the date that changed my life.

My final piece of wisdom? Don’t settle. Find someone who believes in you, even if it takes a very long time. Someone who sees you clearly, in ways that you yourself do not see. Find your Ilene. 

Jonathan Rosenberg is 72. He’s a playwright and a producer living in San Diego. His musical,  East Carson Street, will have its world premiere in May 2024 in New Jersey.

Read the other Senior Essay Contest runners-up, Cheri Block Sabraw and Joan McCaul.

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