During the fifth month of her pregnancy of her first child Natalie Taylor is devastated by the sudden death of her husband. Her journey with grief is chronicled in the memoir Signs of Life. Join From Left to Write on March 29 as we discuss Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor. As a member of From Left to Write, I received a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
Robert Mark “Bart” Bartella
He may not have played it exactly as written,
but there was indescribable charm in his interpretation.
Paganini quote used for Bart’s funeral cards
I met Bart the summer I worked as a cocktail waitress at the Firebird Lounge in the Phoenix Hotel, downtown Lexington, Kentucky. I needed income during the summer when I didn’t teach so a friend suggested that I make an audition tape for an on-air position at WVLK radio station which crowned the top of the Phoenix Hotel. In 1972, with women’s voices uncommon on the radio, the station staff said my voice sounded too high. One of the radio staff knew the cocktail lounge on the ground floor needed a waitress and suggested I apply there.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “I’m Baptist. I’ve only tasted liquor two times and don’t know any drinks except the beer and whiskey the alcoholics in my family drink.”
The manager of the Lounge, a woman, replied, “I don’t care; you have great legs.”
The first week I worked, Bart came in with his ex-wife as his date. He ordered Drambuie, an after-dinner liqueur. I asked him to say it three times and spell it before I knew what to request from Joe Lewis, the bartender.
Bart scrambled to ask, “Are you married?”
“Yes.” I replied.
He inserted, “But not happily.”
Still married to Dennis, I had not yet given birth to Denny and thought I had a good marriage. Bart proceeded to chase me around three Kentucky counties for the next three years before mine and Dennis’ marriage deteriorated and we divorced. During the summer I worked at the Phoenix Hotel, Dennis also grew acquainted with Bart. Bart arranged for athletic tickets for us, advised us about our first home mortgage and they knew each other in a distant way. When Dennis and I separated and I moved to Lexington, Dennis called Bart and said, “Brenda is moving to Lexington and doesn’t know anyone there. Would you look in on her?”
Bart, more than pleased to fulfill that request, “looked in on me” more than Dennis had intended. He was thirty-two years older than I. Yes, you read that correctly. He had two daughters, one two-and-a half years younger than I and the other two-and-a half years older. I told him from the beginning that I would see him socially that summer while Dennis and I were in divorce proceedings but that I could not get serious about anyone and I would date other men before I would consider marriage again.
We saw a lot of each other that summer. Bart wined and dined me at Lexington’s finest restaurants. We spent long weekend afternoons at the pool in his apartment complex and met each other’s families. While my eyes opened to the vision of dating an older man, they also opened to a new vision of myself as seen through this man’s eyes. I knew that Dennis and his family viewed me as part and parcel of a poor dysfunctional family. This new mature man saw me only as an individual. My family didn’t seem to be clinging to me in his vision.
Finally, the clanging cymbal of love rang for me. Finally, I got it why movies and books and songs got written about this thing called love. Love happened to me. I had no idea the power of this love. In those early years, I didn’t know love would enable us to make love with a colostomy bag in between our bodies and cry together afterwards. I didn’t know love would enable me to pack a surgical wound that went six inches into Bart’s body. I didn’t know his love for me would mean he agreed to have another child when he was sixty-two years old. I learned that love for us meant all these and so much more.
I exacted a promise from Bart before we married that we would at least discuss having another child when Denny turned three years old. When Bart was sixty two years old our Mark, his first son, arrived. Their relationship played like a symphony which required only two musicians. Bart also decided to legally adopt Denny because he wanted Denny to feel loved by him and be a Bartella.
Ten very happy, fulfilling years followed before Bart died of lung cancer in 1985. He said we had a “one issue marriage.”
The two-shaded blue stretchy knit bathrobes clothed our little family of four for more years than I had imagined when I made one for each of us. Bart supported my sewing projects because he thought it occupied my days and assuaged my desire to go back to work. My Bernina sewing machine, the best on the market, challenged me enough to buy him one more year of a stay-at-home wife and mother. Then I gave him the ultimatum of law school or another child. He chose to have another child, a wise decision. We were three years in to this stay-at-home career path at this time.
The Stretch and Sew store in the Landsdowne Shoppes taught technique for new knits. Matching bathrobes smacked of cutesy to Bart’s no-nonsense mind, but he wore his more and longer than any of the rest of us.
For better or worse, too many of the memoires in that bathrobe mix in my brain with the sound of the ice in his glass followed by the stream of rum and coke. He awakened around five a.m. every morning and many Saturdays and Sundays, he sat there in his big orange recliner wearing that bath robe and well on his way to drunkenness by time I awakened around eight or nine.
The crashing realization that I loved this man as I had loved no one in my life sloshed around in my heart with the cruel irony that he was an alcoholic. Dressing the family up in matching bathrobes doesn’t cure alcoholism.
With the gift of maturity and Al-Anon, I accept and acknowledge how I enabled Bart’s alcoholism. In the beginning, I denied it as alcoholism. The drunks I knew didn’t dress in coat and tie and go to work every day as successful executives. By the time I knew in my bones he was an alcoholic, I loved him and thought my love would make the difference in his drinking. Foolish love. When he bought rum by the case, I meticulously loosened the state seal, poured out a third to a half and refilled it with water. I deluded myself that I had made the difference when “the issue” went away the last two years of his life. A more accurate explanation--the change occurred because he knew when he retired that he had to either quit drinking or die. Sadly, he did both.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychiatry to diagnose my marriage to someone three decades older had something to do with the “daddy crater.” But that explanation presents a shallow interpretation of this deep and rich relationship. Some folks said Bart served as my Svengali. He said, “I just provided a stable marriage and home life so you could blossom as you desired.” After his retirement, he joked that people in our home town began to know him as Mr. Brenda Bartella. Other folks called me his “Trophy Wife,” a summation accurate only in the sense that I was the young, attractive and glamorously dressed woman on his arm. Marriage to Bart offered me options I had not considered as roles for me—glamour girl, volunteer, civic leader.
Oh, the trophy wife moments happened—like that fabulous strapless shirred white evening gown which he called “the Rita Hayworth gown that stopped the gaming tables in the Monaco casino.” On vacation in Monaco, we decided to walk through the gambling casino before dinner. Because of the celebrity culture of Monaco such a distinguished older man and attractive much younger woman could only mean—they must be someone famous. As we walked around the perimeter of the room, the gamblers stopped their games and stared at us as if we were the newest People Magazine cover. In moments like Monaco, I pinched myself and asked, “Am I still Brenda Sims, the poor white trash girl from the projects?” The answer to that question even after marriage to Bart remained, “Yes, I am Brenda Sims and I have grown into a sophisticated young woman who still has a good deal of growing to do in spite of a white gown and a trip to Monaco.”
To finish with the speculations on the character of our marriage, my family joked that Bart thought he chose a glamorous sex object and got a Baptist Sunday School teacher instead. He didn’t get one or the other, he got both. The jokes and theories created part of the fun because our marriage rested on solid knowledge of each other. We enjoyed music, sports, books, movies, travel and shared parenthood. Since Bart had peaked in his career, he gave himself permission to enjoy these experiences in a way that he didn’t allow with his earlier marriage and his older children. Grateful for a second act, he made the most of it.
I do not underestimate the financial impact of this marriage on my life. It moved my standard of living from struggling lower middle class life to secure upper middle class. I remember the first time I thought, “I don’t have to parcel out the strawberries because there are enough for all of us to eat as many as we like.” I remember when Bart directed me, “Buy diapers in large quantities when they go on sale.” I had never had enough money to buy more than the quantity necessary short term. Upon seeing an advertisement in the paper that a scissors expert would be demonstrating at McAlpin’s Department Store, Bart suggested I run over there to buy several different kinds for our household use. What? Specialized scissors? I seemed the height of luxury to this girl from the projects.
Bart provided a lovely 5000 square foot home, swimming pool, constant travel and even after his death, paid for my two Masters degrees, Mark’s undergraduate degree and Denny’s long and winding road through education. Bart, of course, had a comment about this financial impact too, “I know Brenda could walk out of this marriage any day of the week and make it on her own in fine style.” The glue of this marriage of broken persons was love.
When I insisted on a pre-nuptial agreement for the marriage that followed Bart’s death, my attorney tried to dissuade me. “Brenda, you are not a wealthy woman.” He had no idea how vast that inheritance appeared to little Brenda Sims.
The repercussions of losing Bart in 1985 rippled forth in my life. I suppose I lacked awareness myself of the ways in which I could not let go of him. Ten years after his death, a new seminary friend commented, “Since knowing you, I also feel like Bart is just away on a business trip and will be back soon.” The mirror she held up for me reflected that I communicated a relationship with Bart that existed only in my heart and mind. I also endured nightmares in which Bart still lived but had moved on to another house, wife and family. Stating the obvious, I had deep-seated fears that all men would leave like my Dad.
In 2001, after meeting John, my last and current husband, I saw an advertisement on TV for a new film about a great love story. I thought, “Oh my god, I’m being reminded of great love and for the first time in sixteen years I don’t wish for Bart to still be alive!”