"Your A Feck Shonet Wife"
I am very sorry to think that I should not have it in my power to attend on you. When will it be in your power to come home? How I long to see you but I would not say a word that would give you one moment's trouble. . . . If you are having the gout . . . I wish I was near enough to rub it with a light hand.
-- Deborah to Franklin, August 16, 1770
WHETHER IT BE ULYSSES OR FRANKLIN, ten years away from home is a devastating stretch. Interest wanes, time yawns, feeling becomes formula. Endless repetition serves only to empty the formula of whatever content it once had. As Franklin liked to quip, love is governed by a variant of the law of attraction: It diminishes in direct proportion to distance.
It would never do nowadays, such a marriage. In our day, a wife might ask what kind of father, instead of coming home for his only daughter's wedding, would choose instead to burden her, the aging mother, with the entire responsibility for it, limiting his role first to the expression of qualms and reservations, later to an angry silence. In our day she would not put up with a husband who was always away--five years the first time, then ten long years abroad--while be promised every spring he would come back in the fall, every fall that be would sail home in the spring. Ten unbroken years, even though be had known for the last four of them that she was desperately ill and that she longed to see him once again before she died. He had been told she had suffered a stroke; he could see for himself the once firm hand and the once clear mind waver and disintegrate into a chaos of babbling and a jumble of lines. But he did not want to see. He stayed away.
What about him, the husband? He, nowadays, would probably not have remained married to such a wife, the plain, hardly literate wife of his youth. He would feel that she had not grown apace with him, that she was still a shopkeeper's wife while he had become a world-famous scientist and statesman. He would be acutely aware that she had no