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Vinegar Hill

On Saturday evening, I watched the CBS made-for-TV movie, Vinegar Hill. I found myself yelling "Assume Love" at the screen many times.

The movie's based on an Oprah Book Club selection by A. Manette Ansay. It opens with a close-knit and cheery family of four packing up in Chicago to move in with his parents on their farm. Ellen and Jake have lost their jobs, and she'll be able to teach at their hometown school while he looks for something to let them get a place of their own again.

Almost instantly, their marriage and family start to crumble under the weight of his parents' unhappy marriage and their grief over his brother's recent death. Jake reverts to his childhood role as his father ridicules him and compares him to his dead brother. He fails to stand up for his wife against his mother's whining demands and his father's constant disapproval.

Ellen's in a mighty uncomfortable spot: no money, her kids exposed to their grandparents' awful role models, her husband withdrawing from her and behaving like a child. So what does she do? Does she Assume Love and recognize that the husband whose character was so upbeat, strong, cooperative, and loving a few days ago in Chicago must be under fierce pressure to change so much in just a day? No, she appears to assume he must not care much for her if he won't protect her from them, and so she turns to the old high school flame who still carries a torch for her.

When she realizes staying with his parents is tearing them apart, does she Expect Love, instead of one particular way of showing it? Does she recognize the situation is hers to deal with, whether he's there or not? Does she look for a way to get the four of them to a safer place if he can't make this one safe? Does she ask any of the old friends she's reconnecting with to help them find some other place to stay? Does she ask her mother, who lives in the area, but further from the school, to help them out? No. She makes it pretty clear this is her husband's problem to solve, and if he loves her, he'd better get on it.

When he's upset by her obvious dismay, does he Assume Love and see it's just the best she can do in the face of his bossy but timid mother and his angry father? Does he suggest they try to find a Third Alternative together? No, he takes off with their car for a make-believe sales job requiring he be on the road. When he stops to buy her a lingerie gift out of guilt, he ends up in a motel room with the sales clerk. When this makes him feel even more guilty, he hurries home, only to find she's with her old flame, his long-ago rival.

By now, I should not have been surprised neither of them could Assume Love and at least try to explain how a loving spouse could turn to someone else for comfort during a crisis like this. Instead, both seemed to leap to the conclusion everything they knew and loved about the other at the start of the movie had all been fake and what they saw now was the real Jake or Ellen. She leaves. He stays.

In the end, they come back together again, but it takes an incredible plot twist to get them there. In real life, they would have been on their way to divorce, even worse financial stresses for them and their kids, and perhaps, for him, a lifetime of replaying an unhappy childhood role.

If they told their stories later, anyone would have believed there was nothing else they could have done in such a stressful situation except divorce. But just maybe, if either of them would just Assume Love and try to explain their spouse's behavior as if it's possible the love and the admirable qualities seen as they packed their car were still there, they could have found their strength in each other and created a very different ending for this tale without all that dying and revelation of past crimes.

We're into another period with the possibility of severe financial stresses for lots of us. If it forces you and your loved ones into a really rotten situation, try to remember to Assume Love. And try to remember to draw on each others' strengths and love, instead of pretending they never really existed.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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