45 years of marriage and counting

“Marriage, is what brings us together today… that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream…”
– The Impressive Clergyman, The Princess Bride

The main aisle at St. Fred’s church in Cudahy is a long one, paved with glossy stone that echoes with footsteps in the quiet of day. Row after row of pews, adorned with clips for men’s hats and wood rails worn by the clasped hands of prayer, separate the narthex from the altar.

The few narrow windows begin almost a story in the air, with little in the way of natural light seeping in at the ground level.

A giant slab of pink and white marble, which vaguely resembles a large piece of uncooked bacon, hovers over the front of the church. It hosts a magnificent cross, adorned with a white stone carving of Christ. Atop the crucifix sits a small symbolic scene of two stags drinking blood from the bottom of a smaller cross, a referent to a long-forgotten passage of the Bible.

In this cavernous testament to God and faith, less than five years after the Second Vatican Council allowed for the use of an English-based mass, a pair of young 20-somethings joined hands and exchanged simple silver rings.

A four or five second utterance of “I do” that led to a 45-year expression of love.

June 17, 1967 was the day China successfully tested an atomic bomb, the Tigers and A’s played the longest double header in baseball history and my parents decided it was worthwhile to spend the rest of their lives together.

“When a match has equal partners, then I fear not.
– Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

He was the first of three children born to a second-generation factory worker who believed a woman’s place was at home and she best be seen and not heard.

She was the son of a police officer who believed her sole goal in life should be to marry a man who would take care of her.

His father thought she talked too much for a woman.

Her father thought he wasn’t good enough for his little girl.

And yet…

They attended the same Catholic high school that no longer exists in Downtown Milwaukee, riding the bus at least an hour each way for the privilege.

They worked together at Dutchland Dairy, a small restaurant and soda shop that no longer exists, flipping burgers, serving tables and avoiding Chet, the handsy manager who drank too much.

They dated between Dad’s second job at a pool hall that no longer exists and Mom’s watchful parents who have long since divorced.

And yet…

Two years before they would wed, my father was headed for the service. Vietnam had yet to reach its height, so it was still possible to volunteer for something instead of being drafted for something worse.

Having never been on an airplane before, Dad chose the Air Force Reserves.

Shortly before he was shipped south to begin basic training, he wrote Mom a “Dear John letter.”

He figured it was only fair to let her go.

She figured her heart would never mend.

That letter came up at least once a month every year since he wrote it.

He never forgot it.

She made damned sure of that.

And yet…

Somehow, she found her way to the front of that church, where he was waiting for her and they emerged an hour later on the way to a new life.

“Marriage has some thorns, but celibacy has no roses.”
– Vernon K. McLelland, Wise Words and Quotes

The best explanation I can offer about my parents is that they have a “bend but don’t break” defense in their marriage.

People assume that being married this long means they never yell or fight or mutter under their breath.

They assume that they are always in sync and that they always listen.

The line about what happens when you assume is true in this case.

The story I remember most about their early life together was when Dad taught Mom how to drive.

When she was a kid, her father tried to teach her. She ended up plowing the car into a tree.

Thus, by the age of 25, she still remained license-free and an avid bus rider.

Dad and Mom agreed it was time to figure this out. She sat behind the wheel, he panicked in the passenger seat.

Mom would always tell me that when the yelling got too much for her, she’d pull over, turn the car off hand him the keys and get out of the car.

He would then drive home as they stewed in silence.

Eventually she got it, but he still remains tense about her driving.

This despite the fact that in the 40 years since she got her license, she has yet to get a ticket or cause an accident.

Dad is another story…

My parents still yell and yet I’ve never feared they would fall apart or come to blows.

When they decide to be accommodating to one another, it usually devolves as well, with him saying, “I don’t care what we do! Just pick something dammit!” and her yelling back, “You do care, because I made suggestions and you pooh-poohed them!”

She thinks he has too much “goddamned sports shit.”

He wonders why she needs another “fucking pillowcase” or another “pair of shoes. How many feet does she have for chrissake?”

They fight. They’re terse at times. Still, it’s clear there is love there.

As I’ve heard many a time, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

“Money isn’t everything but it beats the shit out of whatever comes in second,”
– Unknown.

The envelopes.

If I heard it once, I heard it a billion times.

There was an envelope for rent…

There was an envelope for the phone bill…

There was an envelope for the electric bill…

There was an envelope for groceries…

The envelopes were where every paycheck went to die for the first decade they were married.

Mom was finishing school, riding the bus downtown to UWM. She also worked at the Boston Store, bringing in what she could.

Dad was a union laborer at the local factory, a place where his father and his grandfather worked before him.

Money was tight, and that can lead to problems if you let it.

According to a Citibank survey done about a decade ago, 57 percent of divorced couples cited financial reasons as the primary reason they broke up.

The man spent too much at the local gin mill.

The woman couldn’t stay out of the mall.

The odds of being divorced over the time my parents have been married grew from about 1 in 4 to about 1 in 2.

To stay entertained and stay sane early in their marriage, they partnered with other broke couples for card games on Friday night. One couple would bring soda or beer, the other chips or pretzels.

Vacations were spent at the cabin of someone’s parents in the Northwoods, where they would swim and play cards and take walks.

They played softball and bowled on bar-sponsored teams.

She cheered for his teams and he usually managed hers.

They bowled in a couple’s league.

Money was tight, but they were happy.

Eventually, Dad moved up the totem pole and Mom got a teaching gig.

The envelopes faded away.

They bought the house they were renting and then bought another home, renting out the old one.

“I don’t owe anyone a goddamn thing,” my father will often tell me, with a certain bit of defiance and a tinge of pride. “The houses, the cars, we own them all.”

Still, in the recesses of his side of the bedroom, you’ll find cash-stuffed envelopes marked “Card fund” or “Vegas money.”

In the baseball card room, you’ll find envelopes, marked with amounts and sales figures.

The envelopes. Always the envelopes.

“Nothing you ever do for your children is wasted,”
– Garrison Keillor

June in Wisconsin is nothing, if not a ridiculously random month for weather.

“It was cold the day we brought you home,” Mom has often said. “We had to find sweaters for you.”

That wasn’t the biggest problem for my folks that day.

“We got home from the hospital, everybody left and we were alone with you,” she said. “We then looked at each other with this horrified expression and said, ‘OK, so now what do we do with him?'”

In the days before making parents paranoid about their children became a cottage industry, Mom and Dad set out with the hopes of not damaging me too badly.

They succeeded for the most part.

I still have tiny scars on my upper arms from the “rice pimples” I got when they forgot to boil the bottles for my formula.

I never forgot the time I found Dad’s keys and stuck one of them into an electrical outlet.

“You lit up like a Christmas tree,” Dad told me on more than one occasion.

And yet it was a face plant of epic proportion that stays with me to this day.

At age of 2 or so, I was toddling through the house, when I saw something I wanted on the coffee table. I slipped on one of the weekly Sunday fliers and went head-first into the corner of the table, popping a gash in my head just above my eye.

Head wounds bleed like crazy. Kids who are hurt scream like crazy. Mothers who see bleeding, screaming kids freak out like crazy.

She managed to wake my Dad and rush me to the hospital. Four stitches later, my eye was patched up. My head was still swollen to the point that it looked like a purple, pulsating fist.

“I was carrying you out of the hospital and you had just fallen asleep,” Dad recalled recently. “The nurse asked who you were and when I told her, she said, ‘OK, we just forgot to give him his tetanus shot’ and she jammed the needle into you. You woke up, looked at me like I betrayed you and started screaming.”

I still have that scar. Oddly enough, I still have that coffee table as well.

I went to Catholic school where single parents were the exception and not the norm. I never really thought of my parents as different until I got older and realized that fewer and fewer of my friends had married parents.

A lot of holidays at Dad and Jane’s house or Mom and “The Guy with the Harley’s” place for them.

One thing that the solidarity of parents brings is a united front in punishments.

I think I tried to play Mom against Dad once.

It failed like The Bay of Pigs Invasion.

They weren’t always on the same page when it came to how best to deal with me. The year I accidentally gave them the wrong address for a cast party after a play, they were both panicked with fear when they couldn’t find me. When they called the number I thought was the number for the home, a strange woman answered and berated my mother for waking her and not knowing where her own child was.

When we got this figured out, I called the house and told them someone was driving me home.

Dad was pacing in the kitchen, ready to hug me and then kill me. Mom kept trying to get him to go to bed so we could deal with this in the morning.

No dice. I got both barrels from him.

I deserved it. Sort of.

Just another tale in the long line of parenting.

As a kid, I often found one parent sympathizing with me while the other was irritated. When Dad was grumpy, Mom and I commiserated about what the hell was wrong with him. When Mom couldn’t start the car, Dad and I compared notes about her stubborn nature.

Still, there were times when they were both equally irritated with me, an outcome I found galvanizing.

In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card. My parents were appalled and dinner that night was a silent one.

I knew my dad was a lousy student, and I also knew that my grades weren’t as bad as they could have been.

“I don’t get it,” I said, breaking the silence and evoking the glares. “A C isn’t so bad. According to the report card, C is average.”

My father, who yelled on a fairly regular basis, spoke in a slow and measured tone.

“You. Are. NOT. Average.”

The next C I got was in college and that was in the bounce-out course for the Vet Med school.

Hardest C I ever earned and I was STILL afraid to go home with it.

Mom and Dad had softened by that point, realizing I had many fine skills, but understanding math and science weren’t among them.

“Hey, that’s fine,” Dad said, taking it better than I did. “That’s not bad at all. Tough course. You got the Hard C.”

“Yeah,” I said with a bit of sarcasm. “But a C is average. I thought I wasn’t average.”

He just grinned as he went about doing whatever it was he had been doing before my confession of mediocrity.

“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
– Mignon McLaughlin

I spent last night looking through a photo collage I put together when my parents hit their 40th anniversary. It’s funny to see how they looked when they were married. Clean cut, all-American kids.

Now, they look almost identical to that, just a little older.

The photos in between are ridiculous.

Thanks to my mother’s massive discount at the Boston Store, my father owned every ugly shirt and pair of pants the 1970s could provide.

“I was styling back then,” Dad would tell me.

Mom’s trip through those dark days of polyester wasn’t much better.

Apparently ugly was in.

Dad often told a story about dressing up in his best 1970s atrocity and taking Mom out for a night in Vegas.

They went to see a show and the host was ridiculously helpful. He upgraded them from the back of the place to a giant booth up front for free.

While other couples were crammed into small tables, looking for wait staff, my folks got baskets of free rolls, an extra drink or two on the house and the whole nine yards.

Dad didn’t get it until they were getting ready to leave.

“These two broken-nose looking guys in suits caught my eye,” he said. “One of them respectfully gestured to me. They got me all that free stuff. I think they thought I was a hit man. Either that or Sonny Bono…”

The ‘80s photos were the eyesores of Members Only jackets and matching outfits. In one photo, they wore yellow shirts and green pants with sandals.

Both of them. Together. Eeesh.

The other thing they always seemed to wear was a smile. They nestled in with a sense of two becoming one and smiled for the camera.

Dinners, holidays, vacations and more. Always a smile.

Except one. A photo of them under a waterfall taken well into their 50s.

They were sharing a kiss.

“We did not change as we grew older… We just more clearly became ourselves.”
– Lynn Hall

Two weeks ago, we were back at St. Fred’s church. The air conditioning had broken, making the place “hotter than Dutch love” to quote my mother.

The church remained virtually unchanged, except for the name. When the bishop decided to start closing parishes, he also renamed several of them.

We were now in Nativity of the Lord.

Still, it had the same floors, the same windows, the same giant bacon slab at the front of it.

It was the same church my parents attended in grade school.

It was the same church I was baptized in.

It was the same church that hosted our family funerals and memorial services.

It was the same church my mother and my father said “I do” in 45 years ago.

Mom was at the front of the church, serving as the reader. Dad, The Midget and I sweltered in one of the back pews. My mother had worried the Midget might be cold, as the AC often turned this giant hall of worship into a meat locker, so she had me bring a sweater along.

“Christ,” Dad said as we fanned ourselves with the music sheets, “you need a sweater like a hole in the head. Maybe next time, she’ll send you with a parka.”

Mom read. We prayed. The mass mercifully ended after about an hour.

We walked that long aisle to the front of the church, waiting for Mom to come out of the sacristy. Eventually, she emerged.

“Where are we going for dinner?” he asked her.

“I don’t know we could try…” she then listed off several places. “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care, honey, really,” he said in that “pick a goddamned restaurant” voice of his.

This went on for about another two minutes until they eventually agreed on something.

I will have been married for 10 years this September. It went by in a blink. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be married for 45 years.

I don’t look at my parents like they’re some sort of romantic comedy. They aren’t a western either, where the man saddles up, tosses the woman across his lap and rides off into the sunset.

I think they’re much better the way they are.


She is extremely “pro-Women’s Lib,” but refuses to pump her own gasoline…

He loves the map/GPS feature in his Cadillac, but refuses to listen to “lady in the dashboard” when she directs him…

I don’t know how they do it. I think in some cases, they don’t either.

At the age of 20, I was a scared and confused kid, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life…

At the age of 20, my mother was a “Mrs…”

I think we both figured it out as we went.

Not all marriages can last this long. Many actually shouldn’t, given what we know about domestic violence statistics and other marital problems.

However, my folks are a fantastic anomaly.

Something I see every day and yet something that continues to amaze me.

5 thoughts on “45 years of marriage and counting

  1. Best thing I’ve read in a long time. (Yes, I teared up a little).
    Had a long-time marriage myself – 49+yrs. Miss him terribly, and sort of envy those who still have their spouse and don’t realize how good they have it.

  2. Bien dit, Doc. Those marriages are too rare. I’ve been married for 35 years, with pain involved with enjoyment. Still, you get by, and I have a beautiful daughter who, after a six-year college program (way too much partying), and seemingly drifting around, started law school and just graduated magna cum laude.
    So, a toast to your parents…

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