Fifty years ago tomorrow, two scared 20-somethings gathered with family and friends in a cathedral-esque church on the south side of Milwaukee to pledge their lives to one another. Her father thought the man wasn’t good enough for his daughter. His father thought the woman was far too strident and interested in a career to be a good wife.
Nobody, least of all these two kids, knew if they’d make it, if they’d be OK.
Still, there they were in front of a three story slab of pink and white marble with a giant crucifix, saying they would live together in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death shall they part. When they emerged onto a set of concrete stairs that led to East Plankinton Avenue and slipped into a borrowed 1965 Plymouth Roadrunner, they were on the way to the rest of their lives.
Husband and wife.
Mr. and Mrs.
A married couple.
The fact that my mom and dad remain married and relatively happy often amazes me, given that almost everyone I knew as a kid had divorced or miserable parental units. When they fought or yelled, I never once thought, “Wow, this is the end.” Things would calm down, peace with honor would emerge and life would move on.
When I considered marriage, I asked them how they made it work. “What keeps you together, even when things are bad or when you are really pissed?” I would ask. Neither of them could really put a finger on it, so I kind of “observed a lot by watching,” to quote the late Yogi Berra.
Here’s what I figure makes them tick:
See the problem, fix the problem: My parents had a very “work the problem” approach to life when it came to the day-in, day-out stuff that confronts married people. When they realized they were often broke early in their marriage, the looked at where the money went. Granted, there wasn’t a lot to go around, but they were able to find a couple things that ate into their budget. On Sundays, they’d get the newspaper, look through the circulars and go to the store to buy “a bargain.” Turned out, they tended to not need the stuff they bought and it cut into other things they did need, so they stopped going to the store. The same thing was true for groceries, linens and other things. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it just because you think you should.
Commit to it: Promises and commitments ran deep in our household. Dad loves to tell the story about how he and Mom would make envelopes for all the monthly expenses and put their pay into those envelopes. Whatever was left over was for fun, and usually that wasn’t much. Still, they found a process that worked for keeping the lights on and the rent paid, so they committed to it.
They also stuck to the commitments regardless of if they were positive or negative. When they said, “We’re doing X,” I knew we were doing it. That’s how I ended up getting to see my first Brewers game, even though it was on a Friday night, in the heat of a pennant race and on bat day. It was the worst game to attend for traffic, crowds and generally everything else my dad hated. Still, he committed to it. Same was true with punishments. When I got caught for speeding, he and Mom agreed I lost car privileges for a month. That meant he had to drive me to and from after-school commitments and I had to take the bus to school, which cut into other plans. It sucked as much for them as it did for me (or at least sort of), but they stuck with it because they said so.
Have a united front: Agreement wasn’t always the first word that came to mind when it came to my parents. They argue about half of everything, from what we should do for dinner to who was the lady who ran the corner store on Packard Avenue in the 1950s. However, when they had to make a decision about something important, they never threw one another under the bus. This made life difficult for me as a child, since you couldn’t play Mom off of Dad. Whenever I screwed up badly enough that life and limb became a potential punishment, they would send me to my room and talk things over. When they figured out what they were going to do to me, they both came and told me. Together. At the same time. No bullshit.
No grudges: Even with the arguments, I never saw them hold a grudge. Whatever arguments happened before bed were settled before the kiss goodnight. In the morning, life moved on. I imagine that over 50 years of marriage, there could be plenty of the “Y’know in 1978, that thing you did REALLY pissed me off” conversations that could emerge on any given day. They never did. It was, “OK, what’s next?”
Laugh: Humor, even some truly crude stuff, always flowed through the house. If Dad wasn’t telling a bad joke, he was telling a weird story. Mom always found humor in the dumb things her students did that day and loved to share with the family. I spent my allowance on joke books, trying to find the one joke that neither of them had heard before but would still make them laugh.
In some of our darkest hours, humor became the thing that kept us going. I remember when Dad’s mom died, something that hit us out of the blue. We never saw it coming. It was the first time I ever saw my father really cry. I wondered if he would ever snap back from this or if his whole sense of being would merely crumble away. The funeral home was a hatchet-job of a place that charged him in advance for everything, going so far as to interrupt the visitation to tell my dad his credit card wasn’t going through. They charged him time and a half for everything done on Saturday as well. We drove in silence from the funeral home to the cemetery, passing by the very spot along the road where my grandmother would be interred. Dad looked over past me, out my window and took a deep breath. I was waiting for him to come up with some deep, dark sense of mortality and love. Instead, he muttered, “They better’ve dug that fucking hole already if they’re charging me time and a half for it.”
After that, I knew he’d be OK.
Saturday marks 50 years of marriage for two of the most incredible people I know. They always knew to talk and to listen to one another, even if they didn’t fully understand or agree. However, when it came to a vow renewal, they both saw this as something to behold.
Thus, they will once again be in that church, standing in front of that giant slab of marble, pledging their love to one another. They will be surrounded by the family and friends who remain, telling each other and anyone who will listen that they will stay together, through good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do they part.
One thing that is different now, however, is they already know they’re going to be just fine.