They met at a party circa 1960, she a shy country girl in her first year of nursing school in the big city, he a college boy who had lived nearly all his life in that city. Her nervous giggle that was immediately followed by an apologetic “oh shoot” captured his attention. He was charming and handsome. She was sweet and pretty. Neither of them had ever seriously dated anyone else and once they met, they never would.
The first picture taken of them together, summer of 1960.
He was the eldest son of a Norwegian ship’s officer and a school teacher. She was the eldest daughter of a farmer and a homemaker. She was staunchly Catholic. He was uncommitted. She had decided to become a nurse so she would at least have a career because she was certain she would never marry. But then one night she had a dream, and a voice told her, “you will marry a man named Joseph.” This handsome young man at the party who gave her and all her friends a ride back to their dormitory in his mother’s station wagon was not named Joseph. But two years later, when he converted to Catholicism so they could be married in her church, he chose Joseph as his baptismal name. She didn’t learn this until after they were wed. Not that it matters what his (or her) given name is; they have called each other by several endearing pet names almost from the very start, and refer to each other by their actual names only when talking to strangers.
They married in a cathedral, drove away on their honeymoon in the little blue Chevy Nova her parents gave them as a wedding present, and began their life together, both barely out of their teens and green as grass. They lived in that same big city for a short time, long enough for the first baby to be born, a tow-headed, busy boy who loved to get into mischief. They moved to another state so he could go to graduate school in preparation to become a teacher. Along came the second baby, a tow-headed girl who quietly followed her big brother everywhere he went. Graduate school would have to wait; with two babies to feed, it was time to go to work. They moved again to a small town far from both their families, bought a big old house, and set to work raising their own little family. He taught chemistry at the local college. She took care of home and kids. Eventually the third baby came along, a charming little redheaded girl, and the family was complete.
The social turbulence of the ’60s, the hedonism of the ’70s, and the conspicuous consumption of the ’80s passed them by completely as they focused on work, church, home, family, friends, and building a solid, quiet life together. He returned to graduate school on summer breaks and one sabbatical to complete a master’s and a Ph.D., and his career at the college progressed right on track. She worked briefly as a nurse, but soon turned her full attention to raising her kids (for which she found that a nursing career was excellent preparation). She kept busy, too, with all kinds of art classes, moving from ceramic painting to tole painting to oil painting to watercolors while pausing along the way to learn belly dancing, macramé and acoustic guitar. She always had an art project going. She sewed her kids’ clothes, cut their hair in the kitchen, and baked them healthy cookies with carob chips and sunflower seeds that they failed utterly to appreciate.
Their kids grew up, not without many bumps and tears, all attending the same schools, for the most part, and always coming home to that same big old house and those same two parents. A home-cooked supper was served at 6 or 6:30 every night almost without exception, everyone at the table with their hands washed, say grace, converse politely, ask to be excused. Not a lot of extra during those years, but always enough of everything that was needed–food, clothing, school supplies, health care, discipline, support, love. They modeled stability, fidelity and integrity in everything they did.
The Nova eventually was gifted to the oldest son and a used Volvo took its place, which went with the eldest daughter to college, then another used Volvo that went with the youngest daughter to college, which is when they finally bought their first new car together after 30 years of marriage. There were health scares for both of them over the years, some very serious indeed. They pulled together and got through, stronger than before. Friends came and went as the couples they knew divorced or moved away and others took their place. They paid off the mortgage on that big old house the old-fashioned way: one month at a time for 30 years. He tried again and again to retire from teaching, always managing somehow to get called back for one more semester. The kids graduated college and moved away. They said goodbye to their parents, one by one–first her dad, then his dad, then his mom, then her mom. They welcomed grandchildren. They got their first dog, which was the light of their lives for many years. They have another dog now, which they say is really their favorite child.
My parents, circa 1989–thirty years older but just as cute. My eyes are green like his and turn into crescents when I smile, like hers.
And today, my parents celebrate 50 years of this love, this marriage, this family, this golden circle of commitment to each other and to their life together. They still enjoy each other’s company, still laugh together, still hold hands when they walk together, still approach life as a team and always have each other’s back. Where you find one, you will always find the other nearby.
From the time I was very young, I always thought/hoped/dreamed/assumed that this was how it went when people grew up: I would meet someone and fall in love, and that first love would be my only love all my life. The relationship would progress smoothly from meeting to dating to engagement to marriage and last until death. It was the natural order. That was how it was going to be for me, too, I was sure of it. (Of course it wasn’t.) I have always envied my parents for never having suffered a broken heart from being left by a lover. They both have always said that they never doubted, from their very first date, that they were meant to be together all their lives. And every day since, they have made the choices and kept the promises and done the work to make that possible. In my eyes, there is no greater achievement.
I have only one friend whose parents have been married 50 years. My parents know at least four couples who have been, one of which is closing in on 70 years together. I don’t know what the latest statistics are, but a quick internet search suggests that about 5% of all married couples can expect to celebrate their Golden Anniversary. One in 20. Those are long odds simply to stay with one person that long, let alone to stay happy with one person for that long.
Happy anniversary, mom and dad. Thanks for everything you have given us, particularly your example of how to be happily married. I love you both.
Chance cannot change love, nor time impair.
Love is more than a feeling. It is a decision,
a commitment to care forever.
~ Unknown (inspired by Robert Browning)