“Love unlocks doors and open windows that weren’t even there before.” Mignon McLaughlin
We celebrated our fifty first wedding anniversary this week with a long walk on Sachuest Point and a stylish feast at one of our favorite restaurants, West Main Pizza. Our friend, Father Joe McKenna, who lives in Portland, Maine, sent a story a couple of months ago about an Irish couple from Rumford who celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Because this milestone is reached far less frequently than with earlier generations, the local paper sent a stringer to do a Saturday feature story on the event. The reporter thought that it might work best if she softened the interview with the husband with some easy questions to start. “What did you do to celebrate your twenty fifth anniversary?” she asked. “Well,” said the earnest gentleman, “I took her to Dublin.” “Wow,” said the reporter, “how are you going to top that? What are you going to do for your fiftieth?” “I’m going to pick her up,” said he.
I’m not suggesting that to live fifty years together requires a twenty-five-year respite. On past anniversaries, I have posted about my beautiful wife[i]. This time, I’ll write a bit about our relationship, and what I’ve learned along the way. As with all shared loves, while different in the specifics, the topography is common in most long-term marriages. We enjoy quiet times and talks together and many of the same activities: walks or bike rides on pretty trails, reading and discussing each other’s current books and articles, going to new places and revisiting old ones. Our entertainment needs are for the most part simple and modest, our favorites are free or inexpensive. A visit to a park, a beach, a museum or a library delights us both. A warm, welcoming, modest home with a good roof, a woodstove and working plumbing is fine with us. We laugh and hug. A lot.
Our biggest extravagance is travel occasionally and live theater. We like pub food and short order cooks at funky breakfast places. We like the same people almost invariably. Our shared faith is central to our daily lives. The four children we conceived in love and raised together, along with the five grandchildren (so far) are, after our faith and our marriage, our most precious gifts. Reading and learning new things are important to us; each of us finishes at least two or three books a month, many times more than that. History, faith, philosophy, politics, art, humanities, biographies and cultural trends among our favorite topics. We enjoy the same kind of music, albeit eclectic, classical concert music, Italian opera, bluegrass, jazz, occasionally some country and old-time rock and roll. From Bob Dylan, Willy Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson and Nitty Gritty Dirtband to Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Verdi, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Little Richard to Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Art Pepper.
Friday, Rita went over to Pete and Angela’s to help get the kids together early to go to their co-op parent/children’s group with Angela. Afterwards, we went together to the Portsmouth Transfer Center (i.e. the dump) in our 2008 Tundra (Rita loves to go to the dump with me in the truck), then to pick up a piece of milled granite for a hearthstone for a woodstove, next to Home Depot, and a cup of coffee at our favorite local café, Anna D’s. Came home, built the mantle for the woodstove hearth with about twenty bucks worth of pine. Went for a walk past Escobar’s Farm near our house towards sunset. Too tired to go to the gym, we read for a while (“Seven Story Mountain” for Rita, “Federalist Papers” for me) and fell asleep early. It was a perfect day.
We wake up almost every morning full of gratitude.
“When you marry, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory.” Frederick Nietzsche
Two overriding understandings from experience. The first is that you will not always like each other, especially sometime in the first ten years. You will see and have seen each other at your most self-sacrificing, courageous, decisive, persevering, loving and generous moments. You will also see each other when you are most petty, vain, irresolute, cowardly, defeatist and selfish. Dating and marriage, short term romance and marriage are very different things. No hiding the ignoble and short temper after a major setback at work, or sleepless nights with a sick child. Get over it. It will pass, and a deeper, lasting love will re-form when you can push past the ephemeral worries. The troubles (a dying fire, malaise, financial strain, a wandering eye, seemingly intolerable quirks you didn’t sign on for) may seem insurmountable; they are not. On the other side of this creaky, narrow bridge is solid ground again. Press on, ask and give forgiveness freely and retake the solid ground.
The second, and perhaps the caution hardest to internalize is that during those inevitable difficulties, and indeed for the rest of our lives, realize this: the most heroic challenge we will face is in the mirror. The shortcomings of any relationship start with me, and because they are my own, they will reappear at some point in any new relationship, especially one that seems so effortless in the beginning, sure to be the balm to heal the wounds and it urges us to abandon the original commitment and promises. But we will always return eventually to the cracks in the mirror. From this self inflicted heartbreak we cannot escape; there is a perfectly good reason.
In each human person, at our core, there is a “seed of eternity,” a tiny hole that will rip open at some point, however expertly and firmly we try to glue the elegant wallpaper over it. A long topic for another time, and eventually a spiritual discussion, but for this post, just this: All of us, starting young when we let our minds drift to it, and certainly older out of necessity, will acknowledge our unavoidable end. Our mortality lurks, and there is no escape. Oblivion or something else, we all look over the edge into the stormy waters and see what the theologian Karl Barth called “das Nichtage, the nothing, that which stands opposed to God’s creative intentions, difficulties both interior and exterior, difficulties physical, psychological, and spiritual.”[ii]
That we must confront, and about the “nothing” we will spend a lifetime gaining wisdom. No gym or medicine will thwart its inexorable pull. No relationship, even the best of marriages can fill all the gaps, smooth all the wrinkles, calm all the storms. For that, more is needed, infinitely more, and if we put that whole burden on the person whom we trust and love most, and who most trusts and loves us, it will break things, especially those fragile things at our center.
“A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” Andre Maurois
[i] Last year: Half Way to a Century and another anniversary before that: Anniversary Waltz
[ii] From one of Bishop Robert Barron’s daily meditations.