Once upon a marriage


A glimpse inside close friends’ marriage stirs in me a desire to tell the world about it, and they agreed, under the condition of anonymity. Maybe their story will mean something to another couple struggling with life, then again, maybe not. See what you think.

He was the first guy she met in college that she didn’t try to impress. For one thing, he was all but engaged and, for another, she was painfully aware that her plain features were not enhanced by chlorine-soaked hair and an old sweatshirt, so why waste the effort?

Maybe this unstrained relationship proved the climate for romance to bloom. Or maybe it was the differences between them that first sparked the interest that led to love.

He was an “older” man, all of 23, whose four years in the Air Force had put the finish on a self-reliance which was well-rooted in a somewhat unsupervised childhood.

She was 18 and virginal in both the traditional sense and in her social inexperience, the result of a religious rural home.

He was profane and irreverent, she articulate and impressionable. He smoked and drank the occasional beer. She had never tasted table wine until she was a guest in his parents’ home.

He appreciated music but could not hum a tune. Her mastery of the piano enchanted him. She was baffled by any mechanical project more complex than changing a light bulb, and watched, awestruck, as he repaired pocket watches and elderly Studebakers with ease.

His engagement fizzled and the two began to date. She couldn’t believe it when the thin young man with James Dean cheekbones and far-away blue eyes told her he was falling in love with her. He was taken aback when she told him she had never been in love and would not say, “I love you, too,” until she was sure.

Two weeks later she was sure, and in less than a year, they were married. Neither family really approved. His mother thought the bride too “country” for her son, and her father regarded the groom as unstable.

But they gave their blessing and early one Spring Sunday, a Scottish Presbyterian minister supervised the exchange of plain gold rings.

I wish I could say, “and they lived happy ever after,” but this is a true story. In the young, emotions run deep, and their ardor for each other was sometimes matched by their anger with each other as selfishness warred with selflessness. She told me one day that she wept for fear that 50 years would not be long enough to love him, and the next day wondered how she could have tied herself to such an insensitive beast.

The years do funny things to people, and in the process of growing together they may also grow apart. Eventually both became deeply committed to their church and to their responsibility to their children. They shared their delight in classical music, nature, good books, and complement each other’s do-it-yourself skills, evident in the old Dutch  Colonial they restored.

But when the children were grown she channeled her time and energy into public service. Always outgoing and trusting, she involved herself with people and their needs. And he was torn between pride and possessiveness.

She could not understand why he felt no obligation to serve his community, or how he could spend whole days lurching from one side of a lake to the other in a sailboat. He found fault with her friends, she found fault with his elusiveness. The fights became less frequent but more corrosive, and it occurred to them both that they had known marriages to sink on less provocation.

I said this is a true story, and it is, a story of a marriage which is alive. Living things are capable of change, growth, and adaptability. Like a tree which eventually overcomes a barbed wire fence, scarring over early wounds and incorporating the damage into its very substance, a living relationship can absorb injuries and grow stronger beyond them. The will to survive will find a way.

Compromises have been struck and each has finally learned to accept the other as they are. He’ll never join her in building a better world. And she’ll never meet him at the door with a steaming fragrant apple pie. But they have found joy in seeing each other become the man and woman they were meant to be: independent, respected, enjoying life on their own terms, defining success as satisfaction rather than as wealth.

It’s too soon to say how their story ends, ’way too soon, I hope, but they are nearer to being each others’ best friends. Until then, he is her husband, she is his wife. Their plain gold bands have been scratched and worn by joy and sorrow. They shine with a deeper luster than when they were slipped into place on a blustery March afternoon, 56 years ago next week.