Tuesday, August 6, 2013

60 Years of Marriage

On Thursday, August 1, 2013, my parents celebrated 60 years of marriage.  I don't pretend to know all that has passed between them in those years.  One can never truly know the depth and breadth of a marriage from the outside, even as a child of the couple.  But as a witness to 50 years of their lives together, I will share my observations in the hope that the lessons I've learned from Mom and Dad will strengthen others in their vocation as married people, as those lessons have strengthened my marriage.

First I should tell you that my husband really loves my parents.  Both of his parents are deceased.  But I have the feeling that he is in many ways closer to my parents than he ever was to his own.  His parents divorced when he was very young.  That divorce colored his young life in dark shades.  There was one thing we agreed when we were married, the d-word, that is divorce, was not allowed to be said between us. 

The wonderful Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, once said, "Marriage is a long business, and there is no getting out of it for our kind of people."  When she said that line, I thought I was hearing my parents.  In  a culture that so disparages marriage that we cannot seem to make half of them stick, and we have to accept any sexual arrangement of adults as the equivalent of marriage, my parents appear in my minds eye as icons of what marriage really is.

I'm not canonizing them by saying this.  There were some arguments between them that were really quite frightening to us as children.  It was the 70's, and families were falling apart all around them.  But difficult as it was, they stuck it out.  As I look back on those times, and my own experiences, I realize now that I have frequently heard divorced couples say that they were surprised by the dissolution of their marriage.  They never fought or argued.  Maybe a good fight would have saved the marriage.  In order to have a real fight, you have to have something worth fighting for.

Another key to the longevity of their marriage was that they had an efficient separation of duties.  Mom ran the house and Dad was the provider and adviser.  Running a household with 12 children and remaining sane is a monumental task.  My Mom could put the fear of God in us if we slacked off in our studies or in our daily chores.  I am constantly amazed by the memory of how clean and orderly our home was.  I could tell tales of long Saturdays I spent ironing pleats into uniform skirts, or Sunday mornings making what seemed like an endless array of bacon and pancakes, but the minutia only serves to make real what was intangible but deeply felt.  We were well fed, well clothed, well educated and well loved.  Our participation in the duties of our home was an extension of Mom's love for us.

Dinner was always at 6:00 sharp.  Dad would call if he was going to be later than 5:30.  Upon arriving home, he and Mom would each have a glass of wine, and go into their bedroom so that Dad could change out of his suit into more casual attire, and they could talk about their days.  The door was shut.  This conversation was not to be disturbed.  Once a week they would dress up for each other and go out to dinner.  Dad took care of Mom with these outings.  It was a break and a release for both of them.

Over the dinner table, we would talk as a family about current events or what we were learning in school.  I remember my eldest brother Tom taking a psychology class at Creighton Prep, and Dad correcting any misinterpretations of Freud, Jung, or Skinner that Tom brought home.  Dad was a practicing psychiatrist until January of this year.  He loves teaching us, and loved teaching the young residents who followed him on his rounds.  He recently received the American Psychiatric Association's Teacher of the Year Award.  That accolade stands as a much appreciated achievement of his 56 years of practice.  I loved to get up early to make coffee and eggs for my Dad before he left for work in the morning.  Service to others was an essential lesson of our home.

Finally, during the 70's and 80's it was common for parents to stop 'forcing' their children to go to Mass with them.  That never happened in our home.  We were up like clockwork, taking turns in the bathrooms and dressing in our best clothes.  Ties and belts were required for the boys.  Never was a tennis shoe allowed.  Girls wore dresses with stockings, shoulders covered at all times.  We sat down to a large brunch after Sunday Mass, and television was not allowed unless we watched something as a family.  Mom made sure the laundry was done on Saturday, because those machines were not to be used on a Sunday.

So there you have it.  The outline of how to reach 60 years of marriage as I have observed it through my parents.  Duty to God and family is first.  Love each other, and express that love in the ways you serve each other.  Arguments and fights are a part of life.  If it's worth having, it is worth fighting for.  Be consistent in your behavior because routines are the mortar that connect the bricks of family life.  Marriage truly is a long business.  But the fruits of the labor are many and wonderful.

By the way, the picture is of my husband, Doug, and I. 
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