If I remember the story correctly, my parents met many years ago during a hayride. Mom was on a date with this guy named Klaus and her friend was on a date with a handsome young man named Don. My mom took one look at Don’s pale blue eyes and wholesome, farm boy face and fell in love. By the end of the hayride, my mom was with Don (now Dad) and her friend was with Klaus. Both couples eventually married.
It’s a sweet story, right?
Mom tells me that the crazy, lusty, I-can’t-get-enough-of-you infatuation lasted a mere six months. After that the true work of marriage began. She and Dad skated through many years as many couples do, not feeling exceptionally happy with each other, but also not questioning things very deeply. After all, there was one baby, then two, and then three. With the children came fish and two birds as well as gerbils, a hermit crab and various poodles. Other than the year he forgot her birthday, Dad rarely gave mom a concrete reason to rant. He provided for his family. He came home from work every day around 5. He played with and read to his children. He built impressive pine wood derby cars, and tossed a football or tennis ball to us as long as we wanted. He even did things that many other fathers didn’t do in the 1970s, such as bake holiday cookies, make ice cream from scratch, whip up a mean batch of homemade eggnog on New Year’s Eve, jarred his own pickles, and grew the Swiss chard that my mother loved in his backyard garden. He was also handy. His childhood on the farm had taught him to be both frugal and self reliant. He tuned up the family car, built a deck for the house, and once even famously relocated a rather large beehive.
I remember those early years of my childhood fondly. Sure there were moments that I wished my brothers would disappear, and there were probably hard times when money was tight and so was marital good will. Yet, what I mostly remember are the times we all gathered in the family room, munched on popcorn and watched slideshows together. Mom took us on nature walks, and she taught us and every kid in the neighborhood how to paint. The arts were always encouraged, and, despite the tight family budget, there were trips into New York City to see Annie, Cats and other shows. There was the time one of the parakeets escaped and we all walked through the woods behind the house, calling, “Fonzie! Foooonzie!” (Yes, the bird was named after the Happy Days character). There were also countless road trips up and down and across the country. At each new location, we kids and Mom sat on the car’s back bumper as we timed Dad to see how fast he could set up a huge family tent all by himself.
To my child’s eyes, we seemed a perfect family, but, beneath those seemingly perfect scenes, was discontent. Dad felt out of his element at work, like “a square peg in a round hole,” as he put it. Mom felt similarly at home. He blamed his unhappiness on his job. She blamed hers on him. By the time I was in seventh grade, they fought so loudly that I was sure the entire neighborhood knew about their problems. Little did I know that most of the parents on the block were just as unhappily married as my own.
Every time they fought, I worried that my dad would get fed up with my mother’s demands and just leave—never to return. Though my mother was the one who seemed more unhappy, I somehow knew that she was there to stay. As a result, I took all of my fears out on her in the form of massive teenage angst. I wish I’d known then what I know now: Dad had no more inclination to leave than she did. He had no hobbies, nor any friends. His family was his life. And he was also a problem solver. He would no more abandon his problematic marriage than he would an issue that came up on the job. Solving problems was what made him tick.
Those bad years are now more than a quarter century behind them, and their 50th anniversary is less than a year away. My parents are closer now than they’ve ever been. Interestingly, at some point over the years, they swapped roles. Mom still works. Dad is retired and does all the cooking, a task he seems to enjoy. Sure, I suppose they tangle every now and then, but mostly they seem grateful to have one another. Mom says that she’s made a pact with Dad. She’s going to die first. That way she won’t have to learn how to live without him.
They are an inspiration for me, and, I believe, for you as well. That’s why I asked them, “What do you know now that you wish you knew then?” My mother told me that she wishes she’d known that neither passion nor attraction guaranteed a happy union. “What saw us through the bad years, those years of middle age, was my realization that a loving relationship had more to do with support, encouragement, and attention than it had to do with sexual attraction. It’s not that lovemaking was not important, but that insane feeling we call being in love is just that: a short, insane feeling. Through the struggle years, we both learned about ourselves, what we enjoyed, what challenged us, and how we could encourage and support what each of us found important. I now know the difference between being in love and loving. I learned to love your dad. That is far more powerful and sustaining than being in love with him.”
When I posed the same question to dad, he said, “I don’t know.” He tends to be a man of few words, so I thought that was going to be the end of it. Then he pondered for a while, took a deep breath, and said, “We’ve both changed in, I hope, a good way.” During those fighting years, he said, “I was very invested in defending myself when she criticized me. That no longer seems necessary. Part of the reason for my defensiveness was my own low self esteem. I was not happy at my job during those years. I was in a position where I was supposed to be an idea person, but I was not an idea person. I eventually concluded that, no matter where I went, I was going to have to take myself along. I could change my job, but I would have to change my self, too.” Dad eventually did change jobs, but he also realized that he was gifted at improving how a process worked. He didn’t give up until he solved a complex issue or problem. That realization led to more self confidence which, in turn, reduced his defensiveness.
When I talk to older couples, many of them tell me similar tales. They often have faced a streak of bad years of their own. Maybe one of them got sick. Or perhaps one of their kids was problematic. The reasons vary. Those who persist, though, tend to come to the same conclusion that my parents have come to: you can grow closer with each passing year as long as you remain respectful of one another’s ideas, habits and interests and grow as much individually as you grow together.
Please join me in wishing them a happy anniversary.