Committing to the Way

If my parents had stayed married, today would have been their 67th wedding anniversary.

Back in 1990, when my father decided to call it quits on his marriage of 42 years, he also put a hard stop to any further celebration of anniversaries. For a number of years after he left, I would bring my mother a single red rose on May 22, just to let her know that I remembered, that I cared, that I grieved with her for the milestones they would not celebrate together.

On May 22, 1998, on what would have been their 50th anniversary, she accepted the rose, gave me a hug, and said, “Let’s stop remembering this day."

Obviously, that’s easier said than done, because here I am, still remembering it. 

Today, she and I went out shopping as we do a couple of times every week. She likes to go out to one of the “big box” stores like Target or Meijers, stores where she can walk around in a safe environment and pick up some items she needs or wants. It is de rigueur that she have a shopping cart to use for balance and support while walking, so our shopping expeditions are limited to stores that have these carts. I know -  she needs to use a walker, but she is adamantly against them.

“Why don’t they have something like a shopping basket for old people to use when they walk?” she asked me not long ago.

“But MOM,” I said, trying not sound like an exasperated 13-year old, “they do! It’s called a WALKER.” 

“Oh, those things,” she replied dismissively. “I’m not going to use one of THOSE!"

So. Target and Meijer’s it is. And Kohl’s! Thank you Kohl’s for having shopping carts.

Anyway, today neither one of us mentioned The Anniversary. We haven’t mentioned it in years, and although I’m quite sure she’s as aware of the date as I am, she never brings it up. We’ve simply decided “not to remember it” any longer. And so we don’t.

On my mantel I have three wedding pictures: One of my husband and myself, another of my son and daughter-in-law, and the third a sepia toned photo of my parents on their wedding day. My mother has dark, wavy hair that lies gracefully across her shoulder. She wears a brightly printed dress (no big wedding for these two - my dad had only $90 to his name on their wedding day, so they were married in the minister’s living room.) My dad is dark and exotic looking, with his olive skin tone, deep set eyes, and black hair. My mother looks directly into the camera lens in that photo, and she looks deeply sure of herself, relaxed, and happy.

But my dad is looking slightly off to the right, as if he’s not quite committed to the whole thing. I look at that photo a lot, and I wonder - was he a little bit unsure, even then, this handsome, dark eyed 20 year old, fresh off the boat from the Pacific Theater in WWII. Was he even then thinking about what might otherwise have been?

The poet Wendell Berry says this about Marriage: “Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you  - and marriage, time, life, history, and the world - will take it. You do not know the road; you have only committed your life to a Way."

My parents committed themselves to a Way, back on May 22, 1948. The “Way” in that time was so much different from the “Way” it is now. People got married and it was expected they would STAY married. There was no trial period, no “shacking up” ahead of time to see how things went. Couples often married young (my parents were 20 and 21) because marriage was the only acceptable way for a young man and woman to co-habitate in those days. 

For my parents, the Way seemed clear cut and straightforward. They were, for the most part, happy couple. They each had their prescribed roles, they fulfilled them to the best of their abilities. They were the quintessential “Baby Boomers”: my Dad owned a small successful small business, my Mother kept a nice home, they had a smart, well-behaved, pretty daughter, a nice home in suburbs, and a new car every couple of years. 

The proverbial ALL - at least as far as the requirements of the 1960’s and 1970’s went.

Still, something was missing - the “something” that pushed my 60 year old Father into the arms of another woman almost 20 years his junior. I can speculate: He married too young in the first place; he didn’t get to sow enough wild oats; my mother was too “tame” for him; he wanted a more glamorous lifestyle. His life must have been a disappointment to him - and of course I have included myself in the list of things that must have fallen short on his list of accomplishments. I have often felt myself to be lacking in some important something that would impel my father to keep the family intact. 

Then I come back to those words of Wendell Berry’s: What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you  - and marriage, time, life, history, and the world - will take it. You do not know the road; you have only committed your life to a Way."

I’m not an athlete, but these words make me think of marriage as something like a Marathon race. Once you’ve committed yourself, once you’ve signed up for it, laced up your shoes, slapped your number on your chest, and bellied up to the starting line, you’re committed  to The Way: to the course, the track, the lane - whatever stretches out in front of you. You put one foot in front of the other, you huff and puff, get red in the face, you spurt and sputter. You keep pounding the pavement.

And when you break the ribbon at the finish line, whether you are first or one hundred and first, you rejoice because you made it. You may be exhausted and breathless, but you’re there all the same. 

When I was growing up, my parents seemed to have the perfect marriage. My Dad was always warm, loving, kind, and thoughtful toward my mother and me. Nevertheless, something inside him was deeply enough hurt that he was able to forsake his commitment to the way of marriage and family. 

Even after all this time, I still wish he could have stayed the course and finished the race he started 67 years ago today.