50 years is an arbitrary combination of moments and experiences that are significant because life is short. When I was young life seemed long and endless, a series of lengthy summers connected and lengthened only by the boredom of the school year. At that time in my life 50 years was a concept that didn’t really register. Most of us assume that our lives will be lengthy and special, but life is incredibly brief and most of the time not especially special. Most of the time we plod our way through life occasionally looking up to see what is on the horizon, or looking into the past to see where we have been. If our journey has been a lengthy one we are encouraged to mark it and celebrate our accomplishment. We make a big deal about people working for 40 years in the same job, the Today Show celebrates people who live 100 years, and when people have been married for 50 years we all look on with amazement.
This week my parents celebrate 50 years of marriage.
Observing this marriage from the outside there were times I wondered how these two people ever came together and married. I’m sure this is something most children think because we have no concept of what our parents were like before they met us. We can page through old yearbooks, look at pictures, hear stories, but in the end what we create in our heads is a fictional representation of who our parents were when they were single.
The English poet William Wordsworth wrote of “spots of time.” He described these spots as the moments in our lives when time expands and slows to show us something amazing. Almost all of us experience these moments in life, when the world slows and no longer marches to 4/4 time. These moments eventually mix with other memories and turn into something significant. These spots can sometimes be life-changing events and other times can be the mundane happenings of the everyday that for some reason become more than just a trip to Safeway. In 50 years of marriage my parents have had their spots of time, but I am certain they do not know how significant a few of those moments were for me.
When I was in high school I may not have been the easiest child to parent: I was self-centered, sure I was right about everything, and confident that the world would soon bow down to my every whim. (In other words, a typical American male at the age of 18.) My mother figured she could sand down some of my rough edges and turn me into someone who cared about other people more than myself, it was a foolish endeavor, but one that many mothers attempt to keep their little boys from destroying the world. Her efforts were not appreciated and we spent a good portion of my high school years in a state of cold war (which was appropriate for the time period.) School became a place for me to escape, and I spent as much time away from home as possible.I buried myself in playing basketball, and during the season I would arrive to practice early and stay late not just to work on my game, but to be away from home. One evening our team had a late practice so I left home about an hour early. When I arrived at the gym, no one was there so I got in my parents’ truck and decided to drive around a bit. I won’t go into the dirty details of how I rolled the truck off the overpass because it isn’t important to the story, but let’s just say I was driving too fast and was suffering from a condition called “teenager.” As fate would have it, I caught a ride home with a friend, and left the truck at the bottom of the on-ramp. When I walked into the kitchen the first words out of my mom’s mouth were, “Why aren’t you at practice?” I told her that I had just crashed the truck. I was fully expecting to receive a verbal lashing, but my mom surprised me. She grabbed me, and didn’t ask about the truck at all. She was worried about me. I wasn’t really injured because my body was made out of some kind of rubber that just bounces off stuff and never gets hurt (these days my body is more like rubber that has been left in the sun too long) but she checked to make sure I didn’t have any head injuries and then called my dad to come home. Neither of my parents lectured me about what an idiot I was; they showed me that they still loved me beyond all my selfish and stupid acts. At the time I really needed to know that my parents would be there for me throughout my challenges because no matter how old you get, no matter how confident you are, you still need to know that your parents love you more than they love their truck.
I was four or five when my parents sat me down on my bed and asked me if I would like to have a brother. I did. Then they asked an odd question, “Would you like an older brother, or a younger one?” Even at that age I knew the answer: Younger. Only sadists want an older brother, sane people order younger brothers when given the option. My parents didn’t own a time machine so I really didn’t understand how they would acquire an older brother. Nevertheless, a few months later our family drove to one of the Montana metropolises (Miles City? Great Falls? Butte?) and picked up a little brother. He was a chubby-faced little Native American boy who became the sixth member of our family, Mike. At the time it seemed like a pretty normal thing to do because when you are a kid everything your parents do seems like the normal thing to do. Looking back on Mike’s adoption now I see that it was not a normal thing to do. People who adopt children are not normal, they are extraordinary. My parents brought Mike into our family because they do that kind of thing. I don’t know the real reason my parents decided to adopt Mike, but I do know they met each other while working on a reservation in Arizona and their entire lives they have helped other people. Even today, when they are both older than Methuselah, they are busy helping others. Their commitments to causes and those less fortunate has been a focus of their marriage. Their two daughters (aka my sisters) are both involved in occupations that are attempts to carry on this tradition of assisting others. My older sister, Kay, lives in El Salvador and has been saving the world from there for about 20 years. My younger sister, Jenni, lives in Oregon and helps developmentally disabled children. My parents will probably be helping other people right up to their final moments of life and that is one of the reasons I believe they have been together for 50 years.
When I was in 7th grade and life was as miserable as it should be for a 13 year-old kid, my parents took another risk. My dad had a chance to exchange jobs with a minister in some strange country I had never heard of: New Zealand. So after making all the arrangements with the church he was serving in California, we packed our bags and spent a year living in New Zealand. My older sister was just entering high school, my brother and younger sister were still pretty young and I was just starting to become the problem child I would blossom into a few years later. It must have been a difficult decision for them, but it was life-altering for me. I can say that living in New Zealand changed the course of my life. The experience of living in another country should be a requirement for all people of the world. Just one year away from your preconceived notions of what the world is like will shake all of your stereotypes and prejudices out of the tree. I went to NZ thinking that the American way was the only way and the best way in all cases, but I came back with an understanding that the rest of the world does not always agree with that. I still think America is pretty great, but live in a country with universal medical coverage and gun control and you begin to understand that maybe, just maybe there are other ways of doing things.
One of the reasons my parents are still active and able to celebrate 50 years together is because they were married at a relatively young age. I remember thinking that I would be waiting until I was at least 30 before deciding to get married. It didn’t work out that way. I met a great young lady in college, we went on a series of dates, she attempted to dump me several times, and eventually my charms overwhelmed her to the point that I was making a long-distance phone call to my parents to let them know that I was going to be getting married. My mom asked how we were going to afford to live and I told her that we were going to live on love. I still think it was a very funny line, but no one on the other end of the phone laughed. They might have been tempted to try to talk me out of getting married, but they didn’t. I am certain that my parents thought I was being impulsive and stupid, but they have changed their tune over the 24.9 years I have been married. By the time my wife and I were married my parents loved her as much as I do. At our wedding ceremony my dad spend what seemed like three hours telling the gathered band of misfits how he and my mom were certain there was no one in the world stupid enough to marry me, and that Cheryl turned me into a decent human by being such a sweet and wonderful person. (I am condensing the speech a bit, but that is what I remember.) My wife and I spent a few years working odd jobs to finish up college, and in a way, we really did live on love. I like to think my parents have been living on love for 50 years, but in reality there probably have been tough times. I really don’t know when those tough times were because my parents have always looked pretty happy together.
My parents will celebrate their 50th anniversary with a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium to look at tulips. It makes me really happy to know they will be traveling someplace far away together, although looking at tulips sounds like something you can do in the backyard. The life they have experienced together has been long, but I am sure it has been just a flash to them. The 50 years of marriage is just a marker, the real accomplishment is living on love for 50 years. Robert Frost writes in his poem Birches that, “Earth’s the right place for love,” and it is. Love is what has held my parents together through tough times and it is what brought them together. It is what keeps them dedicated to helping others, and it is the legacy they are leaving for everyone who knows them. Happy 50th Mom and Dad, and thanks for being my parents.