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The Clueless Bride

The happy couple - wearing a 1906 wedding dress and tux in 100+ degree heat!

I had no idea what I was doing when I married my husband, 33 years ago, at almost this exact time. Oh, I thought I did, in the way 25 year olds think they have everything figured out. I remember how I felt the morning of my wedding. After a restless night, I woke up next to Ellen, my best friend, who would stand up for me later. I had expected to sleep deeply, as I had done so many times before, when Ellen and I talked deep into the night. But I was nervous. And that was silly, I thought. I was in love and marrying a good guy and I knew what I was getting in to. Being anxious about the ceremony — that was silly, too. In our hearts Todd and I were already married.

I could write a book about what I didn’t know. Practical things like: how to sleep with a 6’3″ person in a water bed; where to look for missing things when you live with someone who likes things neat.

None of the practical things mattered. I quickly learned to search the drawer closest to where I last saw a missing item, even if it made no sense to put it there. We got rid of the water bed after a year of rough seas. Those early lessons were mere anecdotes.

It took years, decades, to understand the big themes. How hard a man will work to preserve a marriage. How unconditionally loving he is of his children. How there for family — mine and his. How supportive of friends. How committed to faith through service. How responsible to people he does business with.

When I was 25, I glimpsed these qualities but, without context, without experience, didn’t know what I was seeing. Is he perfect? No, but he’s pretty damned special. I’ve now lived with him longer than I lived without him. Clueless no longer, I know what I’ve got.

 

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An Anniversary Tale

The happy couple - wearing a 1906 wedding dress and tux in 100+ degree heat!

The happy couple – wearing a 1906 wedding dress and wool tux in 100+ degree heat!

A few minutes ago I saw my classmate’s post after she received her first feedback from her advisor since beginning our graduate writing program. Within the space of minutes, she reported that went from feeling curled in a fetal position to feeling Determined.

After my first workshop at graduate school didn’t go so well (the most favorable comment was “weird but interesting”), someone at home asked me if I was going to continue. Well, of course! It’s not so much that I’m a when-the-tough-get-going kind of girl, but that I’m a tell-me-what-I-can’t-do-and-I’ll-try type.

This characteristic has led to some stunningly stupid outcomes. When I was in fourth grade, my brother told me I wasn’t brave enough to jump off the roof where it was two stories high. Well, of course I was! It worked out well for him and for me: he got a chance to practice his Boy Scout first aid skills and I got street cred with my brother.

In the still-early years of my career, I was told I shouldn’t apply for a promotion because I was pregnant. Well, of course I would! Though I didn’t regret it in the long run, I would never advise someone to take a new job when six months along.

Trouble arises when my narrative collides with someone else’s. For example, my husband’s. About nine months after the birth of our first child, we talked seriously of continuing our family. He had waited eight years for his sister, and he believed that having a sibling was a good and a joyful thing. Then I returned home from work one day, fresh from my performance review, and announced to my husband that I’d made a decision. He looked at me expectantly. I’m going to get my M.B.A., I told him enthusiastically. Dead silence. He had his own story arc in mind: happy couple marries, happy couple has some time to enjoy their freedom before settling down, happy couple starts family, happy couple has baby number two within three years (three years seen as ideal spacing), and the family is complete. We were telling different stories to ourselves.

Here is why this is an anniversary story. Today, my husband and I have been married 32 years. Looking for something else over the weekend, I found the notebooks into which we wrote our hopes and fears when we attended an Engaged Encounter retreat four months before our marriage. He wrote of his hopes for five years out, “I want to raise a family with you, badly. To nurture, protect, and to love.” I was a little more tentative. I wrote, “I’d like to be about ready to have our first.”

Marriage and family hadn’t been part of the stories I told myself in my early 20s. It was the Seventies, and I was Going Places. Then I met Todd. I couldn’t imagine life without him, and my narrative changed. I’ve always been the type that opened door number one without much idea of what might lie behind it. When he proposed — complete with a fake plane ticket made out for Mr. and Mrs. Todd Stone to Hawaii — I said yes. Here I come, I said, and there I went.

I wasn’t prepared for marriage. I didn’t know how the story would unfold. I called him “my puppy and my knight in shining armor” when I wrote my betrothal pledge at age twenty-four. (Yes, I really used those words.) Deciding to say “yes” to my love’s proposal was the scariest thing I ever did. And the wisest.

I wrote that I wanted to be “sensitive, supportive, vulnerable, loving, protective, and broad shouldered.” Turned out that my husband was. Every time that I suddenly changed the story line, he wove himself right back in to the narrative.

My story would be incomplete without him.

Dear knight in shining armor: you still are.

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Love Three Times Over

When my husband asked me to marry him thirty-two years ago, I’d have said yes right away, if I hadn’t missed the proposal.

That Christmas afternoon, I was downstairs, watching TV in my bathrobe, happy for a day off work. The gifting was over, I’d helped Mom get the turkey in the oven, and I was well and properly sated from our big holiday breakfast.

“Bets!” Mom yelled from the top of the stairs, “You should get dressed!”

“Why?” I asked her.

“Your brothers are coming!”

My brothers were not a good reason to vacate my cozy spot by the fire. I could have cared less if my brothers thought I had fallen to ruin.

A little while later, I heard a commotion by the front door, a very quiet commotion. Now a “quiet commotion” may seem like an oxymoron but it’s the only way I can describe it. The doorbell rang, my mother walked rapidly from the kitchen across the entry hall slate floor, and there was a quick squeak of greeting followed immediately by silence. Usually you’d hear greetings exchanged and conversation. The soundproofing between floors wasn’t great and my mother was by no means quiet.

The door at the top of the stairs opened and someone proceeded down the steps, the third from the bottom squeaking as always (left hand side, a dead give away if you were trying to sneak in or out). I leaned to the side of the recliner so I could see who was arriving.

My boyfriend, Todd, was smiling at me from the foot of the stairs. My heart performed a little pirouette and I jumped out of the chair and into his arms. He was supposed to be to be at his folks’ house in Sacramento.

We’d been dating for thirteen months, the last four long distance, while I tried to get a foothold in my chosen career by taking the second opportunity to come my way, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. The first I’d been offered after sending out seventy-five resumes: a plum job in the marketing department of a regional food manufacturer. In New Orleans. Todd had comforted me on the beach in Tahoe while I cried, weighing my decision. Taking that job would most likely lead to the end of “us.” It was just too far — too expensive — to sustain a long-distance relationship.

Commuting to see each other between Los Angeles and Sacramento had proven hard enough. We reserved cheap midnight seats from LAX to Oakland on Trans World Airlines. Back in the day, you could snag cheap seats without paying for them in advance. But even at fifty dollars or so a trip, we could only afford to see each other every three weeks or so.

Just seeing Todd thrilled me. Seeing him for Christmas was even better.

After dinner was over and we’d spent hours talking, it was finally time for bed. Mom directed Todd to sleep in my brother Dean’s former room below the kitchen. My room was on the far side of the recreation room. After long, luxurious kisses goodnight, I followed the house rules and retired to my own bedroom. On my pillow was a final gift, along with an envelope.

I opened the small square package to find a picture of the two of us taken a few weeks prior. We sat smiling beneath Todd’s mother’s flower pots on her front porch. The envelope turned out to contain airline tickets for two to Hawaii.

I ran back to his room and jumped on the bed, thanking him with kisses. We were going to Hawaii!

“Well?” Todd asked.

“Well, what?”

“Well, will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Did you read the back of the picture?”

The blank look on my face was his answer. “Go read the back! And look at the tickets!”

I returned to my room and flipped over the picture. There, on the back, was a proposal. For marriage. And the tickets were made out for Mr. and Mrs. Todd Stone.

My heart thundered. I was thrilled and terrified. This was not my plan. I was a product of the late 70s, when women were told they could have it all. I was fully subscribed to the idea that I would pursue my career full tilt and not have children until I was 35. First I would live my life. Marrying Todd would mean leaving my job and moving to Sacramento. I couldn’t see being a long-distance newlywed.

If I said “not yet” to Todd, I knew he would understand but the moment would be lost, deflated.

I returned to his room, where he waited impatiently. I said yes. We stayed up for hours, taking it in, talking (and not talking). We were engaged. Just like that. The planner’s plan foiled, a new life born.

But that’s not the end of the story. The next scene is what I thought of when I first awakened this morning.

That December 26 was my parents’ fortieth anniversary. Just before dinner that evening, Todd and I asked my mother and father to join us in the dining room. They stopped their preparations for a small cocktail gathering of friends — Mom was finishing some “pupus” and Dad was setting up the bar, fishing liquor bottles out of the small hutch that served as his liquor cabinet.

They broke into smiles when they saw my grandmother’s gold rimmed slipper champagne glasses. “We wanted to toast your anniversary,” Todd began. He popped the cork and filled our glasses. Tiny bubbles danced upward.

All four of us lifted our glasses in unison. Todd interrupted, “And I wanted to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

That had been part of our discussion in the early morning hours. Should he “ask for my hand” or announce our engagement? We followed tradition.

Forty years before, Mom and Dad had found a minister to marry them the day after Christmas, while Dad was given twelve hours leave for that purpose. It was nineteen days after Pearl Harbor. More attacks on American soil were expected. A submarine could sail right up the Potomoc and attack the nation’s capital. Granting leave for purposes of getting married was not part of the drill in Quantico.

Getting married wasn’t part of Dad’s plan, either.

After Pearl Harbor, Mom had cabled Dad that she was taking the next train east, to be married. Knowing the mortality rate of Marine Corps second lieutenants in war, he didn’t want her to be widowed and therefore had avoided settling on marriage, but it didn’t surprise him that she had ignored his objections and declared victory.

Today is a triple anniversary. Today would have been Mom and Dad’s sixty-second anniversary. Today marks the thirty-second anniversary of my engagement. And today is the first December 26 when neither Mom nor Dad are here to mark the date.

None of those anniversaries are forgotten.

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Birthdays Remembered

Just now, my fingers hovered over the keyboard, not quite ready to land. If I don’t write about it, if I pretend that tomorrow is just another day, maybe it won’t be real: one year since my Dad’s last birthday.

I have a parade of Dad’s birthdays marching through my head. There was his 87th birthday when he had a speech all prepared beginning with, “Four score and seven years ago….” That was the last time I tried to faithfully match the number of candles to his age.

Five years earlier, Dad’s surgeon had emerged after an eight hour cardiac bypass operation with the good news that the procedure was a success, and the bad news that he expected this one, Dad’s third, would last only five years. When we gathered the family for his 87th, the five year timer had gone off. We faced the possibility, even the likelihood, that Dad would die within the year.

We drank a lot that night, liquid accompaniment to the many toasts, stories and recitations of Dad’s favorite poems. In the midst of it, Dad cocked his head, raised his glass and looked directly into my eyes. I think of the smile in this picture as my smile. He would purse his lips gently, the way I do when I’m about to cry, and the corners of his lips would lift. He held that pose, for one beat, two, three. That gaze remained on his face for as long as I wanted to look back. To me, it said it all.

Scan 2

Two years later, Dad moved permanently to California. The word went round before every birthday: you should come, it might be his last.

When someone’s death is predicted for nine years running, it starts to become comedic. We began spreading out family visits to provide Dad with something to look forward to. Two years in a row, I turned Dad’s birthday into a road trip, taking him to Monterey to enjoy an ocean front room and a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

As Dad gazed up at the aquarium’s 28 foot high tank, the pale blue light of the tank washed over him. He seemed to drink in the majesty of the display before him: swaying fronds of kelp, swirling sardines, cruising fish. Its beauty moved him.

Dad and me at the Monterey Aquarium 2010

By his birthday last year, his 96th, much of that joy had slipped away. His rich, brown eyes had faded, and it was harder to rise to the occasion of a party in his honor, even a small one. He was quiet, though he enjoyed his lamb, and of course there was chocolate cake. He always had room for chocolate cake.

IMG_0965

I could not envision celebrating his next birthday with him. And I was right.

This year, there’s no Pendleton shirt wrapped and ready, no bacon-and-eggs breakfast planned, no chocolate cake in the refrigerator. For most of the world, it will be just another day. But for me, it’s the first birthday that wasn’t.

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30 Years of Opposites, Happily Ever After

Today, my husband and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. You know that old saw, “And they said it wouldn’t last”? The Episcopal priest who married us, who’d known me since I was nine, actually expressed his reluctance to read the banns because we were too different. He based this opinion on the results of a psychometric questionnaire that he had both of us complete.

He was right that we were different, and we still are.

  • My husband is a true extrovert who comes home from a party so jazzed up that he can’t go to sleep; I collapse in a heap, worn out from having to be that extroverted.
  • Members of his family, men included, cry easily. Crying was pretty much trained out of us in my family, which faced most hardships and losses with stoicism.
  • My approach to strong disagreement, like my mother’s, was to yell, with the occasional “god dammit” and “hell” thrown in for seasoning. Then we forgot about it. My husband learned to conquer other people’s anger by withdrawing. He prefers to stew a bit before sorting things out.
  • My husband is an ESTJ in Myers-Briggs parlance and, if you’re in to that sort of thing, a Virgo. His world view is pretty black and white – it’s right or it’s wrong. He’ll give people a long leash, but if feels they’re taking advantage of him – bam! – they will get an unambiguous shove back. He likes to know the rules up front, and he likes to follow them. I, on the other hand, am an ENTJ with a healthy dollop of Gemini sauce. Rules, schmules. How I react depends on whether I’m feeling extroverted or introverted at that moment. But always, I tend to put logic before feeling.
  • He likes things neat. I like things clean.
  • He loves to listen to music all day long. I love quiet.
  • He’s definitely conservative, in the sense of can’t-stand-the-idea-of-our-son-getting-a-tattoo. I figured it was inevitable, but I find I actually appreciate the fact that the tattoo honors that interconnectedness of people and the earth (I just didn’t think it needed to be emblazoned on one’s body).

I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s not a marriage made in heaven – I see Fr. Dave’s point – but it wasn’t made in hell, either.

What it has been is interesting – and, for the most part, good. My Dad often says that he views his life in distinct phases that feel discontinuous. Our early marriage years were horny and busy, very much about having fun with each other and fun with other people. The second phase of our marriage, after our children were born, found us fully engaged in demanding careers, squeezing every drop out of our schedule to put into parenting.

Those mid-kid years were tough, so tough that we ended up doing three years of marriage counseling. Where we learned – guess what? – how different we are. We were there because we had grown distant, because we had become great business partners, but weren’t such great lovers. Something had to change.

But the miraculous thing is that things did change. We reassessed, listened, got over our anger, and regrouped. We found better ways of being together that worked for both of us and honored our differences.

The result? I admire my husband’s integrity, his stability, and his rock-solid values, which include commitment to me. He laughs and cries more freely than I do, and both his humor and his empathy have helped me to be a happier, healthier person. Though we have been very angry with each other on occasion, he has never treated me poorly or tried to wound me. I know a lot more about music than I would have, although I am still hard pressed to “name that band,” or remember lyrics. Our kids, now young adults, are better people for having had parents who learned to listen to them and each other through our differences; they could not be more forthright, and they actually continue to seek our counsel. And our house is both neat and clean. Call ours reconcilable differences.

While this particular post honors the differences that have challenged us through the years, we had a lot of commonalities that provided a foundation. Belief in God (shaky at times, but nonetheless there), priority on family, empathy and respect for one another. And love.

It’s 30 years later, and we’re 55. I feel like we’re in phase three of our marriage, and I look forward to the phases to come. I enjoy being with him more than I did 10 years ago, and as much as I did 30 years ago. Having said that, I don’t feel at all like I did in my mid 20s. I’m not the same person. Neither is he. But we’ve found a way to be together.

It’s like getting married all over again.

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