This summer has been outstanding for several reasons, both good and not so good. First it has been exceptionally hot and humid. A common experience for people who live in the deep South, but very unusual for Maine, a place known for its temperate summers and beautiful fresh air. 2018 has broken all the records for number of days over 90 and dew point indexes (what really makes a hot day really miserable) that exceeded 70 for more than 30 days this summer, and on one memorable night even made it to a dew point of 78, unheard of for Maine. It has made for unusual camping – too hot to have a campfire! Not having air conditioning in our house, we retreated to the air conditioned camper just to survive, on occasion. Truthfully, it was hard to breathe some days and getting through the day seemed exhausting and we are retired! The second reason was 2018 is a milestone year for us. 50 years since I graduated from high school, 50 years of marriage, and 50 years since Dave left for Vietnam, and just a couple of weeks ago 50 years of the anniversary of being wounded in combat (at least the first time).
June 29th marked our 50th anniversary. We celebrated quietly- no big parties or celebrations. We have had enough fireworks and drama in our life. We now look forward to a quiet life, doing things together that make us happy. Occasionally we consider a travel adventure, but at this point in our life simple pleasures are the best. Sitting at Pemaquid lighthouse on a lovely summer day, or a wild winter one. Spending time with family, loving our grandchildren, and sitting out under the big willow in the dooryard reading and watching the day go by. After many therapists and psychologists, and hours and hours of counseling, we can finally say that this marriage thing is going to work, it may have taken us a long time but we are learning to be life partners.
Dave and I met as teens at a Baptist youth group, the closest thing we had to belonging to “a crowd”. It was a tiny church (about 50 members) and our youth group had 30 members, most of our parents did not belong to this church. The congregation loved us anyway and we loved them. We both remember that time with happy memories. Then there was a big change. Boston Edison was putting a new power line right through our property in Hopkinton, and my folks decided to move to South Central Pennsylvania. I was a junior in high school and enrolled in Girls Club, Yearbook, trying out for cheerleading, and looking forward to Prom. Not only did we have to move but they were going to tear down our 1800’s cape. It was the home and I could not imagine a bulldozer knocking it down. We moved to PA and I discovered a world of difference between Massachusetts schools and this rural southcentral PA regional school and its inhabitants. Accents, customs, classes were very different, the entire culture was different. To say I did not fit in, is an understatement- I felt like a skunk at a lawn party. I was probably bullied some, especially by the boys, but the girls were more subtle, I was painfully aware that I was an outsider. Graduation could not come soon enough,
Dave and I married on a beautiful day in June at a UCC church in Westborough MA, just a few weeks after my graduation.
It was his family’s church, his Mom had been the Sunday School Superintendent, his Grandma sat 2/3 from the front on the left side of the church, you could easily find her spot, there was a pillow to ease the hard pew, and a little footstool for a very short Grandma. The weather was beautiful, and the day went by in sort of a blur, but it is fair to say that our memories of that time, and the honeymoon after are colored by the fact that he was leaving for Vietnam in just a month. No matter how we tried to have fun, to forget what was coming and “be in the moment” was hard, it hung over us like a thundercloud.
I thought the past year or so had been tough, with the move, some relationship angst over being separated by the move and by the Army, along with the two assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, it seemed like our world was upside down. The year he was in Vietnam (’68-69) was horrible. I was 17, three weeks after Dave left when one day I got a call to tell me to stay where I was – someone was coming out to see me. I looked out upon our dirt road and saw the mailman leave a large package- it was our wedding photos. As I looked at them, I periodically watched the top of the hill looking for the cloud of trailing dust indicating a car was on its way in. Like in Saving Private Ryan, I wanted to see what kind of car was coming: an Army car with an officer or a cab with a telegram. When the dust cleared I saw the cab and knew that Dave was at least alive.
I did not handle that year with any kind of maturity, I was miserable, I had no direction in life, it was like life went on all around me and I was invisible. Dave, of course, was given no choice but to grow up fast in a nasty war. He was one of the older draftees at age 21, and tried his best to keep the guys in A troop alive. Of course, although he did his very best, he could not. It was the time when 500 American young men were killed per week in the fighting and it was inevitable that some would have been his friends. The homecoming was a collision between a teenager and battle hardened veteran with a thousand-yard stare. It is amazing that we somehow managed to get through it.
When Dave returned from Vietnam we had only a couple of close friends, mostly family. The country was not comfortable with the returning veterans and it is safe to say that Dave was uncomfortable around crowds and at social gatherings. Vietnam continued to cast a pall over our relationship- but neither of us could see how the experience and our response to it was slowly shaping our marriage. I gave a lot of thought this year about how we made it together so long. We had some highs and lows and there were the years when it was gruesome, when divorce almost became a given. In truth, I guess we just never gave up at the same time. We can see now that we have been blessed despite “our issues”. We have three wonderful kids, their wonderful spouses, and of course, the grandchildren. As Garth Brooks says, “I’m glad that I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. My life, is better left to chance, I could have missed the pain, but I would have to miss the dance. ” That we can continue to dance, has been made possible by the many counselors/social workers/clinical psychologists of the VA who underwrote untold number of hours of counseling. We had some dedicated and intrepid folks who hung in there with us while we struggled with marrying too young and trying to grow up within a marriage, making some poor choices, living with the aftermath of war and PTSD, and our individual quirks .
So, to my grandchildren and anyone else who cares here is my top 5 observations about being married for 50 years, we will see how it goes. First, is you will know you have a keeper when you feel “at peace’ with one another, even, or especially, if you are not necessarily peaceful people. If you had asked me if I felt at peace with Dave when we were first married I would have looked at you funny and said , “I guess”. I was not old enough or mature enough to know what is meant by that or why it is important. We were lucky we managed to gain a degree of that contentment.
The next pearl of wisdom is very much related to the first, you will know you are with the right person if you can be open and vulnerable with them. If you can reveal whatever it is, good, bad or ugly, to them and you are still safe with them. They might be disappointed in your action but in fact their first thought gives you the benefit of the doubt. There is a level of trust that your failures will not be thrown back into your face as verbal bullets. The person you love for life should know you and love you for all your good qualities and, yes , tolerate the bad, and will continue to love you through your less than stellar moments.
I know there are married couples who claim they never fought, I am not calling them liars, I am just saying that most couples I know fight. They fight over in-laws, raising children, money, friends, sex, and ambitions. They fight over religion, politics and leaving the toilet seat up or the cap off the toothpaste. They fight over where to live and how to live. We fight and if we fight well, we make up. If we fight poorly, hurt feelings fester and get shoved underground to come back with a vengeance. So speaking of fights, keep it simple. Stay on topic. Do not drag out the kitchen sink of every little error the other person has done to you since you first said hello. Words matter. Say them carefully. Words matter. The Bible says do not let the sun go down on your anger, and be slow to anger. Listen, really listen to what your beloved is saying. Context matters, tone matters and always, words matter. It is better to ask for a time out than say something so hurtful that it fractures the trust and safety between the two of you.
The fourth pearl of wisdom is to know yourself- spend some time thinking about your relationship. Where are your ouchie places? Where are his? Do you need professional help to tune up your marriage? Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were a pair of comedians who had a long marriage that I think was quite volatile at times. Jerry was Jewish, Anne was Irish, and she converted and took her conversion very seriously- Jerry said he was never more Jewish than when he married Anne. They were in a television interview just a couple years before she died. They had been married 39 years, a long time in Hollywood, and she quipped, “we have been in counseling for 36 of those 39 years”. He looked at her as if to hush her for revealing such a personal matter. She looked at him with love and said, “its okay honey, we are worth it”. Make your marriage worth it. One person cannot carry a marriage, both of you need to be committed, vulnerable, and willing to go to the mat for the other.
You should be able to be safe with your beloved. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially. If there are mixed messages in any of these areas they need to be attended to: it is hard enough to live together for all these years but it is near impossible if there is abuse present. You do not have to agree on everything: but you do have to respect the other person, and be able to trust your beloved’s responses.
Financial surprises like unknown loans, gambling, retail therapy and other behaviors are stressors you do not need to add to a marriage. Physical safety is not just not being hit or slapped, and not being threatened with fire arms, it is also not submitting your spouse and children to road rage. It is living life without threats stated or implicit. Emotional abuse can be as damaging to a marriage, to mental health and to a family as physical abuse. We know many veterans suffer from PTSD, but PTSD can also develop from living in a situation where you are not physically or emotionally safe.
Emotional safety speaks to believing that what is best for your spouse is best, period. If this person is someone who matters to you, who gives you joy, then you want them to be the best the best that they can be and so you will be their biggest cheerleader. And they will be yours. If your spouse wants something you simply cannot live with or goes against all your values then by all means speak up, get some professional help and work it out. Good communication and developing realistic expectations are not something that we all bring to marriages, so develop them, and being on the same page goes a long way to making for a happy marriage.
The Native Americans used to intentionally make a mistake in their weaving, allowing room for the Spirit to enter the piece. Mistakes do not have to ruin something, they can give it character, and represent the flawed humans that we are who, long to love and be loved. Our failures can teach us instead, to look for the beauty of lessons learned; accepting your own accountability, and holding the other accountable as well; the joy and grace of forgiveness; and the celebration of growing wiser, stronger and healthier.
Ok enough… Gram will get off her bully pulpit, but as you read this- know that I love you and wish for your happiness.