Love and marriage, love and
They go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other
These song lyrics from my youth, written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and made popular by the duo of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, have been rattling around in my brain recently. It’s no coincidence since tomorrow, March 16th, Rosellen and I will be celebrating our 58th wedding anniversary. Those lyrics certainly speak to our enduring good fortune, but it’s sad to think about the many situations in which that horse gets uncoupled from the carriage and the real final stanza is a story of divorce or, worse, a stalemate in which life together continues joylessly.
I remember a friend of our daughter’s, on the eve of her own wedding, asking us the inevitable cliched question: What is the secret of your long marriage? I think she was a bit taken aback by our abrupt and unromantic answer: “Luck. Sheer dumb luck.” This friend has done well on her own without any sage advice from us, with at least twenty years of a solid marriage behind her, but we had spoken the truth of our own experience.
Some of you know our story all too well. For the rest, here’s an abbreviated version. We met on a blind date when we were both in our second year of graduate school in Cambridge. It was a lovely date, lovely enough to frighten an unseasoned 22-year-old guy to not call again for five months. By that time, the young lady had acquired another boyfriend who, fortunately, was away for the summer. We took advantage of his absence to spend a lot of time together before I was to head off to San Francisco for a year-long clinical psychology internship, just a step ahead of boyfriend’s return. Upon his arrival, Rosellen decided that she had a better deal with me than with the returned boyfriend. We promised to write and call, and I returned home for Christmas break, during which we got engaged and returned again in March for the wedding.
This is where the sheer dumb luck comes into play. We barely knew each other. I know I’ve written about all this before but it’s worth repeating for this occasion. This was not a time when people lived together for years before deciding on a somewhat anticlimactic marriage. We were not alone in our generation for not having slept together yet. I remember a friend who was just coming out of a disastrous marriage declaring that if she had lived with the guy for three weeks before they were married, she would have known how unworkable it would be. Consider the almost infinite number of things that could annoy you about a partner – their eating idiosyncrasies, the way they smell, how much of the bed they take up, their habit of cutting their finger and toenails in your presence. These are problems that emerge only after you’ve logged time together.
And all the topics we never discussed, the responses to which could have derailed our relationship: having children; owning a house; our feelings about money. We had discussed our differing attitudes toward religious observance based on our very different family histories. At least we knew that this was going to be an ongoing flash point, so the fact that we were already aware of the problem made it less explosive to deal with, but think of all the other landmines that could have been buried within those undiscussed items. I don’t remember any specific political discussions, but even absent any conversations on the topic, we sensed that the general liberal Jewish context from which we both emerged, there wasn’t likely to be much friction there.
And here’s the sheer dumb luck of it. We’re still standing. Even after more than a year in each other’s exclusive company, she still laughs at my jokes, I’m still moved to compliment her on her improvisational cooking skills and we still enjoy the feel of each other’s bodies, transformed though they’ve been by time. We’re both painfully aware of how it can all go poof in an instant. We’re acutely aware of how quickly all this luck can take a turn. We have friends who just celebrated their 70th anniversary, truly an exemplary partnership – until he suffered a leg infection which put him in a hospital out of reach of her retirement community and they’ve now been separated for over five months. So, while we’re looking ahead to another year together, as Satchel Paige said we’re also looking behind to make sure nothing is gaining on us.
I decided I couldn’t do this one alone. There’s another voice that needs to be heard. Happy Anniversary, my love.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to add but, adapting Marv’s admirable concision I will try to curb my longwindness.
First, acknowledging luck is the simplest and most basic thing we agree on. So often marriages founder in the face of cataclysmic events for which no one is responsible — the death of a child, experiences impossible to share like the traumas of military service or chronic illness, so many outsized waves that can swamp the most steady boat – what can any of us say who evades such harms? It’s humbling: We have only good fortune – cosmic grace – to thank..
Closer to the ordinary, I have no way to account for the speed and certainty of my desire to marry Marv. I’m famously indecisive about almost everything from little to large, so I can’t explain the strength of my commitment to someone I barely knew. My parents, driven by expectations that I would “marry up” – find “a suitable boy”! – were quite vocally opposed to our marriage and there too, this girl (which is what we still were back then) once again uncharacteristically simply ignored their discontent and watched them learn to love him too. One explanation: Marv was in San Francisco completing an internship and I was in Cambridge missing him and I remember thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go out there just to be with a guy. But if we’re married, of course I need to be there.” How things have changed!
The ease with which we’ve experienced without strain some large redirections in our lives — physical moves, experiential moves, to Mississippi, to New York, to rural New Hampshire, to Houston, to Chicago – attests to the fact that we’ve somehow continued to share our sense of the world and our places in it. To shed our skins and grow new ones together has been a blessing that I don’t think we could have anticipated.
Finally, I’m going to borrow the words of an anonymous op ed that appeared in the NY Times (one of our shared obsessions) that’s been yellowing on the bulletin board in our kitchen for years:
“In different ways, we translate each other to the rest of the world…Being married to someone you respect for being somehow better than you keeps affection alive. That this impressive person chooses you year after year makes you more pleased with yourself, fueling the kind of mutual self-esteem that can get you through decades.”
I can’t say it better than that.