Dave tunes his guitar while his sisters, their children, and their children’s children, shuffle between lawn chairs to form a scruffy choir. He looks up, hands still twisting the shiny pegs, and nods to his parents, “You’ve probably figured out we’re going to sing you a song,” he says. Without further introduction, Dave–about as pretentious as your favourite slippers–starts picking the melody.
He wrote the ballad to honour his parents’ ninetieth birthdays. (Months before the family got together to celebrate, his sisters, nephews and nieces began sending him memories to incorporate into the song. About twenty-four hours before they performed it, he began to write it. Creativity soars with a little pressure under it’s wings.)
By the time the rest of the family joins him in the chorus, Ruth’s lip is trembling and her eyes glisten. Abe leans back in his chair, arm stretched out to hold the lyrics at just the right angle, and an amused smile pulls at his lips. A smile that hasn’t worn out after decades of wry humour.
The song is funny and throat-swelling at the same time. In this moment I’m almost convinced that couples who happened to choose well—ten, fifteen, or sixty years ago—are the lucky ones. Like kittens who fall into the cream, it seems these are the couples who lap up marital blessings for the rest of their lives. But after the cicadas quiet down, the guitar is put away, and our cozy bonfire turns cold, I remember that happy couples don’t always stay happy. All of us can probably recall wedding speeches that now ring hollow. Fortunately the opposite is also true; I’ve seen partnerships crash and burn, then watched the individuals stumble from the wreckage and reach to tend each other’s wounds.
Couple-hood isn’t a freezer where participants remain they same as they went in; marriage is a hothouse where change and growth are inevitable. The growth might be unwieldy, or even moldy, but with conditions resulting from two human variables, nothing is static. I’m guessing even Abe and Ruth, after decades of breathing on each other’s pillows, washing each other’s underwear, and listening to the same old stories, are still learning what it means to be “Abe and Ruth”.
This summer my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I don’t think I’ll blow too many family secrets, (or surprise any other long-time couples out there) if I disclose that they still fight. In a way, it’s kind of disheartening to imagine Stan and me going at it, fifty years from now—only flabbier and shorter, with bigger ears and noses. On the other hand, it means we won’t be finished with each other, or our relationship, yet. As our nose and ears keep growing, so will our marriage expand into who we are together.
Maybe this doesn’t mean bickering less. I was at the doctor’s office recently when I saw an older couple waiting together. The nurse called the white-haired gentlemen several times, then once quite loudly, before he got up to follow her. Noticing the wife, still sitting in the waiting room, the nurse asked if she would like to accompany her husband.
“He says he can hear just fine, so let him hear on his own!” she sniffed.
I have a feeling this particular couple, dealing with old-age and hearing loss, is much different than the one who sat in the backseat of a car with tin cans dragging behind them, many years ago.
Even in our relatively short history (14 years), Stan and I have moved through different phases that have marked us. We have fought, not only with each other, but to understand how to love each other through sleeping on cement floors and training horse teams; through emergency room trips and boring Saturdays where nothing gets accomplished; through sleepless nights and colicky babies; through tropical vacations and one-hundred-hour work weeks; through spontaneous decisions and drawn-out, premeditated resolutions. And here we are, still trying to figure out who “Stan and Tric” is in the nitty-gritty, Who will make supper tonight, or wash the car? When is it okay to go to bed early, and when do we stay up for each other?, and in the big picture, What will our family look like five years from now? Whose career dictates where we will live?
Despite our challenges, I know I chose well. Marrying Stan certainly stacked the odds in favour of marital success, but I don’t think they stayed neatly stacked for very long. (In fact, by the time the honeymoon was over, I’m pretty sure some of our odds had slipped from the pile.) I also know I wanna see his smiling face forty-five years from now as a different wife than I am today. I hope our relationship evolves through each new struggle we face together.
So, if your great-grandchildren ever gather to sing a tribute to you and your spouse—whether well-chosen or not—and you realize you’re still trying to figure out your marriage, I’m betting you won’t be alone. Even the kitten-in-the-cream types have to work at adapting along the way.
Have a lovely Thanksgiving,