In addition to the usual Thanksgiving traditions such as eating so much it makes people in the Third World cry, and getting cramps from eating too much while throwing the football in the yard, this week offers my family another opportunity to overeat as we gather to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Frankly, to me it’s an amazing thing when people can spend half a century married and not end up with one of them being profiled on “Dateline.” Maybe that’s just the cynicism prevalent in those of us who’ve gone through divorce, or maybe it’s just that the really annoying, bickering couples who act like they’re living out some kind of prison sentence stand out in our minds so much.
I sometimes think about a couple who used to take acupuncture at the same time as me each week. He was suffering from some pretty serious problems and looked like he was about to punch the clock at any moment, so to speak. But that didn’t keep his bride from verbally riding him like a new bike. I just remember at one point her telling someone in the waiting room about how her husband of 50-plus years would hide from her in the garage to eat things she didn’t want him to have. He tried quietly to dispute her claims.
“Well, you’re always chewing on something when I walk out there,” she snapped.
“I just wanted a piece of pie,” he said in almost a whisper before shutting up.
They definitely seemed like a couple who’d spent more than enough time around each other. The poor guy was dying and couldn’t even have a piece of pie! That’s tough stuff. Like I said, though, they probably stand out simply because they were so extreme.
It’s nice to see the other side of the coin — the hopeful side. I know one couple who’ve been married more than 60 years and they still seem as happy as clams. (Why are clams so happy? That’s probably a different column.)
In my own parents’ case, they’ve definitely been more clam-like than not. I’m sure my father can eat as much pie as he wants and I’ve definitely seen him eating ice cream after midnight in recent years without any commentary. Maybe dessert freedom is the key to a happy marriage.
Judy and Bob have been through a lot together. First and foremost was having five children — four boys, then my sister rounding things up. For some reason I started calling them by their first names when I was a toddler and it stuck, so we’ve never called them “Mom and Dad.” It’s always seemed kind of special, a little closer.
It’s hard to imagine how any couple could survive having five children. I have two and constantly feel like I’m not doing enough for them. Maybe with five it’s a bunker mentality. My parents could only turn to one while trying to understand how I gave my brother a concussion with a stuffed animal, or what made us hit each other every time a commercial came on TV, or why my sister yelled a common term for bovine excrement in church.
With five kids there was no way there could be constant policing. Judy was a stay-at-home mother, a job I wouldn’t have taken for $100,000 a year. Just keeping enough food in the house was a herculean task. Imagine trying to grocery shop with five kids under the age of 12 tagging along. That’s why, back before serial killers and pedophiles took over, we were usually just left in the orange VW camper while my mom shopped. Oh, Child Protective Services would have a field day now.
While raising children hasn’t been their only challenge, I’m sure it was the biggest. For many years we didn’t go out to eat in public. I clearly remember once venturing to Hardee’s and my father stomping out in disgust to go eat in the camper because he couldn’t take the stress of our behavior. In our defense, Hardee’s should have had a playground.
I’m sure there were other stressors over the years. My father went through a horrible sideburn phase early in their marriage. And I know my mother often struggled to find ridiculous matching outfits for my brother Matt and I to wear for the annual Olan Mills photos. I’m sure that wasn’t easy.
I love looking back at those goofy photos of the entire family standing in front of a fake wooden fence with a woodland backdrop, and we’re all wearing plaid coats and bright orange shirts and my father has on the most leisurely of leisure suits, while Judy is resplendent in a multicolor jumpsuit. The two youngest boys’ hair was never combed. We were just a family in our Sunday best out for a walk in the woods.
Probably one of the toughest parts of being married is managing the money, and my parents are both pretty frugal so it worked. Of course there were occasional issues. I remember listening to them talk themselves out of buying property in Gulf Shores right after Hurricane Frederic. Good move. Then they built a bowling alley in Gautier, Mississippi. Better move.
Probably one of the easiest ways to stave off divorce is to make sure one of you will have to take over a struggling bowling alley if things go sour.
Judy and Bob have been through some tough things in their 50 years together. Katrina washed through their house and left them living in a trailer for two years. We lost my brother Matt to a tragic accident, and that is something it’s hard to imagine any marriage surviving.
But they’ve hung in there and now, in their “golden years,” they spend their nights dancing and their days creating art and enjoying the freedom to just go. It seems like a perfect reward for the time they put in raising kids and making a living. The hurricanes and bowling alley are just stories now.
I’m so proud to have them as my parents and see how they’ve evolved from a nerdy polyester ‘70s couple who listened to Barry Manilow to the mature, dance-obsessed, Celine Dion-loving retirees they are now. Mostly it’s nice to see that when they’re around each other they still have a smile on their faces and enjoy a laugh and make being married for 50 years look easy as pie.
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