From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Fifty Years of Love

The last time we had a family reunion was at my parents’ golden wedding anniversary four years ago. We had piled into the house, shouting and hugging, suitcases spilling over, phone ringing, friends and relatives dropping in.

My two brothers, their wives, my husband George and I had planned the event—the invitations, the ceremony, the food, musicians and the hall. We reveled in the excitement, happy to be able to present this celebration as our gift to them.

Fifty years. Taken all together in a lump, they boggled my mind, and yet they had accumulated like thick snowflakes covering the landscape, piling into drifts, soft mountains of love and caring.

Looking at their marriage, I saw my own thirty married years flipping past like pages in a book—some chapters better than others, some sparkling, some full of anguish, some exciting or plodding or confused. Had it been the same for them? What did all of those years together mean?

Years of commonplace things, of routine, of excitement over the events and crises of life: the miles of scrubbed floors and tons of ironing; the endless days my father left for work and came home in snow or searing heat; the countless fall picnics and Sunday dinners; the time David broke his arm riding his bike and fourteen-year-old Jerry came home from delivering newspapers drunk on cheap wine; the discipline, their encouragement to study and to be fair and honest in our relationships; the times they stood aside in the pain of letting go, and the treasured moments of closeness.

The solemnity of the occasion struck me most at the reception. As the hall quieted, we three children stood in front of the huge gathering while I read a short tribute to our parents.

“We, your children, thank you for the gift of life, the guidance towards responsibility, and the model your life has been for caring for each other. We, your family and friends, salute you for this past half century of life together and join you in joyous celebration and anticipation of the years to come.”

I thanked them now for what I had once rebelled against—their way of life, which had seemed so solid and dependable that it was stultifyingly, so uneventful it was boring. And yet, it was just that enduring solidarity they represented that had influenced me the most that made me see the many faces of love and commitment. It was just that dependability, that capacity for sticking it out, that had carried me through many problems and crises.

I tried to picture them when they were first married, standing at the altar of that small church on the top of the mountain near their Pennsylvania farmhouse. They, too, had been starry-eyed young lovers—my father with pitch-black hair and a trim moustache, my mother slender and beautiful with auburn braids.

Earlier that morning when they had restated their vows, the church was quiet and unadorned. The ceremony was as practical and unpretentious as their lives had been. They stood there holding hands at the altar—my mother a little stout now, less sure of her step, her auburn hair short and wispy. My father’s shoulders were still squared, but his hair was thinning and gray. They were very much alone up there, and their family and friends looked on with rapt faces as they repeated the vows with the same earnestness and the same belief in the tradition they had vowed to uphold fifty years earlier. But they were not alone. All those years they had shared were grouped around them, surrounding them in much more intimate company than any crowd of well-wishers could ever put them.

As I finished my speech at the reception, I looked at my parents, Dad spruced up with a big bow tie, my mother in a soft green dress. I wanted to rush over and hug them, pin a big medal with a long streamer of pride on them. How does one encompass all of those years with a few words of admiration and gratitude?

I realized our privilege in sharing this celebration with them—how rare it is becoming. We had such fun preparing for it, enjoying the occasion to be together, but it was much more. I had the distinct feeling of being a long-distance runner in a relay: We, the three married children, were now taking up the long tradition and carrying it on. Knowing how fragile marriage is, I wondered where we would be years from now. But I only wondered for a moment, for there they were—a testimonial to enduring solidarity and love. I accepted being a runner, being part of the relay, carrying on the tradition.

My parents are older now and show the fast changes that four years can bring to those over seventy. I notice that Mother listens to the radio and rarely turns on the television. I notice that Dad is doing all of the work in the house, the cooking and the shopping. He takes me aside and tells me not to mention it if I find egg on a spoon. “Your mother can’t see that well now.” He’s rearranged the house, moving their bedroom into the dining room so she won’t have to climb the stairs.

My husband and I had planned to invite them to Europe with us this year, and to take them where my father has always wanted to go, to Rome. I wanted him to fly across the Atlantic and see the world he has always been so curious about. Now I know he won’t go. Mother can’t go, and he wants to be by her side. That is his responsibility and no dream could ever be stronger than the bond he has with her. He gives his devotion not out of duty, but out of love. They have cared for and taken care of each other throughout their married lives, their love has been compounded of alternating disappointment and joy, and now it is no different.

Such a bond and, especially, such mutual dependence are regarded negatively today. It is felt that something must be wrong with marriage if it fosters such reliance on another person. What about freedom? What about the individual? What about me? The individual is truly precious. We are no longer expected to sacrifice our total beings to marriage when it threatens our dignity as people. Yet I believe that although we have given up many of the traditional structures and expectations of marriage, we need not give up marriage itself. The concept of marriage is flexible; it can stretch to accommodate the new “you” and the new “me” because it is being made by, and for, “us.”

I understand now the full meaning of marital commitment, of being the most important person to someone and having someone as your most important person. My parents give me a warm reassurance that two people can care for each other forever, that the virtues and values we have held as human ones are still alive and well, and that we can go on coping somehow, helping one another, achieving together dimensions we never thought possible.

Nena O’Neill

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