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The Secret to a Long Marriage

Our relationship is different from our parents' but just as lasting

When I mention I recently celebrated my 40th wedding anniversary, friends stare incredulously as if to say, “How is that possible?” I joke that I was a child bride in an arranged marriage, sold with a dowry to the highest bidder. The truth is I did vow “I do” at 23.

My husband, Steve, and I married young and had a child late.

When I met Steve,  I was still grieving over my college sweetheart, who’d left me for medical school and a fear of commitment. Dubiously, I agreed to a blind date. Steve was 26 and still wearing a retainer, a remnant of braces he’d put on to avoid Vietnam.

This is the 40th time my husband and I have exchanged anniversary cards. We’re not big on gifts, but cards are an unwritten agreement in our marriage contract.

I moved in with him six months later. My mother refused to visit us and warned, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

Then one night, an “old” married friend, tired of watching us smooch, asked, “When are you two getting married already?” Back in our living-in-sin apartment, Steve asked, “Do you think we should get married?” He didn’t get down on one knee. “Yes, do you?” I asked back.

Products of the Great Depression, my parents wanted me to marry “up” the economic ladder. Mom still hid cash under her mattress. At first, she was disappointed in my husband. Her mantra: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.”

Instead, she got a son-in-law who doted on her more than her own son. Steve drove her to doctors’ appointments, changed light bulbs when she could no longer balance herself without a walker, patiently listened to her stories I’d heard too many times before, never bored.

Mom froze the top layer of our wedding cake and served it to us on our first anniversary; I wished she was still around to bore me with her same-old stories on my 40th.

For Better or Worse

As newlyweds devoted to our careers, Steve and I swam laps after work and grabbed a burrito at 10 p.m. He was a businessman, working long hours. He encouraged me to leave my teaching job and write full-time, in spite of reducing our income.

His parents, the only ones in their social circle unable to wear cute baby charms necklaces, pressured us to reproduce. My mother, who already had grandchildren, advised us, “Why have kids? You’re enjoying your life.”

Our life was full of ambition, foreign films, lazy Sunday afternoons in bed. We strayed from our friends who had kids, moved to the suburbs and talked about garage door openers. They seemed envious of our carefree existence, and we were afraid of becoming them.

I stood by my husband during a year of unemployment and what-do-I-want-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life? I had back surgery (successful) and he had his first colonoscopy (polyps gone!). I took dance classes and he studied karate. We sojourned to romantic inns in New England. We went to our grandparents’ funerals. I had a miscarriage.

I was 39. We were ready to settle down. We were terrified of settling down.

“I don’t want our relationship to change,” I told him.

“You’re the most important person in the world to me,” he said. “Nothing will change.”

“And no garage door openers.”

“We live in a twenty-one story high-rise,” he said, laughing.

I delivered our daughter, Amy, at the age of 41. We were naïve to think our relationship wouldn’t change. Google “ruin a marriage by having children,” and 79.9 million results pop up.

Our romance shifted to the cute baby, the toddler who exhausted us, the preschooler in blatant Oedipal phase, showering Steve with neon-colored hearts: I LOVE YOU DADDY!!!!!

We evolved into soccer parents and chefs de cuisine, nursemaids cleaning up vomit, neurotic parents surviving an overnight hospitalization when our 3-year-old became dehydrated. All the while managing my mother’s care as she disappeared into Lewy body dementia. Watching a parent die adds no romance to a marriage.

No wonder we were spent the first time we dropped Amy off at college. We drove home dazed. Wandered around the streets like jet-lagged tourists, looking for a quick dinner. Neither one of us could speak. Finally: “Want another slice, or are you done?” my husband asked. “I’m done,” I replied. Everyone around us looked under 30. Why were they eating dinner so late? We’d become accustomed to six o’clock meals to feed a cranky child. We liked our new habit — in spite of having made fun of our parents for insisting on all those early-bird specials.

The City of Love

A few months earlier, we’d taken Amy to Paris as a graduation trip. The city of love we’d explored three decades ago. Strolling by the Seine at sunset, we passed couples dangling their feet over the river’s edge. We had an argument that brought me to tears, one of those marital tiffs where, later, neither one of us could remember why it had started.

Amy wondered if we’d ever been in love like these couples on the Seine? Yes we had, and still were. It’s impossible to explain the evolution of a long marriage to an 18-year-old. I vowed to never turn into the marriage of my parents. I remember the shock when my mother told me, “Daddy and I still make love.” She was in her seventies.

After my father died, a man romanced her as if he were 20, rather than 82. I saw my mother smitten, the way she must have been with my father when he first courted her. By the time children grow up, we view our parents in a different phase of their marriage and can’t imagine they’d once been youthful lovers.

Steve and I have seen each other naked in lust, and we’ve bathed each other when surgery scars were raw. We’ve watched a baby come into the world, created from love. We’ve morphed from lovers to parents to empty nesters, filling up the empty space with books, hobbies, naps. Discovering conversations to share about politics. Sharing dreams of retirement. Together, but not knowing what this next phase will be like.

Till Death Do Us Part

Our grandparents’ unions ended in widowhood, marriages shortened by tuberculosis and heart attacks. Our parents’ generation stayed married because they were supposed to. My own parents’ marriage almost made it to 50 years, until my father’s death cut it short.

Our divorced friends have been traumatized, regretful, but never ostracized. When my daughter was in preschool, her teacher glanced around during a parent visiting day and whispered, “By kindergarten, half will be divorced.”

This is the 40th time my husband and I have exchanged anniversary cards. We’re not big on gifts, but cards are an unwritten agreement in our marriage contract. I try to think of something profound to write. Our marriage has been ordinary and extraordinary. What is new to express? Maybe “we’re still married” is enough. Not out of duty, sentimentality or societal norm. Out of love, a lot of perseverance, a bit of luck and the courage to open a slammed door after an argument and say “sorry.”

Perhaps I should use someone else’s words on my husband’s card. A humorous message? “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret,” Henny Youngman. A philosophical one from Nietzshe? “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” Or something literary, from Simone Signoret: “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Or a song from Sondheim: “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ’em all/And, my dear, I’m still here.”

When I met Steve, I never imagined what we’d look like four decades later. The only images that came to mind were from previous generations: cranky women in housedresses, distant men in golf shirts, wives making roast beef dinners for husbands who’d arrive home loosening their ties after a tiring commute. Saturday-night bridge games, blaming each other for making the wrong bid.

Splurging on an elegant French dinner, I see an older version of the man who talked to me for hours before we first saw each other’s faces, conversing as if we’d always known each other. Now we run out of things to say. His habits can be annoying. Sometimes he’s inflexible. So am I. He’s also kind, empathetic, always there in a crisis. I hope I am, too.

We play a game in restaurants, predicting what each other will order. Our accuracy rate is 95 percent.

With This Ring

Our fingers have sagged and spread, even though neither of us is overweight. It’s been years since we wore the gold bands we exchanged long ago, announcing our status.

On the eve of this anniversary, I enlist a friend in the jewelry business to see if I can get my ring resized. He measures my finger, examines the inside of the ring.

“I have to warn you,” he says, “the inscription might get ruined if the ring is stretched.”

I love you, U-Bet, Steve had inscribed. I taught him how to make egg creams when everything about each other was still so new. The key to the recipe is U-Bet, the champagne of chocolate syrups manufactured where I grew up, Brooklyn’s nectar of the gods.

My jeweler friend returns with bad news. My ring has a hairline crack and might break if stretched. It is beyond repair.

“She can wear it on a chain around her neck,” Steve suggests.

“That’s what we did in high school,” the jeweler says, laughing.

I once removed it before knee surgery. I used soap to force the ring to part with my fourth finger. Now I return the ring to my dresser, nestling it on a velvet cushion. I feel sad, but the mood lifts when I realize and hope this will be the worst news I ever receive about our 40 years together. We have outgrown our wedding rings, but not our marriage.

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