Monday, September 7, 2009

A brief anatomy of a 41-year marriage

(I don't think I have ever kissed my wife on the beach under a setting sun.  Real life is better than that.)

Today, my wife and I celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary.  Holy crap.  Has it been that long?  We got married young and, as the saying goes, we were so green that if you put us in the ground we would have grown.  Now, we are old enough that we can't remember half of what we have learned.  But this can work to your advantage men.  I have two anniversary cards, on which I have written a very small "e" or "o".  When my wife is finished with the card after receiving it, I collect it and hide it away.  I use the "e" card every even-numbered year, and the "o" for odd years.  No way can she remember the card from two years ago.  They are, however, getting a bit tattered, so I tell her I buy my cards at the vintage store.

My wife has endured more than most wives would tolerate.  Within two months of our wedding, I received a draft notice from Uncle Sam during the height of the Vietnam War.  The biggest argument we have had in 41 years occurred that autumn, as we tried to decide how to play out this dangerous situation.  I wanted to take the military draft, which required two years of service, and she insisted that I enlist for three years in order to get some choice in my military assignment and, hopefully, reduce the chances of going to war as an infantry grunt.  I took her advice and ended up in Korea instead, where she later joined me for a rich experience.  Within 12 years of getting married, we lived in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, New York, and Korea, thanks to the U.S. Army and the pursuit of my education.  A few years later, we added Costa Rica to the list.

We rented a small house in Korea (our daughter was a baby then), which would fit into the kitchen/dining room area of our current house.  It had no usable bathroom inside or out, and the only running water was a cold water spigot in the gated yard.  We relieved ourselves into a plastic pail, which our Korean mama-san emptied each day outside.  We went to bed every night hoping that the rats fighting overhead would not fall through the paper ceiling into our daughter's crib.  But we learned a lot about life, made many friends, and came away stronger than we went in.  Our daughter's first word was "sei", the Korean word for bird.  My friend and roommate from college was not so lucky, and lost his life in Vietnam after having seen his newborn daughter only once. 

After completing my Ph.D. years later, I accepted my first faculty job at Oklahoma State University.  We arrived there with two kids, an English Setter, and a cat, and had no place to live.  A friend at the university found an unoccupied trailer at the edge of campus for us to use until we found a better place.  It had not been lived in for a couple years, so it was full of dust and cobwebs and spiders about half the size of your fist.  It sat right out in the sun (it was August), and it had no air-conditioning.  That night, we went to bed and lay there with sweat rolling down our faces and I said: "Honey, we have arrived."  We laughed so hard we almost got sick.  But it was then that I realized that the following American cliche may not be as true as we are led to believe: "if you work hard, and you're honest, and you get a good education, then life will be full of tangible rewards".  It is to someone's benefit for us to believe and follow that advice, but to whose benefit exactly?

In the mid-1980s, I got my first sabbatic leave from Cornell.  We decided to spend that year in Costa Rica, so I could learn more about tropical biology.  We rented a farm in Monteverde, a remote village in the Tilaran Mountains.  Because my wife had to quit her job to go, and I had to go on half-salary, we were broke the entire year we were there.  Finding food for a family of five was a real challenge because the local pulperia only got fresh vegetables once a week, which were totally gone two hours after the doors opened that morning.  The nearest town was Santa Elena, about three miles away, but there wasn't a great selection of edibles there and we had no car.  We finally bought a horse for transportation, and that changed the mobility equation quite a bit.  Robin dealt with traumatic injuries for each of our three children that year (broken bones, horse accidents, serious infections) and kept us fed, in a house that we later learned was called The Scorpion House by the locals.  Robin was the only one stung by one of our little friends.  We returned to the U.S. after that life-changing year with $50 to our name and all our credit cards cancelled, so we drove straight through from Florida back to New York, where we lived in our Coleman camping trailer for a month until the lease ran out for the family that was renting our home.

Robin has worked every year of the 41 except for three, and always worked to within 24 hours of giving birth to each of our three children.  She invariably got a job as a nurse within a day or two in every place we lived, then sold real estate, then worked as a marketing director at a life-care facility, and now works from home as a medical abstractor.  Like most women who are mothers, she is the lioness that fiercely protects her cubs, and she has been steadfastly supportive of my goals.  She has won every major argument we have ever had about how to proceed with aspects of our lives and, in hindsight, she was right every time.

When young people ask us what is the secret of staying happily married for so long, we honestly don't know what to say.  I suppose that loving and respecting your mate as much or more than you love and respect yourself, if that is biologically possible, is a key ingredient.  In a previous post, I mentioned that my wife and I have almost nothing in common, but when it comes to the big issues (e.g., kids, politics, religion), we are on the exact same page.  And then comes humor and laughter.  As we did in that sweltering trailer in Oklahoma 30 years ago, we have laughed ourselves to sleep over some event of the day literally thousands of times.  I believe a sense of humor is absolutely essential to making it through this life.

And so now, I will give my wife a kiss on the forehead while I distract her a bit, and collect her anniversary card with the little "o" on it for use in 2011.  Then, Robin, her sister, and I will travel to the Turning Stone Casino for a day of entertainment, and to make our financial fortune.  Now that is a laughing matter.