Having recently moved from my native Midwest to the saguaro studded deserts of Tucson, Arizona, my heart yearns for good friends I left. Many memories center on dinners where we gathered to eat, drink, and laugh. My father would often join us, and this essay is a replay of one of those conversations and my resultant reflection. The fruit of this memory is a lesson on marriage–my parents having had ‘one of the good ones.’
Not Long Enough
Four middle-aged couples, myself included, sat at a dinner table littered with wadded napkins, half empty coffee cups, and spots of dribbled food. Our conversation ranged from football, to restrained politics, and finally to the foibles of marriage. We tossed around good-natured comments about the challenges of men and women living together.
“My wife never puts anything away in the same place,” said the surgeon for whom order is key to his professional life. His wife responded, “And your point is?”
The sports widow in the group said, “When men marry, their opposable thumbs should be removed so they can’t work the remote.” The women laughed appreciatively, and the men looked confused.
When an anecdote struck home, the males high-fived their buddies, and the women elbowed each other with empathy.
One person in attendance was not part of a couple, however—it was my ninety-year-old father who had lost my mother three years previous. They had been married fifty-five years. Sharp- witted, and personable, my father was frequently included in the dinners of this “younger” group. When the conversation turned to how long each couple had been married, my friend Mary turned to Dad and asked, “How long were you and Jane married, Walter?”
He sighed. “Not long enough.” He took another sip of coffee and stared off somewhere into memories.
The collective “ahhh” from the women and the stunned look of the men reflected the enormity of my father’s three word response.
As the daughter and chief observer of my parents’ love affair, my mind has replayed the scenes that revealed their appreciation for each other, and how, if they were together for a hundred years, they wouldn’t have been together long enough.
My earliest memories take me to my father’s homecoming from work each night. My parents would hug and kiss, a little too fervently I thought, and as witness of this affectionate event, I would scream out, “Ewww! Gross!” The more I protested their ardent display, the more enthusiastically they kissed. It became a game in which all the players knew what they were doing. I enjoyed my pronouncement of their uncomely behavior, and they, well, I’m sure they enjoyed the kissing.
My parents were also staunch supporters of one another, and they regularly complimented each other publicly and privately. Certainly there were irritations—but not many. My mother boasted that she never had to pick up after my father, and my father bragged what a great golfer my mother was. A long time smoker, she finally gave it up for him, and she cried her way through withdrawal. My father told her he wanted her around for a long, long time—quitting smoking was the bravest gift she ever gave him.
Yet, they were individuals. My mother liked to watch television, which my father called the “idiot box” and he would read in another part of the house where he didn’t have to hear the noise from some variety show. Many times, they canceled out each other’s votes during elections. And my mother’s most famous declaration was at the beginning of their marriage, “I married you for better or worse, Walter, but not for lunch.” Aside from grilling, he didn’t learn to cook , but he could make a decent sandwich and pour himself a glass of milk.
My father always claimed that a portion of their happiness came from an encounter he had with a peat farmer during World War II. On leave, he and a buddy were exploring the English countryside dotted with peat bogs. They came upon a farmer who was harvesting the black gold. The farmer stopped and talked to them. “Do ya’ young fellas have wives at home?” he asked. My father answered “Yes,” and the farmer gave each of them a chunk of dried peat. “Take this home and burn it in the fireplace of your first home. You’ll have a long and happy marriage, I promise ya’.” My mother and father did have a happy union… just not long enough.