Tomorrow my parents reach their Golden Anniversary. What a milestone! What an increasingly rare and beautiful thing.
Every year, it seems our age difference, already relatively small, shrinks a little more. Their nearness both to retirement and now this incredible moment in marriage are overwhelming to me. Joyful. Inspiring. Most of all, it’s humbling, because I know these fifty years have not been easy. Life itself has been hard won for them, and health and peace and family have been an ongoing art project for them together. Constantly evolving. Constantly responding to changes on the outside, changes on the inside.
I remember interviewing them, together with my youngest brother, for the Pandemic Stories project. Mom shared that she was prepared to give Dad his favorite meal (liver and onions) in case they were not going to survive. A last meal, allow me stress, like they were on Death Row. She was unbelievably stoic about this. And Dad said that the overall shut down proved to him that everyone is “an essential worker.” He expounded that the whole world operates on the premise that everyone’s contribution matters in a crucial way. They shared these two insights so matter of factly, so devoid of humor or sheen, that I thought, maybe for the first time in my life, that Joe and Alison are actual mortal people with unique world views.
So weird. I have always thought they were just Mom and Dad.
I try hard to look over these past fifty years to take an inventory of marital joys and sorrows and accomplishments, of highs and lows and favorite memories they might have, maybe also of worst fears they overcame together. I try, now knowing they are fully formed people, to see their individual evolution, their arcs. But even with my insider scoop I barely know their hearts. I only recently learned they are human, you see, so this is a new thought process.
Even with a limited perspective, there is so much available to admire. I see decades of efforts to be not just good neighbors but the best. Our house and back yard were exactly where the entire neighborhood wanted to be. Our front porch is where people felt safe and welcomed to stop by and talk or share a pizza if they were locked out. Mom has always gone out of her way to be friendly to everyone, even if they were not so friendly in return. We always had holiday decorations and pretty gardens and just general, simple hospitality.
I look back and see innumerable home improvements over time, most of which Dad did by himself or with help from one or two of his skilled brothers, everyone teaching themselves and each other as they went. I wish I could show you everything he has created over the years. Beautiful stuff. Same with Mom’s gardens. Lush and cheerful and ahead of her time with health and environmental concerns, just like Grandpa. And she grew everything on a shoestring.
I see all those holiday dinners and traditions that should have been impossible for so many reasons, but they are some of my happiest and most glittering memories. Easter baskets and new lacy dresses, hand dyed eggs, handmade Christmas stockings, evergreens from the Knights of Columbus tree lot, Advent candles and tray after tray of symbolic fruits and nuts. Private school for years. Music lessons and sports and so many clubs and proms and vehicles for five children. Good grief. And now grandkids! How they keep up with everyone is a mystery, but I do really like our group texts, ha!
When I reinterpret childhood memories from the perspective of a married woman, especially with my complicated story, I see that somehow Mom and Dad navigated in-law relationships like professional diplomats. Our house was like Switzerland, bright and neutral in the best ways. We fully loved every single person everywhere, never sensing hostility or competition or anything. They just made peace and warmth available to anyone who wanted to be part of it. And as a result, both sides of our big family mingled together very naturally. True, it might have helped that Mom and Dad essentially grew up together and therefore embraced each other’s families of origin and theirs, not his and hers. But still. People are people, and it is sometimes complicated. Just not with them. Mom and Dad both have ceaselessly shown us how to welcome everybody to the table, to the party, to the family. We have sure tried to follow this lead. We have not always done so perfectly; but the example stands, and the spirit inspires.
I look back and can easily count way more family traditions they helped us cultivate than couple traditions they held privately. Unless maybe they kept those to themselves? They did for a while have Christopher’s Steak House on their short list of date night destinations. It is a very real pleasure for me to now see them enjoying each other’s company so much. They have more time now, with fewer needy people circling their tired legs. Although something tells me they miss it a tiny bit?
I will get this wrong, but by my estimation Mom and Dad have cared for about eight dogs through the years, plus at least three cats that I remember. That has to be wrong; it feels like it should be a much higher number. We had parakeets briefly. Also one ferret that nobody remembers except me. That’s a whole thing. Do not get me started.
In fifty years, as far as I know, Dad has only driven two trucks. The original yellow Chevy was practically a family member. An ill- fated frog once got stuck inside it, in the hollow vertical steel frame behind the seat. I still get a pang of nostalgia if I see a similar Chevy truck in the wild. It is so irreplaceable that at this moment I could not, not for a million dollars, describe to you what he currently drives. We will pull up to a family event and I’ll say, “I wonder if Dad’s here yet,” and my husband will look at me like I’m nuts and say, “That’s his truck. It is right there.” Then I shrug. It’s like my brain refuses to accept this new vehicle. Same for Mom. I still think she drives that tan-with-blue-velvet-interior passenger van with seven hundred bench seats. That van was primo for class field trips and even better for family road trips to Florida during which I could lure my little sister into using permanent marker for eyeliner.
Industry comes to mind. Reflecting on all the many jobs our parents have held over the years, I am awed at all the skills they have learned and humbled by their unrelenting work ethic. From offices to food service and retail, accounting, warehouses, lumber yards (when I was four I thought Dad owned 84 Lumber in Texas), corporate property management and much more, they have carved and polished, built and repaired, constantly improved the world just by showing up to work. This doesn’t even cover Village Art Lamps, the family business they built together with our grandparents. It sustained not just our young family but hundreds of others, for almost my entire childhood. It is still bizarre to me that the building on south Walker is gone, but those amazing memories are forever. Nobody on earth can outwork my Dad. Nobody is more gracious and flexible, more accommodating, that my Mom. They outdo each other constantly with humility and humor.
In fifty years there have been so many storms and shifting seasons. How they have stayed sane through five children’s overlapping life crises is amazing. How they braved our adolescent years when they were barely healed from their own is an even greater one. Now, with the original five plus our expansion teams spinning in so many various orbits around the world, they must wake up every day and just take a panicky inventory of where all the pieces of their hearts are scattered. I hope that is more often a good feeling than a sad one. They deserve, more than anyone I know, to feel as happy as possible for as long as possible.
I recently had a heart to heart with a dear friend and was able to say, “I think it is rare that I have a great Mom and Dad. Nobody else seems to like theirs.” This has always been true, but what is even truer now is that I have my parents at all. None of us has to look very far from where we sit to see fatherless or motherless children, old and young. To have both of our parents not just alive but healthy and engaged and very interested in all of our ever-changing worlds, what a blessing. Things could have been so different. And it can always change in one phone call, so I love to savor it.
No doubt, there have been times they put on a happy face for everyone else’s benefit. And no doubt they have at times felt disappointed and hurt; maybe feeling like the return on their lifetime investment has come up a little short. I for one have been excruciatingly hard on them from time to time, before I learned they are human people just like me. I try to be nicer now, because being human I hard and they are doing great.
They have suffered plain old loss, too, like anyone. My Dad was just 32 when he lost his Mom and 43 when he lost his Dad. I had no concept in those years, how young this was. How rudderless a person might feel. I just missed my grandparents. I didn’t even think about my Dad missing his parents. Mom was 59 when Grandpa Stubbs passed, but we lost Grandma much earlier. Mom was just 38, and they were very close. These are momentous life changes that I really have not considered until recently.
The following is not mine to say, not really, but I’ll risk it: Vividly knowing all four of my grandparents’ personalities and living so happily as Joe and Alison’s firstborn, I feel like Rex & Mary Jo and Jack & Louise would all be so proud of all the intense parenting and grand parenting their children have done in the years since they left. From where I stand, all of my grandparents’ wonderful values live on, and they live on, and they live on. Because of my parents.
This past summer at a preemptive anniversary party while the whole crew was in Oklahoma, we all played the Newlywed Game. Mom and Dad sat up front, each with a small white board. We all took turns firing a wide variety of questions at them then had lots of fun watching them compare their answers. Turns out they know each other pretty dang well. One exchange sticks out. Someone asked, “If money were no object, where would you go for your fiftieth anniversary?” Mom’s answer was, “An Alaskan cruise!” Dad, being Dad, literally wrote a list of about 9 places around the globe, ha! He said placidly, “You said money was no object.” We exploded in laughter, but now just typing this I feel like crying. We all have had so many opportunities to see the world, and they have happily forfeited most of theirs for us.
One of my most vivid hopes in life is that they soon reach a moment where they will not just retire comfortably but also pursue fully some of the cravings and impulses they have quieted for five decades. Their lives have been about everyone else for so long. I hope they can put themselves first more, and soon. We all do.
The older I get, the more I realize that I joke around the most when I am in pain, and being a lot like my Dad in other ways (casual compliment to myself there) I wonder if this is true for him, too. If so, then he has been in pain for most of his life but never said so outright. This familial language of teasing and taunting has made our character fabric a little more like good denim than silk, which is fine by me. Better, actually. But I do hope he is ok. And I am amazed by how many years he has managed to keep pushing through family emergencies and health scares and financial roller coasters and splintered relationships, all the time just speed walking, whistling, power napping, and throwing zingers.
Having a young Mom is wonderful, and as I mentioned, the older we both get, the closer in age we feel. But there is a downside. When I was in middle school I had a crush on a boy who lived down the street from us. He was several years older than me and had a crush on Mom, who by his estimation was not much older than him. She had Farrah Fawcett hair right when Farrah Fawcett hair was the coolest thing on the planet, and she was a beautiful, energetic young woman who made everyone feel welcome. So that was wildly annoying. I am pretty sure he gave up, got his braces removed, and joined the military. Other than that, having young parents is the best, from the child’s perspective.
It is obvious to me that they both chose this path consciously, not just once before I was born, but repeatedly since then, when Ego or Ambition or Exhaustion, or some raging social norm, might have veered them way off course, getting them to pursue other goals or lifestyles. Both Mom and Dad could have pursued and achieved anything else with their life, but we are all so lucky that they have chosen, week after week and year after year after year, to devote themselves to their marriage and their family. It all sure did grow. That cute little wedding in October of 1973 sure did firm up into an establishment. An acorn into an oak tree.
Happy fiftieth wedding anniversary, Mom and Dad. We are all forever in your debt. And we love you so much!