"Two Hundred Years of Marriage": A daughter's story
As I edit through dozens of “stories of hope” for my next book (still untitled), I wanted to share with you today one of the contributions I received, not because it is the most dramatic or because it has the most miraculous turnaround (I have plenty of those in my inbox as well), but because this one is so beautiful in its simplicity. The story is told from the perspective of the daughter, a woman whom I now call a friend. There are more details that I’ll be including later, but for now, here is her story of her parents’ marriage and their legacy….
Two Hundred Years of Marriage
My parents contributed to 200 years of marriage.
In the 1960s and ‘70s there was so much turmoil, uncertainty, arguing, screaming, throwing, pounding on tables, crying, accusing, and threats of divorce in our home of nine. The marriage began in 1952, with the first son born exactly nine months later, the next son in 1954, the third son in 1955, then I was the first daughter born in 1958, the fourth son in 1959, the fifth son in 1963, and the sixth son in 1967. There were seven of us, 15 years apart. We were the largest family on our post-WWII bungalow-lined street.
My parents moved from the city of Cleveland to the “suburbs” where they literally helped build one of five Catholic churches in Parma, Ohio in 1958. On a construction foreman’s wages supplemented by a part-time nurse working nightshift, they sent seven children through Catholic elementary school, with five attending Catholic high schools. We learned the Baltimore Catechism, attended daily mass until Vatican II, and fasted on Fridays. My brothers were altar servers, and I worked at the parish rectory all four years of high school with the Franciscan Friars.
There never was any money. Just enough to pay the mortgage, buy food, and pay for Catholic school tuition—barely. Dad was often laid-off in the winter months. Mom worked 11 pm - 7 am a couple of days a week. I rarely saw her sleep. All of my brothers worked a large paper route, handed down from one brother to the next. Many times, my mother had to use the paper route money to buy food.
Dad worked hard, played hard, drank hard, and apparently gambled away his paycheck at times. Oh, the arguing. Mom would scream, “Where is your paycheck? How will we pay the mortgage? Who will feed the kids?” I can’t count the times that mom threatened to leave my dad. We “ran away” several times. Mom’s version of leaving was packing up the station wagon with all the kids, stopping at the local Lawson’s for milk and cookies, and spending the evening at a drive-in movie. She said we were never going back home. Every single time, we went home. When my parents were screaming at each other, I heard the words, “I am divorcing you.” The morning after the fights, I would ask my older brothers, “Did they get divorced last night?”
We looked sort of normal. Our house was full of super-high-achieving athletes and motivated children. Dad coached every sport, started the Holy Name Society, worked the local political campaigns, was a Grand Knight in the Knights of Columbus, and ran the big church fundraisers. Mom worked nights, the only working mom in our tight-knit neighborhood which included hundreds of children. She also took care of her mentally ill father, belonged to the church’s Lady Guild, and was an all-around amazing woman and mother. Besides the paper route, all seven children worked by age 13.
While we looked good on the outside, the storms were constant in the house. The houses on our street were so close together you could hear the neighbor’s toilet flush. We were a bit hard to contain as a family of nine in a tiny house. During the hot summer months with the doors open, my dad’s loud voice could be heard. But it was all “kind of normal.” Everyone loved my dad. They would say, “He is gruff on the outside and a teddy bear on the inside.” True. So true. So difficult. So loveable. Mom was considered a saint for putting up with him. There was so much tumult, but my parents stay married. I don’t know if they said, “We are Catholic, we can’t get divorced.” But they lived that out in unspoken ways. It just was. You just stayed together no matter how many times you talked about leaving.
When I was in high school in the 1970s, I realized that my parents did not get divorced. They kind of stopped talking about it. They did not stop yelling at each other though. Until one day, I just noticed how much they liked being together. They did everything together. After college, I remember being bold enough to ask my mom why she stayed with my father. She said something like, “You just do.” All I ever wanted was for my parents to stay together. I had a lot of fear over many years about what life would be like if they did divorce. Through thick and thin, through medical crises, financial ruin, infidelity, drug use of a child, death of a child to AIDS, and other scandals, my parents managed to stay married.
When my dad died at age 72 in 1997, after 45 of marriage, the family and community was crushed. This bigger-than-life man was gone. My mother’s spouse, lover, best friend, teammate, was dead. Yes, despite the troubles, the marriage vows won!
By today’s standards and sensibilities, they should not have still been married. How did they make it? Why did they stay together? Yes, they loved each other. It was way more than that, though. Way more. There was something in their soul, their being, that they “had” to stay together. It was a commitment that today seems “old-fashioned,” that defies logic.
That sense of, “You must make it. You do not stop trying even when it all seems hopeless”…stuck in the hearts and souls of their six children who married. As of today’s writing, their children have 200 combined years of marriage among them. 200 years. Had my parents divorced, it would have made it so much easier for us to do the same. Of six marriages, I know for certain that five of us very seriously considered leaving our spouses at one time or another. At some point, every single issue that my parents faced became issues in our own marriages. By all modern accounts, my brothers and I should have left our spouses, should have divorced.
After this many years of marriage amongst my siblings and myself—43, 40, 33, 31, 28, 25 years—we are all glad we stayed. The turmoil has melted into the fabric of our marriages. We are best friends, world travelers, soulmates, caretakers of our spouses. We talk at intimate family gatherings, wondering aloud how different everything would be if mom and dad had divorced, or if we had divorced. Those pieces could not be put back together. Divorce—literally “to turn aside”—severs and ends. But the tumult in our marriages, because of the example of loving for better or worse, could be tilled into rich soil by staying together.
In the end, the staying together was better, best, and gratifying—and smart. It is not about happiness. There is lots of comfort, love, and satisfaction, though, and yes there is happiness, but that is not the end all, be all. Whatever hell we thought we were going through was worth it. We can breathe, we are still together, we feel like warriors, we wear badges. With honor. We are married. Two hundred years.