A couple of weeks ago, Martin and I celebrated our fortieth anniversary. What does one say about such a milestone? I thought hard about this one. All the things we did. All the things we learned. Forty years of better and some worse. Not much sickness yet; mainly good health. As for richer or poorer, we scraped the bottom of the barrel some years and rode the wave of plenty in others. We certainly experienced the ups and downs of life and a committed relationship. Having read lots of ‘what I learned in forty years of marriage’ type posts, I decided against listing all the lessons. Mainly because I didn’t want to bore my readers but, also, because, to me, there is one big lesson. And, the big lesson covers a lot of territory.
We are nowhere near the same people we were in 1975, young, idealistic, starry-eyed about our future and each other. 1975 was, by all accounts, a year when our societal norms were different from even ten years before. Wannabe hippies, we married in a meadow, mowed, of course, on my parents 125 acres in a tiny hamlet in upstate New York. Cow country, I call it. Escaping the normal retirement trends of the day, my parents sold their suburban New Jersey home, bought the acreage with a barn and built a log cabin on a hillside overlooking Columbus, NY. For Martin and me, this setting appealed to our hippie tendencies of matching beads, long hair and a tad bit new age. This is where we chose to be married. Our nuptials were performed by an Episcopalian priest, H. Alan Smith, who, much to our liking, walked around town in a white t-shirt and blue jean overalls, sporting a beard and mustache. John Ludington, who worked with me and moonlighted weekends as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, performed songs like ‘Time In A Bottle’, ‘Annie’s Song’ and ‘The Wedding Song’. Our oldest daughter, three at the time, filled the role of flower girl. What I envisioned as a warm, sunny June day, was, instead, cold, with light rain misting on the meadow. Stuck in traffic getting out of Syracuse, H. Alan was twenty minutes late in arriving. Thinking my minister stood me up at the altar, my tear stained face stayed that way as I cried throughout my own wedding. After a reception of family and close friends, Martin and I went to our apartment. We took the week off from work, bought bicycles with the cash wedding gifts and that was our honeymoon.
From this rather unconventional start to our marriage, we developed a rather unconventional relationship. No, no, no. Get your mind out of the gutter. We didn’t become swingers or open marriage or anything really out there. It goes something like this. The only one in the family with a stable job on that cold, rainy day was me. Martin worked a temporary full-time job with the county. Did I mention I worked in banking, as a teller? Yes, I worked in a conservative industry. It was not long before I ditched my short skirts, beads and crazy shoes for a more conservative look as I applied for the bank’s management training program. I was the last person without a four year degree to land a slot in the program. Martin eventually shaved off his mustache, got a proper haircut and a permanent job before going on to earn a four year degree. We built our first house, acting as the general contractor, as well as putting up drywall after stuffing in insulation, laying the hardwood floors after putting in the subfloor and doing whatever else we could do with our four hands. Eventually, I got a bachelors myself. I was the main breadwinner for half our marriage and Martin took over for the second half. As a result of all our maneuvering in life, the relationship we developed is more of a mutual support system with both of us pitching in with the kids, cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work and repairs. As the years went on and on and on, we figured out who carried which strength and let that person run with that particular ball.
Recently, in a class at Furman University OLLI, the instructor mentioned how women are more attached to the house and home, while men are drawn to the yard and spaces outside the home. Of course, me, with my chainsaw and all, begged to differ. This idea was further discussed when one of my classmates came for dinner at our house. As Martin cooked a scrumptious shrimp scampi, she and I sat in the kitchen sipping wine after a tour of my garden. We talked about how Martin and I both have specialties around the house, including meals we make. While Martin’s Mr. Fix-It, changing out the kitchen faucet or working on our tractor, he is also likely to paint a pair of side tables for the great room or want to change out drapes in the dining room. As the one who plans, plants and maintains the gardens, I care less about interior decor. Knick knacks bring on hyperventilation as I think about all the dusting. I do most of the clearing of the underbrush on our property, Martin following with the bush hog to grind it down. Like I said, we each have our strengths. Since most people seem curious about how we came to this arrangement, I guess we operate differently from most couples.
After forty years, we just do what we do, naturally, without question, as a team. That didn’t come easy. We grew at different rates, at different paces, at different times. We experienced our share of wrangling. It was years into our marriage before I realized I married a renaissance man and just how fortunate that made me. Forty years of pinnacles and peaks, along with long days and nights in the valleys. Somehow we made it. And, that’s where the real lesson lies. Only one in my book. Not forty. Not a string of I learned this and that. As with everything else in our lives, we learned to accept change. We learned to accept change and growth in each other. We learned we are not the same people we were in 1975 but a matured, developed, personally stretched version of those people. We learned to roll with the punches, taking flexibility and sometimes patience to a new level, at least for us. Difficult at times, we each learned to adapt to the person, our partner, friend, lover, who came out on the other side of individual growth spurts. And, through it all, we stuck by each other with love and commitment and faith that we, us, our union would prevail. And, it did.
In true Merlino tradition, we celebrated our forty years, not with a trip to Italy or any other far off destination. Not with a big party with all the hoopla and family and friends. Not with any of that. Instead, we went an hour up the road to Asheville, NC, wandered through the River Arts District looking at good, great and bad art (my opinion), ate really cheap but really good fish tacos at The White Duck Taco Shop and spent the night in a cushy boutique hotel, where we ate a really expensive but really amazing dinner at The Red Stag Restaurant. There we lifted our glasses and toasted, just the two of us, as we wanted it, to another forty years.