**This was originally published on Thursday, April 7, 2011, in my newspaper column, “The Old Paths,” in The Stokes News. Due to a website change a few years ago, the publishing company broke all links to our old articles which were archived online. This was a tragic mistake and resulted in the loss of thousands of newspaper articles. Little by little, I am putting my old columns on this blog so that they can be preserved. Each column may be updated to reflect present times when transferred to this blog.**
I’m catching my breath after a whirlwind weekend. Besides the typical weekend routine of church activities and ball practices for multiple kids, my sister, brother and I threw a 50th anniversary party for my parents. It was worth every ounce of energy expended.
A golden anniversary is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It should be celebrated and remembered. Fewer and fewer couples make it to that milestone in this day and age, and thus I spent much of the weekend pondering what makes a happy marriage.
I’m not talking about what makes a marriage last, because I’ve seen some miserable marriages that lasted several decades. I’m talking about what makes a marriage happy.
On Friday, I went to Ingles grocery store to buy the cake for my parents’ surprise party. I was rushing to get into line at my niece’s register, but an elderly couple made it there just before I did. Although I was in a supreme hurry, it turned out to be a blessing that I was behind this charming couple.
I heard the lady comment that she and her husband would celebrate 68 years of marriage this year. I stared unabashedly at her. “Did you say 68 years?” I interrupted in my never-met-a-stranger way.
She smiled a dimpled smile and said yes. I told her she didn’t look nearly old enough to have been married that long. She proudly told me, “I’ll be 87 my birthday.” My eyes bugged out as I told her truthfully that she looked about 15 years younger than that.
Then came an even bigger shocker. She told me they only dated for two weeks before getting married.
Don’t we tell our children they better get to know someone well before they make that vow? Don’t we teach them that marriage is a decision that must be well-thought out? How can you think out such a thing in two weeks?
This sparkling-eyed lady became even more animated as she told how she had met “Mr. Right.” She said that as soon as he walked into her office all those years ago, she thought he was the best-looking thing she had ever seen. They fell for each other on the spot, dated two weeks, tied the knot and aren’t far from 70 years together.
“When you see a good thing, you better grab it while you can,” she grinned like a mischievous little girl. Meanwhile, her tall husband, who also looked much younger than his years, stood to the side smiling tolerantly yet affectionately. He teased her a little, and you could tell those love fires were still burning.
Here is a marriage, like that of my parents, which has survived an amazing number of years, not with the bitter silence and withdrawn emotional state of many marriages, but with laughter and love. Too many times I’ve heard older couples say they don’t see a need for a 50th anniversary party because there’s nothing to celebrate. That pretty much tells you the sad state of their marriage.
Obviously, the secret to a happy marriage is not necessarily a long courtship with well-thought out plans.
I’ve heard that children whose parents have a happy marriage have a better chance of having the same thing. Statistics in the last decade have not proven this to be true. My brother and I were both the product of a happy home but ended up divorced. I take my share of the blame for the breakup of my marriage and will grieve over it, to a degree, for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, my good friend up in Sandy Ridge came from a broken home yet has been married happily for 30 years; so has his sister. Kurt Warner, who was one of my favorite pro football players, tells of growing up in a broken home with many trials and tribulations, yet his own marriage has endured happily for many years—a real testimony for a professional athlete.
I knew a couple in Mt. Airy who were blissfully married for well over 50 years when the husband died. The wife, usually a stoic woman, fell apart, wondering aloud how she was going to live without him because they had been so close. Yet two of their three children ended up divorced. This proves yet again that growing up with happily-married parents does not ensure marital bliss for someone, and vice-versa.
Although the precious lady I met in Ingles talked about her husband’s stunning good looks 68 years ago on the old paths, we all know that physical appearance fades. The most stunning woman will eventually wrinkle and go gray. Even Botox and Miss Clairol can’t completely fix the ravages of old age. The hottest man around will see his looks decline as his hair thins or falls out and his love handles develop love handles.
So physical appearance obviously isn’t the secret to a happy marriage.
Of course I believe a reliance on the Lord is a key, but I’ve seen many a Christian stick it out “for the sake of the children” while being absolutely miserable for the long haul.
Some of you are thinking, “People just need to be committed and keep their word!” I agree, but remember—the subject of this column is not what makes a marriage last, although I believe that is supremely important. It’s what makes a marriage happy.
Laughter surely plays a key. My daddy was telling us at Sunday dinner about the April Fool’s joke he played on my mama this year. He said he was cracking up the whole time she was falling for it, and she said that when he reminded her what day it was, they both just fell apart laughing. A couple who can laugh together like that after half a century has found a secret.
I’m convinced that finding someone you laugh often with is a treasure.
Kindness, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, loyalty, humility—all of these are keys to a happy marriage. I’m obviously no expert, but I want to be. No one wants a failed marriage.
To that adorable couple whose names I don’t even know, to my parents and all others who are making marriage work well—I tip my hat to you. Keep laughing and keep loving…..forever and ever…..Amen.
**I am posting this old column to my blog on May 24, 2017—a little over six years since I ran into that charming couple at the grocery store. For all of these years, I have wondered who they were. Today I found out. As I was looking for an obituary for a friend’s grandmother, I “happened” upon one for a sweet-looking lady named Laura Jane “Janie” Mills Willis. Her face struck me as one I had seen before, so I read the obituary of this supposed stranger. Turns out she wasn’t a stranger after all! She was my “mystery woman” of the serendipitous grocery store encounter! I am rejoicing to have found her at last, but I am sad that she is gone now. Janie died peacefully at her home at the age of 93. Her beloved husband died in 2014—three years after he stood smiling lovingly at her in the Ingles checkout line. They achieved that 70-year mark for marriage. Although they are now gone on to be with the Lord, their love story will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life. Meeting them that long-ago day was truly a divine encounter.**