My parents are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary today.
I find that absolutely amazing.
My mom was seventeen when she wed my dad. He was nineteen and had very little in this world other than a high school diploma, the fear of a draft order looming over his head, and an intense love for a red-headed cheerleader named Katie. In 1969, I suppose that was enough. Maybe it's even enough now.
They had a cake from Piggly Wiggly and four friends from school attended. My mother's father did NOT attend the ceremony. Likely, he was brokenhearted that his baby was getting married and, quite frankly, he was never good at expressing his emotions. My dad dropped my mom’s ring and it rolled down the hall…eventually coming to a stop next to the toilet. My mom's dress cost a whopping $20. The cake topper broke as they drove away (in a car in which the “best man” had placed a can of sardines), the groom’s tiny head snapping off.
Their wedding, by the standards of today's lavish ceremonies, million dollar receptions and fancy princess gowns, was a disaster.
I suppose their marriage, by today’s standards which include doing things like buying a three-bedroom, two and 1/2 bath home and waiting until you have a year's salary in stockpile before having a baby, would be considered a disaster as well. A few short days after the wedding, my dad was in the jungles of Vietnam. He took dozens of pictures of the little children who lived there, standing in the rice paddies wearing their funny hats. Meanwhile, back in Virginia, another child was being born. His daughter. My sister. He met her for the first time when she was nine months old. In Hawaii, with my mother. Who was terribly young and hated airplanes.
My brother followed my sister, then me, and then my younger sister. So did unemployment, sacrifice, a lot of laughter, and a lot of tears. We lived in a trailer park. There was a swingset there and I cried (I'm told) when we moved onto our own land. My mom babysat and sewed our clothes. My mom and dad worked in our garden and my mom canned the results. We played in our creek and in our backyard. Our parents took us to church and my dad would read us Bible stories at night.
My dad is my mom's family, and vice versa. Last time I visited my mom's mother I looked through her photo albums and saw as many pictures of my dad as my mom. When my mom's grandmother died last summer, my dad's sisters and his mother came to the funeral. I suppose things like that happen when you love someone for forty years. The lines of family melt into one another. You're all together.
In 1992, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2006, my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer. They lived through it. They continue to live through it. Both my parents fathers have passed on and their mothers hang on, determinedly. They lived through that too. They continue to live through it.
My dad was never the most demonstrative man. I'm sure he frustrated my mom because, although I'm sure she never doubted his love for her, I'm equally sure she would have liked to hear about it more. I'm quite certain of this because, much to my surprise, I ended up marrying a man much like my father. Who loves me and loves our family and would do whatever he could for us, but isn't much on hearts and flowers.
I've found the hearts and flowers don't matter much. That a man who sits next to you in church and works a steady job and is a good father is a whole lot more important than a mushy card on Valentine's day. I know this much is true.
In 1998 when I became pregnant with my little children, I called my mom in tears. I told her, "I had everything as a child! I can't give my children everything!" She laughed and told me we had nothing.
I had no idea.
We were poor. All we had was each other. All we had was a family. A mom and dad who loved each other and were willing to work hard and four kids who attempted to kill each other on a regular basis but, overall, got along pretty well.
It was enough. It was that simple. We probably never had a year's salary in the bank when I was growing up. I don't recall my parents ever going on fancy dates when I was a kid, but I do remember us eating popcorn in the living room. I would put my head on my dad's stomach and when he laughed? My head would shake. I remember my parents doing a lot of things together. Simple things like picking blackberries and working in the yard. Holding hands when a Randy Travis song came on the radio.
It didn't seem very romantic or exciting to me then, and it doesn't now. But it's not supposed to be. Because real, actual love isn't hearts and flowers and exotic trips and vacations. It's holding their hand and letting them cry when their dad dies. It's knowing, really knowing, that at the end of the day you'd do anything in the world for the person you're with. That their happiness is your happiness. That you are a family and you're going to be a family no matter what gets thrown your way. Sometimes? It's just popcorn in the living room.
My parents now live in a fine home in North Carolina. A reflection of their hard work and sacrifice, which neither one of them would ever complain about and probably didn't even consider all that hard (with the expection, perhaps, of the teenage years). All the children are grown and gone, but the house isn't quiet. There are grandchildren now. Eleven, so far. They are my parent's greatest joys.
Five years ago, on their anniversary, my parents went back to Hawaii. My mom probably still hates airplanes, but it was an enjoyable trip. My dad, I hear, took my mom's hands while they were on the balcony of their hotel and began to dance with her. I'm certain I've never seen my father dance. But even a man who is steady and quiet and a good father will surprise you with a dance sometimes. I know. I sometimes dance while cooking dinner. Jason's pretty good at dipping me.
I believe that in my dad’s wallet, among the pictures of the grandchildren, is a faded photograph of my mother in her cheerleading uniform. He's carried it for more than forty years. I imagine he always will.
Sometimes, it's just that simple. It's not always easy. But sometimes it's just that simple.