My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last week.
There aren’t many photos of their simple backyard wedding day around the ranch, just a few tucked inside old photo albums among snaps of cousin birthday parties, family in Christmas sweaters, Hereford cattle and my dad holding a string of fish he caught on their “honeymoon” to the big lake in the Badlands where my mom might have begun to realize what she was really getting into — it was going to be a no-real-frills existence with this man, not that the woman needed frills.
But she was up for it. I like to imagine that not much scared my mom back then. She had survived and left a problematic marriage well before she was out of her 20s. She packed up her hand-me-down furniture, clothes and dishes and called her sister and she was out of it, on her own with her young daughter in tow.
When she met my dad, she didn’t need him. She had her friends and family and her guts and she was working on finishing her social work degree. She taught ballet for extra cash, and aerobics, too. And knowing my dad, all of that was likely the appeal anyway, that she didn’t need him. That he could be who he was and she would take it or leave it. The woman wasn’t there to change anyone.
But it turns out he did change, maybe a bit, not for her but because of her. I’m privy to more of the scoop as I’ve taken Dad along for long road trips to music gigs throughout the years. On the miles of county roads and interstates, you get talking about things you might not otherwise get around to.
He told me the two had broken up at one point before their engagement and a few weeks later he found himself hitching a ride from a skeptical sheriff who didn’t fully believe his story about his broke-down pickup but let him spend the night in a county jail cell because there were no hotels in the town. And so he was sorta broke, sorta lonesome and sorta wondering what the heck he was doing. If he died that night, would anyone even know where he was?
He wanted her to know.
He laughs now thinking about it, but really, how do you decide to take the leap into committing to build a life with someone? Did Dad really need this sort of dramatic experience to make him see the light? Realistically, he probably only realized it was the light in hindsight. But it’s a good story with a good lesson I think, that you have choices. That when you are responsible for the life you build, it makes you one of the lucky ones.
In my experience witnessing my parents’ marriage throughout my lifetime, it’s been the sweet way they mix independence and individuality with support and care that’s always made me feel secure. Watching them, I never got the impression that you had to give a part of yourself up to be with someone.
And my young ballerina mother from the Red River Valley couldn’t have thrown herself into a more foreign situation — with the country churches and schools, the party line phones and that time she found a rattlesnake in the house when she was home alone with just my sister and me as a little baby—but I’ve never heard resentment once. They chose this life together and as the years went on, my mom figured out how she could best be herself in it, determined to bloom where she planted her life, understanding the important hold this place had on my father.
These days I’m getting to know them in a different season of their lives, one that looks like retirement (well, sort of) and grandchildren and the ability to do things they could have never done in the years spent raising kids and cattle and careers.
How lucky are we to continue to learn from them? I know they love one another by the way they let the other one be, as if to say, “I love you because I know you and we’ve got this.” And in the past 40 years, they’ve been dealt some pretty mountainous obstacles that took the ways in which they are very much the opposite to fully get through. No one tells you that can make all the difference. My parents have never shied away from the tough things.
But they’ve never argued on what they find moral and right. They’ve never disagreed on the way they both view giving and helping. They didn’t even disagree when my dad flat-out gave their minivan to a person who needed it more. And so I guess it’s the ways in which they are the same that really pack the power punch.
Anyway, in true no-frills fashion, we didn’t plan a big fancy anniversary party this year. Instead, my mom went fishing with my dad, this time on a nice pontoon. With magazines and wine. And that sounds just like them, doesn’t it?