“After 25 Years …”

Heather and I have finally caught up with Tevye and Golde. But we figured out Tevye’s question long ago.

If your “Fiddler on the Roof” trivia’s a little rusty, there’s a moment where the lead character Tevye suddenly realizes that after 25 years or marriage, he’s never asked his wife a simple question: “Do you love me?” With their marriage arranged and a pile of daughters to raise, it never had a chance to come up. But as they reach a moment where their lives and world are changing, he realizes that he needs the answer.

Golde resists at first: why  worry about it NOW? But after much musical back-and-forth, she finally confesses that after 25 years of struggling together, something has grown between them. “I suppose I do,” she admits, surprised at her own answer.

“Then I suppose I love you too,” Tevye answers with a smile.

“It doesn’t change a thing,” they sing together, “but even so/After 25 years … it’s nice to know.”

It is, indeed.

We hit our own 25th a few days ago. The one they call silver. That makes it sound pretty and timeless, like jewelry in a safe, doesn’t it?

Well, it has been timeless. But I think Heather would agree that it hasn’t always been pretty.

Our parents like to tease us about having a whirlwind courtship: Heather and I met in November, proposed the next spring and had a three and a half month engagement.  Sometimes when you know, you don’t want to waste time.

That launched the adventure.  And since then, our mutual weirdness has carried us through a lot.

We’ve discovered what it’s like to spend “date nights” in the emergency room, somehow smiling at each other through the latest medical emergency .

We’ve entered parenthood through the back door, becoming guardians for Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt and uncovering new surprises daily.

We’ve weathered the losses that 25 years bring, from elderly grandparents to a too-young cousin.

And yes, we’ve accumulated photographs, marveled over interesting words, delved into each other’s favorite songs and stories, and shared WAY too many terrible puns. (That last one is mostly me, but she swears I’ve corrupted her.)

There’s been stress and strain to be sure. But also joy as well. And bit by bit, it’s added up.

So I guess, like Tevye, I am a little surprised. Not at the love we always knew was there. But at how small 25 years suddenly looks.

Like a mountain range, it’s built of smaller bits, brought together over time. And traveling that 25 years just means navigating the bits. You make it through the next day. And the next. And the next one after that.

That doesn’t have to just describe a marriage. It’s any worthwhile commitment, really. You decide what’s important to you and then treat it that way. Over and over and over again.

Sure, it can be tiring. Every mountain hiker knows that. But if you’ve committed to something good, the journey is worth the effort.

Ours certainly has been.

So happy anniversary, my love. We’ve climbed a lot of peaks together. And somehow, you haven’t pushed me off any of them, no matter how bad the jokes get.

We asked our Tevye question at the start and every day since. Thank you for the answer that’s always been “yes.”

Now, how about a movie night?

I think “Fiddler” is on.

Beyond the Limits

Once upon a time, 2010 was the Parenthood Year. 

No, not the Steve Martin movie. Rather, that’s the year all our grown sisters started becoming parents and my new job title became Uncle Scott.  We welcomed our niece Ivy into the world that July, followed by our niece Riley in September and our nephew Gil right before Christmas. 

Well. far be it from us to buck a trend. That Thanksgiving, Heather and I stepped up with an announcement of our own. 

“We’ve decided to move in with Missy.” 

And by April 2011, the world would never be the same. 

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If you’re new here, you might not have met Missy yet. She’s the disabled aunt of my wife Heather, a woman who’s about my age physically but much younger in mind and heart. She also frequently graces this column as an artist, a dancer, a softball star and a ruthless Candy Land player, but that’s another story. 

This month marks 12 years since we began taking care of her. And like many first-time parents of whatever kind, we had no idea what we were getting into. 

We learned. Oh, did we learn. 

We learned that a grinning “Uh-oh!” meant something mischievous had just happened, like hiding a book in the linen closet or a toy in the laundry chute. 

We learned that “Mom” was a job title that could be addressed to either of us and that my other name was apparently “Frank” (the name of her late dad). 

Out of necessity, we learned how to get paint out of cloth (mostly), how to smile when out-of-season Christmas carols were replayed for the 57th time and how to hide a broken purse so it could finally be replaced. We discovered just how magical bedtime books can be, wandering from secret gardens to hobbit holes and beyond. 

Most of all, we learned we could do it. Even on the days when we thought we couldn’t. 

And that may be the most valuable and challenging lesson of all. 

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Most of us have a pretty solid self-portrait. We like to think we know who we are and what we’re capable of. The trouble is, once we’re past the age of six or so, that picture tends to include a lot of don’ts and can’ts. 

“Oh, I can’t draw a straight line to save my life.” 

“Green thumb? More like a black thumb.” 

“You don’t want me in the kitchen; I think I burned soup once.” 

I’m guilty of it, too. And the trouble is, it becomes self-perpetuating. When you think you can’t, you don’t. Your skills never become sharper and the next failed attempt becomes proof instead of an opportunity. 

But sometimes it’s not as impossible as it seems. 

The one that Heather and I hear most is “Oh, I could never do what you do.” These days, that always has us scratching our heads. Do what? Be a family? That’s a job all three of us take on daily. And sure, some days are harder than others … but when has that not been true for anybody? 

The job that once looked so big from the outside – that frankly had me nervous as heck at the start – turned out to be quite different when it became a life. And a pretty cool life at that. 

Twelve years since we joined the parenthood parade. We’re not ready to surrender yet.

No matter how many times I end up crying “Uncle.” 

Moonstruck

Every marriage fits in one of three stages, all defined by your friends. There’s “Awww.” Followed by “Hey, that’s great!” And finally, there’s “Wow.”

Heather and I are now firmly in the “Wow” category.

We reach 20 years on Wednesday. Yes, really. We still haven’t hit the guideline given to us by Grandma Elsie (“After you reach 30 years, the rest is easy”), but other than that, we’ve racked up our share of milestones. Four homes, three cities, two states. We’ve survived ice storms, heat waves, chronic illness, and the delight of moving a piano into a second-floor apartment. We’ve had the amazing joy of seeing our disabled ward Missy come into our lives – or us into hers – and the heart-rending pain of seeing our cousin Melanie leave us too soon.

I’ve shared a lot of that life in these columns. By now, I’ve probably poured out enough words to reach to the moon and back.

Fitting comparison, perhaps.

***

OK, I’m a space nerd. Heather, too. But I swear, we did not deliberately put our wedding day right after “Apollo Season.” Somehow, it still works.

For those who don’t have the dates permanently engraved on their brain, the moon mission known as Apollo 11 launched 49 years ago on July 16, reached the moon on July 20, and then splashed down back on Earth on July 24. It was and remains one of the most transcendently amazing things our species has ever done, an expedition that drew the awe and admiration of millions.

So much could have gone wrong. Some of it did. Total disaster was always a real possibility, as close at hand as the unforgiving vacuum of space. So close that President Nixon even had a speech ready in case the attempt proved fatal and those “who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

But the triumph, the achievement, put everything else in its shadow. All the stress and the worry that had gone into making it happen are remembered mainly by the participants now, or perhaps by those who deliberately study them. For everyone else, it’s “The Eagle Has Landed.” A beautiful moment, never to be forgotten.

And not a bad model for a marriage.

OK, that sounds a little silly. But consider.

There was a huge amount of planning at the outset that still never felt like enough.

There were vows and promises that sounded grand, but would require massive amounts of work to achieve.

There were minor communications flubs that later became amusing (from Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” to Mission Control’s “Roger, Twank … Tranquility”) and major crises that almost upset everything (such as a difficult landing that took far more fuel to achieve than expected).

There was the eager anticipation of first steps, first words.

And while countless people stood behind them, supported them, made it all possible – the ultimate success or failure would be on the shoulders of the people who made the journey.

A big responsibility in front of the entire Earth. Maybe even a bigger one when just trying to patch your own journey together, day by day by day.

And most of all – for all the ceremony and spectacle, it’s that day-to-day work that’s the most vital. A marriage is not a wedding, anymore than a single television broadcast is a mission. An indelible record, yes. A moment to be celebrated, absolutely.

But it’s the stuff that happens next that makes all the difference.

***

We’ve long since left the moon. Maybe one day we’ll return and relight the fire that once burned so brightly. I hope so, with all my heart.

But in the meantime, our own mission of the heart continues. And despite everything life tries to do to bring us back to Earth, Heather and I are still over the moon.

One small step for a couple. One giant leap for a lifetime.

Coming of Age

This year, as Heather likes to put it, our marriage is old enough to vote. Or to smoke. Or even to get married itself.

Yes, it’s been 18 years since Heather and I stood in a friend’s garden and said “I do.” Which, honestly, seems impossible. I mean, it was just last week that Heather and I were nervously watching rain clouds and wondering about the wisdom of an outdoor wedding, right? It couldn’t have been 18 years since my hair began popping loose in defiance of everything my sisters could spray on to hold it down?

Hmmm. Come to think of it, there’s not that much hair to spring loose anymore. Which means …

Wow.

Every year, a few more of my friends say “Congratulations!” Every year, a few still jokingly say “That’s it?” Either way, we’ve gone just a little further down the road that turns a good wedding into a great marriage, where, as I’ve often quoted Grandma Elsie, “If you make it through the first 30 years, the rest is easy.”

Easy. That it most certainly has not been. In that span, we’ve moved three and a half times. (Once was Heather coming to join me in Kansas.) We’ve endured floods, hailstorms and chronic illness. We’ve said goodbye to too many and hello to more than a few, while becoming “parents” in a way we never expected as we became guardians to her disabled aunt Missy. We’ve encountered the proverbial richer and poorer, better and worse, in sickness and … well, we’re still kind of getting that last part down.

And somehow, along the way, we laughed and loved and lived enough to send 18 years running by. True fact: 24 hours takes forever to pass, but 18 years goes by in a moment.

True, this isn’t one of the “name” anniversaries that gets commemorated, like the Gold Anniversary or the Silver Anniversary or the 35th Level Pokémon Master Anniversary. But as Heather joked, 18 is one of those numbers that tends to loom pretty large on its own. And the more I think about it, the more I realize how fitting a comparison it is.

When you turn 18, you’ve spent most of your life learning … and realize that you’ve only just started.

When you turn 18, you realize how much you’ve been gifted with … and, if you think about it, how much responsibility has been placed on you.

Eighteen is the age where you can do so much in your own name, from joining the Army to being charged as an adult. It’s a point that grew from “Wow, that’s old” as a little kid to “Wow, that’s tomorrow” as a high school senior.

It’s a point where you suddenly look back on fears and memories alike with a bit of wonder. And, if you’re lucky, with a bit of anticipation as well.

I consider us to be very lucky indeed.

True, nobody’s issuing us a cap and gown tomorrow. (I said we were lucky, right?) But in a real sense, every day has been a new graduation.

So Heather my love, thank you for 18 wonderful and unforgettable years. Our marriage is all grown up now, even if neither of us seems to be.

And if tomorrow, our marriage doesn’t run off and try to buy booze with a fake driver’s license, I think we’ll be doing OK.

Furnishing a Marriage

The stage contains a balcony and literature’s most famous lovers. They seem considerably older than we remember them.

“Romeo, oh, Romeo; wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Call me but love, Juliet, and I shall be new-baptized. But take this gift of my heart and I never will be Romeo.”

“Oh, Romeo! Dost thou bring me flowers? Diamonds? Silver or gold?”

“Nay, Juliet.”

“Then, what?”

“Behold, I bring thee a 5-piece dinette set with matching hutch. Canst thou give me a hand with the pickup?”

And thus did the happy dagger and the apothecary’s drugs give way to the latest special from Verona’s Furniture Warehouse.

No, I haven’t been taking cold medicine. But thinking too much about anniversaries can certainly make you feel that way.

Heather and I celebrate 17 years of marriage on July 25. It’s been an adventure with a lot of ups and downs – some of them literal, like our 1999 trip to climb the Great Sand Dunes together. We’ve survived Kansas summers, Colorado winters and even life in the newspaper industry.

We’ve also shared a love of trivia. And so one night, I got curious about what sort of anniversary this was. Everyone knows that 25 years is silver, for example, while 50 years is the golden one. But what the heck is seventeen?

I looked it up. Then looked it up again. Then a third time, to be sure.

Furniture.

Yes, really.

No, the list was not prepared by Jake Jabs.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Not that we couldn’t use a new mattress and an additional bookcase, of course. But … furniture? It didn’t quite seem to be the stuff of romantic epics. It was so, well, mature. Mundane. Practical.

Where’s the fun in that?

Then I heard myself and chuckled. Sure, maybe it was tagged at random to fill out a list or because the author had a couch to replace. But In a way, there couldn’t be a more evocative way to demonstrate the difference between a wedding and a marriage.

it’s a difference that sometimes gets glossed over, especially in a country where weddings are a multi-billion dollar industry. Many of us expect our weddings to be an event: fine clothes, a beautiful setting, a band or DJ that knows more than just “Louie, Louie.”

It’s a special day and rightfully so. We try to make it a fun, meaningful celebration, something that will grace photographs and memories with a bit of enchantment.

But even the best events come to an end. The next morning, you wake to find the wedding is over – and that the long road of the marriage is still in front of you.

A good marriage is work. Not the frantic work of trying to assemble details for a moment that will come and go. This is the long haul, where the partnership has to renew itself every day and navigate sometimes difficult waters.

This is about dealing with the daily trials: vomiting dogs, leaking ceilings, mice in the living room, family in the hospital. Sometimes it’s about raising children (or caring for a ward, in our case) and seeing the odder pieces of yourself reflected right back at you. And it’s about not losing sight of each other in the middle of it, even when you’d rather just grab a nap.

There’s still room for romance, even joy. But there’s a practicality mixed with it, one that knows this is still important, even when it isn’t always fun or flashy.

One that has room for furniture as well as diamonds.

Maybe seventeen years is a good time to remember that.

Heather my love, thank you for the love and the fun and the silliness. Thank you for the times we struggled, because we struggled together. Thank you for being with me in the times of frustration and confusion and sheer exhaustion.

Somehow, we’ve done all the grown-up stuff and still love each other. I guess that means we’re doing it right.

Happy anniversary, honey.

Now, tell me again about that table you wanted.

Making the Moment

Some things just take the cake. Others make it taste really, really good.

And no, I don’t mean the frosting.

Ask the University of Minnesota. The folks up in the Land of 1,000 Lakes Plus The Start of One Honkin’ Big River recently did a study that found a curious thing: simply wearing a Vikings jersey can decrease a football team’s Super Bowl chances by a factor of 10.

No, wait. That’s not it. What the researchers really found was that singing “Happy Birthday” before eating a cake made it taste better. And no, it doesn’t work if you just slouch down in your chair and die of embarrassment while the waiters at Three Margaritas do it instead. You’ve got to be personally involved.

(No word yet, by the way, on whether the slightly off-key singing of a televised clown adds anything to the mix. Attention to all Blinky’s Fun Club veterans – the next avenue of research awaits!)

It’s not just the singing, mind you. Lighting and blowing out the candles counts, too. Even the smallest ritual that adds “intrinsic interest” matters, U of M researcher Kathleen Vohs told the world in a release, down to making a big deal of how you unwrap and eat a chocolate bar.

That’s interesting. Weird, but interesting.

And it confirms the results of my own 15-year-long experiment. The one that involves a gold ring on the left hand of two people.

Heather and I married on July 25, 1998. Since then, like most couples, we’ve added a lot of rituals and traditions to our lives. Sometimes it was even on purpose.

There’s been the tradition of sleeping at least one night under the Christmas tree, fulfilling a childhood dream of Heather’s.

Or the accidental tradition for many Thanksgivings of having take-out pizza on Turkey Day – a combination of family illness and nothing else being open.

Even before we married, of course, we partook in the universal date night tradition of Passing The Buck. “So where do you want to go tonight?” “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” “I asked you first.”

And of course, the last two years have added a host of Missy-related rituals, from teasing her out of bed in the morning (Heather found that an off-key rendition of “Cracklin’ Rosie” works really well) to reading her to sleep at night.

Just like the much-repeated birthday song, each new tradition added a little spice. It fixed the memories into place. It put us in the moment.

For the survival of a marriage, that last can be the most valuable of all.

I know, I know. There’s a lot of people who will warn against letting a relationship slide into routine. And they’re right. Taking each other for granted is the surest way to turn a marriage gray, to the point where each partner suddenly wonders if the other has noticed them at all.

This is the opposite of that.

This is finding a way to set aside moments and make them special.

This is a way to focus attention on what you’re doing.

This is claiming drops of the sea of time and saying “This is for us. Here and now.”

It makes a difference.

And just like in the study, it doesn’t work if you’re only a spectator. You have to help make the moment, no matter how many times you may have made it before.

That’s when it becomes truly yours.

We’ve had a lot of moments in 15 years. I look forward to many more.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ll find it hard to do.

In fact, it might just be a piece of cake.