Happily Ever After

Today is my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Someone asked me if they would be renewing their vows for the occasion. I replied that no, they’re just having a party because they really have those vows down by now. Richer and poorer, sickness and health. There’s no need to go over the fine print again because this marriage is fully battle-tested.

They met in college playing bridge. My father, a brilliant bridge player, hates to lose at anything and he quickly deduced my mother was smart enough to keep up with him. Plus, he thought she was cute. They played hours of cards together and his course grades plummeted. Dad was hooked.

Their own parents each had stormy marriages, so my parents had to create a new roadmap for what a happy couple looked like. Mostly, it meant that they strove to be nice to one another. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s actually quite huge. Many times we are polite to strangers but save our worst behavior for our loved ones. Not my parents. My mother would ask my father how his day was and actually listen to the answer. My father would show up periodically with flowers for no particular reason, other than they were pretty and he thought they would make her smile.

My parental units.

Not that they didn’t have arguments. I remember in particular some fun times driving around Europe in the days before GPS. My father drove the car while my mother pored over the map, trying to figure out where we were. By the time she’d located the street name, he’d driven somewhere else. I learned all my best swear words touring Europe with my parents!

But they have always supported each other. Mom proofread his scientific papers (just ask her about middle T!) and Dad took up the viola in middle age so that he could join her orchestra. They order the same meal in restaurants and can finish each other’s stories. One memorable Christmas they even gave each other the same book…wrapped in the same paper.

Happy endings often get a bad rap in fiction. They are dismissed as unrealistic or trite. Serious literature is filled with perennially unhappy characters who do terrible things to one another, sometimes in the name of love, as if purpose cannot exist without suffering. These books aren’t wrong, of course. Pain comes for us all in some form or another. Especially in the span of fifty years, you will find examples of suffering, if that’s what you’re looking for. You’ll also find light and laughter and the beauty of choosing the same person over and over again. It’s all in how you frame the story.

A few years ago, my mother told me she’d briefly broken up with my dad when they were dating. I asked him for his perspective on this apparent blip in their otherwise happy life together. “Dad, I had no idea that Mom broke up with you way back when!”

Dad, lowered his newspaper, a furrow in his brow. “She did?”

“You know, when she moved to New York and was seeing other people.”

“But I visited her in New York!”

“Yeah, so did other people, apparently. You’re telling me that Mom broke up with you and you never even noticed?”

“Huh. Guess so.” He raised his paper again, and I stared at him some more, amazed that he could continue calmly reading in the face of this shattering news. Mom had had serious doubts at one point! She’d dumped my dad for some other guy(s).

“Dad, this doesn’t bother you even a little bit?” I waved my arms around.

He peeked over the paper. “Why should it? I won.”

6 Responses to “Happily Ever After”

  1. Paula

    That’s a wonderful tribute to your parents. Happy Anniversary to them! 🎉

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      Aw, thanks! It’s been a really lovely day, even if it was almost as hot and humid as it was fifty years ago in FLORIDA.

  2. Mary

    What an interesting comment: “Serious literature is filled with perennially unhappy characters who do terrible things to one another, sometimes in the name of love, as if purpose cannot exist without suffering.” Of course stories must have conflict and tension, but as you say, human life provides plenty of that without the need for people who love each other to torment each other. But it is a special kind of tragedy when people who love each other bring out the worst in each other. I think that happens sometimes. If only we had the strength and insight to walk away from those relationships.

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      I think you’re so right, Mary, that these kinds of relationships do happen in real life, which is crushing to contemplate. It’s also true that we do our best learning from our mistakes, so if you’re looking for characters to grow, they must struggle in some way. I do read books with characters who are desperately unhappy and spend most of their lives cutting one another down, and then I usually return to a plain old murder story where someone’s a killer but not everyone in the story is soul-suckingly awful.

  3. Robin

    I love your writing style. I feel like I am given special permission to listen. I like depth of the details, enough for the movie in my head to start playing and I create the back ground to your words.


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