The Eighties were the biggest decade of my life; I graduated from high school, went to college, voted in my first election, made my home in three different states, bought my first car, made some lifelong friends, met and married my husband. While I won’t regale you in this blog post regarding the minutia of high school, college and those early jobs, I will briefly set the stage at how I arrived at today, my (our) thirtieth wedding anniversary. If marriage is about any one specific thing, I would have to say it is about timing. Every little choice in life puts you in a certain location, with particular circumstances, which set events in motion. Upon reflection, life is comprised of each of those choices accumulated. Some choices you labor over, some you’re forced to accept as the choices of others, but most are casually made like choosing which gas station to stop at based on the direction you are driving.
In the spring of 1988, I was wrapping up a year of covering a sabbatical leave as a hall director at Winona State University and spent spring break in Mexico with two of my friends I’d met while being an RA at SCSU. One of them was residing in Northern Michigan, while the other was a nanny in California, we’d hatched the plan between Christmas and New Year’s while all home visiting family (and each other) in Minnesota.
While in Mexico, I quickly met a guy from Canada who I was instantly smitten with and the night before his scheduled departure (with his traveling companion) he took me to dinner. While dining he told me that he had spoken with his trip director regarding extending his stay and that if he could stay with my friends and I he’d book a flight out the day we were leaving. While his gesture was sweet, it was an illogical plan and though my friends were pretty flexible and accommodating, it felt like it would be a self-serving and perhaps regrettable choice to make this guy the male-equivalent of Yoko Ono breaking up our band. He flew out as scheduled and we went on to ruin the spring breaks of some poor college guys from Ohio State, a story for another day. We wrote each other for a few months and then moved on.
After arriving home, I busied myself with securing a new job for the following school year and planned to live with my folks for a month between jobs. I turned 25 that summer and during our spring break, my friends and I decided to meet for a week in California while the twins who my friend was a nanny for were with their father. One morning we stood in the kitchen in our pajamas and contemplated what we should have for breakfast. Beer was the unanimous choice and we sat in the sun on the deck and enjoyed a breakfast of liquid bread, it was several courses as I recall. We discussed many things that morning which slipped away into afternoon, among them the idea of falling in love. We developed a theory that “falling in love” was simply a metaphor for pairing yourself with a companion you could tolerate for an extended period of time. We talked about the men we knew that we’d be willing to share our lives with if we hit thirty and hadn’t met someone. We talked about guys who were good looking, men who were destined to be successful, the people we’d worked with that had the qualities we’d want in fathers for our future children. We were all 25, slightly intoxicated and thought we had life figured out. My own children are currently 24 and 26 and there I was nestled between their ages, having not yet met their father, not wearing sunscreen and totally unaware of what the coming months and years had in store. Little choices, that snowball into the big choices that ultimately become your life.
Upon returning from California, I moved to UW-Stout in Wisconsin to become a Hall Director. Three colleges, in three states, in three years. Though the calendar begins with January, I have often thought that years begin in September; school years start in September, I met my husband Jeff in September, I became a mother when my daughter Betsy was born in September. That September of 1988 my oldest brother was getting married. I had known the bride since shortly after their courtship began while I was still in college. Her parents would pick me up while passing through St. Cloud and I would watch her youngest brother play football at St. Johns where his father had played. Her parents were the first guests to arrive at my college graduation party. While I was excited to be a bridesmaid, I had the choice to make as to whether or not I bring a “plus one” to the event and ultimately decided not to. I arranged for a friend I had met in Winona to bring his classic limousine to the affair to drive the couple from the church to their reception. It was at the rehearsal the night before that I met the bride’s other brother in the back of St. Patrick’s Catholic church. In jeans and a tweed sport coat he was formal and somewhat subdued.
The plan for the evening of the wedding was that my best friend and another good friend would stay with me in the hotel and a friend of the bride who was attending alone (that I’d met at the bachelorette party) would be joining us. When my best friend arrived she told me that her new job had her scheduled for testing the following morning but she’d brought me a cooler of beer on ice for the room. The bride’s friend opted to share a room with a friend who had recently gone through a breakup. These are the choices in life made by others, that are seemingly minor at the time but are ultimately turning points in your life when you look back at them.
I caught the bouquet at the reception, invited different attendees to my room after the festivities ended and spent a fair amount of time on the dance floor. At some point in the evening the bride’s brother that I had met the previous evening stepped onto the dance floor and asked what my room number was, I told him and then said “nice hair” in reference to his meticulous flat top. Not amused he said “fuck you” and turned on his heel and departed.
While I have chronicled before how I ended up in my hotel room alone (with a cooler of icy cold beer) in cut off sweat pants and a Fort Worth Stockyards sweatshirt waiting for a pizza delivery, the more entertaining and totally inaccurate version is the one my husband’s uncles shared one snowy Christmas Eve when they were the only guests who could make the drive to our place. My kids sat on the basement steps and listened to the story, amused by our interruptions to detail the actual facts. Jeff (the bride’s brother) did show up at my hotel room and was with an intoxicated woman. It was his cousin who he had driven around and looked for a gas station with, her husband had taken a cab home and left her with a car with little gas and in no condition to drive. Since he’d driven with his parents and they were spending the night at the bride and groom’s home, he was basically stuck at the hotel with a drunk cousin. In the uncle’s version (which takes several hours to tell) I was having car problems and Jeff who was a mechanic rescued me by chivalrously making necessary car repairs and ending with “and not too much later, you came along.” with a nod to Betsy. In reality; my car was parked in front of my childhood home, Jeff worked at an auto parts store and Betsy was born on the four year anniversary of the day we met.
While his cousin “slept it off” we stayed up most of the night discussing religion and politics. He came to visit me at Stout the next weekend, I went to Mankato where he lived the one following. He met me in St. Cloud for Homecoming (the year of the riots), he had Army Reserves the weekend I took my new RA staff on retreat at the family cabin. The last weekend of October he met me in Winona and the first weekend in November, on my father’s final birthday we drove together to the cabin where he asked my Dad for my hand. We had met on September 22nd of 1988, had our wedding planned by November 5th and thirty years ago today, in weather much like yesterday we got married at Fort Snelling Memorial chapel and had our reception at the Embassy Suites in Bloomington, a few miles from the home we moved to in 2001.
From the start there were naysayers, one of our favorites being “they don’t even know each other’s middle names” (we did, which oddly held no real relevance other than we eventually used mine as our daughter’s first name). We found ourselves amused by the wedding gift that included paper napkins, a nod to the anticipated temporary status of our union. We were young, impulsive and in love. Nobody (but me) was likely more surprised than my two friends who mused just weeks earlier that falling in love was a concept developed to advance movie plots and sell greeting cards. They, along with my best friend from childhood and the groom’s sister would be my bridesmaids.
A marriage of thirty years could fill many blog posts and certainly I have shared topics from our shared life here before and will again. Like all marriages we have faced challenges, our first year tested us with the death of my father, Jeff not being able to secure work while we lived in Menomonie Wisconsin, my mother living with us temporarily and Jeff and I deciding to return to Minnesota. We’ve celebrated monumental birthdays, raised two kids we’re proud of, worked and been out of work.
We came into our marriage with friendships that have endured and continued to make friendships along the way. Last night after making preparations for our Easter Brunch I crawled into bed to watch the finale of Family or Fiance. It’s a show hosted by fellow Southwest High School graduate Tracy McMillan who provides guidance to engaged couples by having them spend three days in a lavish house with family members and friends who have concerns about the engaged couple. The objective is to earn the blessing of their families or come to the realization that perhaps the void is too great and part. Tracy is a talented author, television writer and is billed as a “relationship expert”. A relationship expert with three ex-husbands and her own TV show and I’m currently un(der)employed grading poorly written ninth grade English tests from Tennessee. While I don’t think I am any sort of expert on marriage, I do think I have gleaned some shareable wisdom from the past three decades.
First, I will acknowledge that marriage isn’t a perfect state for everyone to live in. My four bridesmaids have had seven husband’s between them. While it’s nice to have someone to go through life with, going through it with the wrong person would be emotionally taxing at best. I laugh at the “wisdom” that might have been imparted to Jeff and I if we had gathered for a three-day intensive with those opposed to our marriage thirty years ago. In his anniversary card I gave the insight that marriage works best when you are matched with someone who is as stubborn as you are. While stubbornness may not seem like the most romantic trait, it is the bulldozer that gets you through the rude comments of others, the shared obstacles and even the miscommunication that happens between two people.
Those who know both Jeff and I would say we are fairly opposite, which means we strike a balance. He did the grown up laundry, while I did the kids. I handled the bills and the taxes. I don’t make “Honey do” lists. I coordinate the family calendar and write the Christmas letters. He puts up the Christmas lights and makes sure the gutters are cleaned. He goes to gun shows, I go to concerts and plays. He gets together with the guys from his Army Reserve Unit, I do getaways with girlfriends. He has planned four surprise birthday parties for me (30, 40, 45 and 50). I would never surprise him because he suffered from agoraphobia when he was younger and I fear it would cause a panic attack. With his buy-in I have arranged for celebrations when he turned 30, 40 and 50. He is the pessimist and I am the optimist. We both share a warped sense of humor. Betsy and Eddie would both tell you that we could go for days communicating only using lines from movies.
My advice to young couples would be don’t be polite, state what you want and mutually work toward common objectives. Choose someone who accepts your negative traits but also someone who sees the good in you that you don’t even know is there. Don’t try to please everyone around you or worry about what everyone else thinks. Find the person who you want to solve the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune with or who you can relax with in the car while they drive, the person who will remember what brand of deodorant you wear, the person you want in the waiting room when you come out of anesthesia. Figure out who you want to sit next to at both weddings and at funerals, Jeff is the guy who always has a handkerchief at the ready for me. Marriage is not about the grand gestures, it is about the common details of our shared days; missing each other when we are apart, knowing what the other is thinking. Find someone not that you can live with (as the initial plan was when I was 25) but the person who you truly can’t live without. That’s how you know.
Our marriage license says Douglas Torbert at the bottom and is signed by Rodd Johnson. Doug was stationed in Germany at the time we were married and unable to secure leave. We joke that we’re not legally married and Betsy and Eddie are our “love children”. I was married to Jeff for over three years before I finally met Doug. Timing is everything and both Doug and Rodd are currently married to women we introduced them too. Our “bachelor neighbor” at our current home is now married and the father of two. We introduced him to a woman I worked with while they were attending my 40th birthday party. While not hopeless romantics, we are suckers for love.
Thirty years have flown by, I’m older now than my own mother was on my wedding day and Jeff is older now than my father was. Sometimes the days pass slowly but the years move quickly. Company arrives in a couple of hours for Easter brunch and I still have things to tend to. As I open the cupboard to set the table I marvel at the fact that after thirty years we still have the original 8 dinner plates and 8 salad plates that we’ve eaten thousands of meals from. Only three bowls remain and the black and white set are supplemented with a rainbow of Fiestaware. That’s what a good marriage is like, regular everyday things that last and unexpected color to enhance what may have gone missing. Things that may not appear to go together but ultimately work out just fine, as long as you don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.