Jim Bishop | Marital musings after 42 years (Why knot?)

I was already feeling hesitant about the assignment, but as wife Anna and I entered the gathering space at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, the anxiety level really shot up.
What have we gotten ourselves into? Who do we think we are, “preaching” to this large (over 150 people) group, many of them more knowledgeable and experienced in the marital arena than we?

It was too late now. As guest speakers for the annual fund-raising banquet of the Family Life Resource Center (FLRC) of Harrisonburg, we were asked to address the topic, “The First 50 Years are the Hardest.” We couldn’t fully enjoy the sumptuous meal, anticipating what was to come as we engaged in conversation with the four other couples at our table, all married longer than Anna and me.

The moment of truth arrived; we stood and surveyed the sea of mostly familiar faces, and forged ahead . . .

Let’s put everything on the table, I said: Marriage is something like a game of cards. It begins with a pair. He acts the joker and she the queen. He shows a diamond, she shows a flush. There’s a big shuffle and they wind up with a full house. To which you might retort, big deal!

It has been a few years – 42, in fact – since Anna Mast and this goofy guy from Doylestown, Pa., exchanged vows – A, E, I, O, and, uh, several others – of mutual involvement in each other’s lives the evening of July 22, 1967, in the sultry sanctuary of Frazer Mennonite Church near Paoli, Pa.

After a celestial honeymoon – that’s the interval between the bridal toast and the burnt toast – at a cottage in Seaside Heights, N.J., it was off to Elkhart, Ind. Anna was nursing a throbbing toothache that she didn’t tell her new husband about, not wanting to spoil the honeymoon. Our ’56 VW smoked along the Ohio and Indiana toll roads at a top speed of 35 mph. We were faced with a $400 engine repair as soon as we hit town.

Welcome to married life – no money or credit line, college debt, no extended family in our new locale but many hopes and dreams as we set up housekeeping in a tiny, $75-a-month apartment. Cockroaches were included at no extra charge.

It’s taken many years of trial and error to assemble the pieces of the conjugal jigsaw puzzle. For our first five years together it was just the two of us, working hard to really get to know each other even though we’d dated for three years of college, no children, one cat – a Sealpoint Siamese named Menno. Life was purrfect, so I thought.

Actually, it wasn’t perfect. At the start of our marriage, Anna tried to be my mother – perfect housekeeper, cook, caregiver. She had to teach in the Elkhart County public school system to help pay our bills. She found it a nearly overwhelming task to do both, but she persisted.

During our first year of marriage, we attended a seminar where we were to share with our spouse an area where he/she could improve. Anna still remembers how hurt she felt when this sensitive spouse said that he wished that she would do a better job cleaning the crumbs under the kitchen table. Today, Anna would respond – “if you don’t like the crumbs then you clean them up” – but back then she dutifully made sure that the kitchen floor was spotless.

It didn’t help either when the seminar leader asked me what’s your wife’s favorite flower, and I replied, “Pillsbury, right, dear?”

Our four years in Elkhart did provide some building blocks for our marriage – including involvement with Belmont Mennonite Church, a congregation on the cutting edge of new expressions of worship and strong advocates of small groups. In those settings Anna started to shed her introverted character, felt freer to express her inner feelings and bloom where she was planted.

The next four decades brought incredible change and adjustments, starting with a move from Indiana to Harrisonburg in July 1971; the tent stakes subsequently pounded deep into Valley soil. We “bought” the house we moved into later that same year with money we didn’t have by taking on a 30-year mortgage that we thought we’d never pay off (we did, and then took on another for home improvements). We’ve been content to remain in the same small house that we bought in early 1972.

Finances have caused tension and arguments because of differing attitudes about money. Ann grew up tending to buy cheaply and often, while I went for more costly items that lasted longer. Anna likes to save for a rainy day; I like to spend.

While our families of origin were different in terms of some practices, we share similar spiritual values and are strongly committed to being part of the Mennonite Church. It has certainly been helpful that we got to know each other’s families well over our three-plus years of dating. After all, you don’t marry a person, you marry a family!

Over the years, we have tried to give each other space to be independent, to retain our individual identities, and to pursue certain interests separate from the other. I try to withhold comment on her enjoyment of southern gospel music – “hey, who’s that guy belching into and swallowing the microphone?” – and she tolerates my passion for the street corner/doo wop tunes of the 1950s – “they sound like someone’s having a vasectomy performed with a Weedeater.” But we also enjoy spending time together – on trips, the occasional getaway weekend, country line dancing regularly and those rare quiet evenings at home.

Humor has helped us deal with and survive numerous problems, conflicts and tense times, a cherished gift in our marriage. Sometimes, laughing together at what is perceived at the outset as a difficult situation is the best way to begin dealing with it.

In what seems like a few fleeting years we’ve become “empty nesters,” grandparents of six grandkids, qualifiers for certain senior citizen discounts, recognizing “retirement” as not just a nebulous concept anymore. Yes, we’re still learning from our mistakes, still hurting each other at times but determined to forgive and forget, striving to listen to and hear each other, to laugh often and rejoice as we share mutual interests and celebrate each other’s joys and accomplishments.

But more importantly, we’re still courting, still trying to grow into a deeper, more transparent relationship by the grace of God and with support from our church, friends, small group and extended family.

I publicly declare to my amazing spouse, “Let’s keep on walking this way, my love. Even though we’re experiencing short-term memory loss and less physical prowess, I believe the best is yet to come. Wherever our paths lead from here, let’s travel it together.”

Will the journey last another 42 years? Likely not, but we will cherish each day we are yet given to make beautiful marital music as one.

 

– Column by Jim Bishop


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