Portrait of a Marriage, Year One: July (The Anniversary)

Note: As explained in this post, in honor of me and my wife’s first year of marriage, I’m going to spend the second year posting monthly reflections of the same month a year earlier. This is the twelfth and final installment.

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As I look back over the first year of our marriage, one thought comes quickly to mind:

“We went through all THAT in one year? And only a year ago, at that?”

I suppose this begs the question, what did I expect the first year of marriage to be like? I used to hear that the first year of marriage was considered to be the most difficult, the year during which a couple learns to shift from the constant candlelight and roses phase of their courtship, to the day-to-day business of sharing household chores, shifting personal schedules to accommodate the marriage, and so on. As modern relationships shift and more couples, like us, spend years dating and even living together, learning each other’s rhythms in greater detail, I would guess this to be less of a constant truism than it used to be.

When I look back over the first year of our marriage, I don’t see any of the things that I suppose many people imagine to be integral to married life. I don’t see a year of constant fun and awe-struck adventures. I don’t see a year of wild-eyed excitement and heady escapes on weekend retreats or dancing under the stars on foreign beaches, or ducking out of the office early to surprise each other with a lavish dinner excursion.

No, what I see is a real marriage.

Our first year was difficult, yes — but not because we had to learn how to live with each other, to compromise and make the sort of small personal sacrifices that are the foundation of any kind of relationship. We were already well-accustomed to that. No, it was a difficult year simply because it was a difficult year; we rarely took a walk together, or shared a meal, that didn’t involve discussing our fears that neither of us would find a stable job in the near future. My teaching contracts cycled off and on every 10 weeks, and your performing commitments provided very modest compensation, while demanding unequal amounts of time. We were both looking for better work, but not knowing where we were going to end up.

As I wrote last month, June brought a sudden shift for us, when I landed a permanent non-academic position, and we had to scramble to move. The year that followed presented many unique challenges – transition periods are often very difficult, and we knew there would be at least a few rough months, but I don’t think either of us anticipated just how mentally and physically exhausting the next year, our second year of marriage, would be. Your performing and teaching commitments primarily still based in the city we used to live in, you spent sometimes over 20 hours a week on the road, and there were some weeks where we rarely saw each other. Just a few weeks ago, we commented that we had not spent so much time apart since our early months of dating, when we were still living across town from each other and getting together only a couple of times a week.

So, yes; the first year was difficult — the second year perhaps even moreso. But that difficulty came not from the marriage, it came from the unrelenting speed and pressure of life. And that’s what I take particular comfort in as I think back, today, over our first and second years of marriage — that the difficulty of these years came not from each other or our relationship but from the commonplace tests and trials of modern life. Our relationship, in fact, is what made these difficulties bearable, what gave each of us a platform to catch our breath, the foundation for our ability to push through difficult patches and keep our eyes fixed on brighter times.

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Looking back, I see us getting up together in time to have a quick breakfast before I ran out the door to teach an early class; I see us holding on to each other in the aftermath of some very difficult job rejection notices; I see us cooking a meal and sitting down to dinner together; mowing the lawn and turning the compost and watering the garden. And I see us taking every opportunity to celebrate the small, quiet victories — the email offering another contract for the next 10 weeks, an invitation to play another music festival, the rush of hope when a rare request for an interview came through, a Saturday afternoon suddenly free of obligation when we could drive to the shore for a bowl of chowder and just a few minutes along the beach. I see a tapestry woven of moments that, when viewed as a whole, depict the magnificent moments that arrive disguised as the mundane, everyday life taken as a series of extraordinary events.

Our first year ended amidst a final push to pack up our home and move to our new city together, bundled amidst the quiet sorrow of my grandmother’s imminent passing. Days after that anniversary, I flew back to Minnesota to attend her funeral, and help my mother with the first stages of sorting out the remnants of her home. As we picked through boxes of photographs and organized bric-a-brac, I was always conscious that I was handling the memories and minutiae of a relationship that lasted over 60 years, that survived the second world war, incredibly difficult economic circumstances, the passing of a child, continuous health problems, and even severe physical injuries.

I remembered one time, perhaps 10 years before my grandfather passed away, when my grandparents still lived on their farm in northern Minnesota. The mailbox was at the bottom of a short but steep driveway, and when my grandmother went out to collect the mail one winter afternoon, she slipped on the ice, injuring her leg to the point she was unable to stand. My grandfather was in the middle of one of his frequent bouts of very poor health, but he could see her out the window, and knew that it would take an ambulance a very long time to reach their very rural location; given the severely cold temperature, hypothermia was likely. With barely the strength to move around the house, and knowing he couldn’t lift her or carry her up the driveway, he took a blanket, went out to her, rolled her onto it, and crawled up the driveway, pulling her behind, to reach the warmth of the house. Now, that’s love, and that’s marriage.

Marriage is not a never-ending string of transcendent experiences, it is a quiet strength that overcomes incredible obstacles. It is what gives us the power to crawl up an icy hillside, without a second thought. The love my grandparents had for each other was evident to everyone who knew them; they endured many of the sorts of trials that most people fear facing, and through those experiences, they forged a relationship stronger than steel.

I think of their example again today, on our second wedding anniversary. I hope we never have to face some of the tests they did, but if we do, I know our marriage is built on substance, not style, and that makes me believe we would endure just as they did. I’m glad we found each other, HP — I don’t know where I would be without you.

Happy 2nd Anniversary, HP! Love you!

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