“Pray during the hard times. Be very happy during the good times.”
After sixty-three years of marriage, it was as simple as that.
“I’m writing a piece about marriage,” I told my husband as we sipped coffee. It was a rare morning when we had uninterrupted hours to enjoy the sunshine. He was off work, and I had dropped the kids off at school. As we sat outside the small-town coffee shop, he chuckled, “You mean, you’re writing about stress, chaos, and change?”
I nodded in agreement and said, “I was thinking more about how the phases of marriage are like a wedding cake, but yes. The layers are probably baked with stress, chaos, and change.”
During our first year of marriage, my husband and I found a small church in the suburb where we lived. It had all the charm of a small community, and we immediately made friends with the seasoned members.
Orville and Dolly sat a few rows ahead of us every Sunday. She wore pink lipstick and garnished her weathered hands with gemmed rings—gifts from her husband. He had a thick northern Minnesota accent and an always-sparkling car.
On our first Christmas as a married couple, Dolly gave me a purple gift bag. The card read, “To the lovebirds. From the old birds.” Inside was a giant Hershey’s kiss. It started our friendship of after-church lunches to Perkins and middle-of-the-afternoon house visits. When we moved away two years later, Dolly and I became penpals. After Dolly died, Orville and I continued the friendship through phone calls. As my husband and I moved from one city to the next, Orville would call if rough weather loomed in our area. From tornado warnings to hurricanes, he faithfully prayed for our safety and would call to check in.
When Dolly died, Orville described to me the feeling he had. Although he was at home and she was at the hospital, he said he knew exactly when she passed. He felt a ripping sensation from his side as if flesh was falling off him. Later, doctors confirmed the timing.
Before we moved, I had asked Dolly about their marriage in one of our after-church Perkin meals. At that time, they had been married for sixty-three years. When she started to reminisce about all their years together, I grabbed a pen to take notes. Her ultimate marriage advice? “Pray during the hard times. Be very happy during the good times.” After sixty-three years of marriage, it was as simple as that.
As the excitement from our wedding subsided, real life set in. My husband bumped into my distracted moods and I, his dirty socks. Expectations stood unmet, and the illusion of marital bliss sat just out of grasp. At first, I blamed him for our marital spats. I told him how he could improve his behavior, but as the seasons flowed into years, I learned that I could not control my spouse’s behavior, only my own. Like an archeologist, I started to dig into my childhood memories and family history. I wanted to know the generations before me to see the patterns I unintentionally absorbed. Quick tempers. Impatient words. Generation after generation. I see them in myself too, and as my kids grow, I see the buds rising in them. I know the hard work of excavating and deconstructing is at hand. I set to work for the sake of my spouse, my kids, and myself. (And I hope my spouse is making his own discoveries too.)
As the first man and woman, Adam and Eve had no imprint from a family of origin, yet they had their own idea of doing things. God brought them together; both were made in his image. In Genesis 2:23, Adam says about Eve, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” They experience together the good of the Garden of Eden, then the crushing consequences of their sin. They have sons and daughters who bring joy, and then there is the grief of a murdered son. Their days were varied and textured, but beyond their beginning introductions in Genesis, we have no record of how they lived their lives. What did being one flesh mean for them? How did they navigate their differences of opinion? Furthermore, what traits did they pass on to us?
In 1703, Thomas Rich, a baker’s apprentice, fell in love with his boss’s daughter. To impress his soon-to-be wife’s family, Thomas created the first multi-tiered wedding cake modeled after the steeple of London’s St. Bride’s church. The cake impressed guests and soon became a popular wedding tradition.¹ Today, contemporary wedding cakes have multiple layers stacked high with the support of inward dowels and made to look outrageous or romantic.
Love might be the initial hook that brought my husband and me to the wedding cake, but faithfulness has been the support structure for living out our layers of marriage. Faithfulness loves when we don’t want to. It holds on instead of letting go. Faithfulness grows with time, but even as time ticks on, just being together does not mean our love will grow. Do we drift apart or find ourselves closer together as we work through rough seasons? After sixty-three years of marriage, Dolly’s advice was to pray during difficult times.
Perhaps these marital missteps, while pulling us apart as man and wife, are meant to draw us closer to God. As we both find our way to our knees, asking for God’s wisdom and grace, we reach for godly patterns. We endure. Try a new way. Prayer changes our perspective and lifts our gaze above the mess. It often challenges my mindset and softens my heart. However, the comfortable way of doing things sits ready for us to fall back. Easy beckons. Although we may be united as “flesh of my flesh,” we are still flesh. We are selfish and all too ready to find our own way again.
I remember listening to Orville and Dolly pray. Orville prayed in his thick northern accent with sincere words. He scraped every request and praise from his thoughts. Dolly, whose prayers were shorter, was succinct. Her words oozed gratefulness. They both prayed as if they had years of practice—as if they knew God heard every word.
I like how Madeleine L'Engle, in her book Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, shared her journey within her forty-year marriage. She wrote, “The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”²
Neither my husband nor I tasted our wedding cake on our wedding day. With guests to greet and official papers to sign, the celebration overwhelmed us. Eating cake was the last thing on our to-do list. But I heard later from a friend, who had three slices, the Dutch almond cake was delicious.
Cover image by Kristy Cruz.