A Joyful Family Wedding

John, Julie, and I attended my cousin Kim’s wedding (to Brent Wentsel) on Saturday, June 23. As most weddings are, this was a joyful occasion, and several of my cousins were present for the event.

We stayed with my cousins Joe and Catherine (father and stepmother of the bride). They had a full house with Uncle Paul (age 90) and his daughter Sue (Joe’s sister) from southwest Virginia; Jan and Jim from Pittsburgh; and Craig and Mona from Minden, LA; in addition to us.

It was a wonderful weekend. Kim & Brent’s wedding was beautiful and went off without a hitch as far as I could tell. (Kim had a rough week leading up to the wedding, with two visits to urgent care, but she looked beautiful and no worse for the wear.)

The wedding was at Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. The ceremony was outdoors at 6:00 p.m. Thankfully a thunderstorm had passed through the area the day before, and temperatures were in the 80s, about 10 degrees cooler than on Friday.

Kim and Brent had planned some interesting details: the groomsmen wore brightly striped socks under their tuxes. Each person in the wedding party walked down the aisle individually, beginning with the minister, Kim’s maternal grandfather.

Brent walked down smiling, and the other groomsmen followed suit. The bridesmaids wore coral dresses of slightly different styles; they were beautiful, of course. Everyone looked hot as they squinted into the sun, waiting for Kim and her dad to come down the aisle.

The cutest part of the procession was the two- and four-year-old sons of one of the bridesmaids: they preceded Kim by carrying a banner that announced “Here comes the bride.” The two-year-old’s attention wandered a couple of times as he came down the aisle. I believe he dropped his end of the banner. Kim’s mother, standing at the front, called him by name and encouraged him to come on down.

I teared up as I watched Kim and Joe process down the aisle toward the white tulle-and-flower-wrapped arch under which Kim’s grandfather and the groom stood. Both Kim and Joe were smiling radiantly (I guess it’s okay to say the father of the bride was radiant). Kim was gorgeous, with her hair styled in several flat coils and adorned with a shiny floral headpiece to which her long veil was attached. I’m obviously not a writer who describes wedding dresses well, but she wore a strapless ivory gown with satin-covered buttons and a long train. She and Brent looked like a couple from Bride magazine.

The minister/granddad did a great job. In his challenge to the couple, he spoke about the joys of marriage but also reminded Kim and Brent that there would be times when they wouldn’t feel love for each other. It’s during those times, he said, that the commitment part of marriage kicks in.

Then came time for the bride and groom to exchange vows. Kim and Brent had written their own. Brent promised to love Kim and cook for her. (I loved that part of his vows. Turns out that he is a very good cook; his mother told me he wanted to go to culinary school, but she encouraged him to study finance and learn the business end first, so he got a degree in finance.) During Brent’s vows, Kim’s dad quickly handed her a handkerchief. Kim sobbed through most of her vows, stopping to wipe her nose every now and then, but her voice was steady and strong despite her tears. She and Brent have known each other for 7 years, so I think they are off to a great start.

After the wedding, family and friends celebrated together inside the Music Center with a sit-down dinner, generously flowing wine and champagne, much conversation, and dancing. John and I had so much fun.

John especially enjoyed the dancing (and the rest of my family was much amused by his moves on the dance floor). Julie danced with him for the first time in public. Julie, a couple of female cousins, and I danced together while John danced to his own beat, sometimes facing and sometimes turning away from us. Note to self: John and I really need to take a ballroom dancing class. All I know how to do is sway my body (sometimes not very gracefully) to the music, move my arms around a bit (mostly like we danced in the 1970s), and step from side to side. I don’t know how to follow in a couples dancing routine, and John doesn’t know how to lead. We make a good but awkward pair.

Anyway, we had lots of fun at the wedding. My cousin Bill (Joe’s brother) came from Cincinnati and stayed with his college friends Teddy and Mimi. I was glad to see him, although it was hard to have much conversation as the music grew progressively louder. I was going to pull him out onto the dance floor, but I wasn’t sure he could handle that (he’s the most staid of my cousins), and I didn’t want to embarrass him.

It was a great weekend full of time to catch up with my extended family. I can’t wait for the next wedding, my cousin David’s, in September!

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What Has Made Our Marriage Work

Love and trust are the foundations for a  lasting relationship, with a little magic dust thrown in. At least that’s my take on what has helped our marriage survive so far. I am writing not from a research perspective but simply on observations I’ve made over the nearly 30 years that John and I have been married.

First, there’s chemistry. I didn’t date a whole lot of guys before I met John, but I spent enough time with them to know whether there was any possibility for a long-term relationship (not that pure physical attraction is the basis for a lasting relationship, but it is one ingredient). I remember the first time I fell in love, during my sophomore year of college. We said those magic words to each other, and life was good. Then my beloved went home for Christmas break, and evidently his parents talked some sense into him (he was only a freshman, and I guess they thought I was trying to get my hooks into him). When he came back, things were different. In fact, I didn’t hear from him for several days into the semester, and I wondered what was going on. Then I saw him with another girl…oh well.

When I met John, there was something about him that drew me in. He was handsome, funny, made me laugh, we had long talks and danced, and I just felt comfortable around him. One young woman in our singles group at church warned me about him. She said he tried out all the new women who became part of the singles group. So I was wary of him for a while, but not for long.

I had this idea of how relationships between men and women should work, but none of my college romances followed this pattern. You see, I thought that when someone you’d been dating for a while started feeling hemmed in or wanted to date other people, the two of you would talk about it and decide to date other people for a while or stop dating altogether. None of this “It’s not you, it’s me” stuff–just honest communication. John and I talked about that. After we dated for a couple of months, I told him I didn’t want to make any assumptions about our relationship. I gave him an out by telling him that if he didn’t want to date me exclusively, he should just tell me. Well, it wasn’t long before a new “girl” joined our singles group and he started dating her. I thought back to my friend’s warning, considered the conversations John & I had had, and decided to write him off my list of potential long-term prospects, though at age 22 I really wasn’t expecting to get married anytime soon. That’s the thing: guys usually thought I was more serious about them than I actually was. I’ve always had an intense  personality; when I get involved in anything (work, relationships, hobbies, volunteer activities), I tend to throw my whole self into it.

To John’s credit, he wised up. He and his date happened to be at the same place that I and my date went one night, a local nightclub where some musicians from our church were playing (not Christian music, BTW). The next day, John called and asked, “How’s your love life? “By this time  I had decided I was way over him (although  Ifelt hurt and angry when I found out he was dating someone else without having “the talk” with me). I replied breezily, “My love life’s fine. How about yours?” To which he responded by launching into a tale of woe about how the girl had dumped him the night before. I didn’t feel too sympathetic. Then, a few seconds later, he asked, “What are you doing tonight?” I was incredulous. I said, “Oh, so you think you can come waltzing back into my life and take up where we left off?” But I wound up going out with him, with the understanding that we were spending time together as friends. That didn’t last long. We went to a movie, and before long, his hand crept over on top of mine. “Uh-oh,” my mind said. And goose bumps raised on my arm.

So there’s the physical part. Over the years of our marriage, my heart has always beat a little faster when I see John after being away from him during the day. Most of the time, that is. I still think he’s handsome, and I love the way his eyes light up, his strong profile, and the curves of his face. I think he looks a lot like the inventor Edison. (In fact, he aspires to be an inventor.)

What are some other things that have caused us to stay together?

1. Shared values. John and I care about many of the same things, such as speaking up for persons who are often ignored or marginalized by society. We feel strongly about the importance of education and about encouraging others to pursue their dreams. We both love to read and analyze political situations (confusing as they are and confused though we may be). Our faith has been important in our relationship. Belonging to a faith community has also played a key role in our evolving spiritual journeys.

2. Mutual respect and encouragement. I’ll have to say that John has been the mature one here. I don’t recall his ever speaking badly about me in front of others. I, on the other hand, have joined the conversation when friends got on the subject of things about their spouse or significant other that really bothered them. John has encouraged me in my career. One time early on, when I despaired about ever moving past an entry-level editorial position, he remarked, “Sometimes you just have to plow corn for a while.” This was what I needed to hear at the time, and it helped me to not give up.

3. Honest, sometimes frank, communication. I used to think we argued a lot, compared to other couples. But over the years I noticed that some of our friends who didn’t argue wound up getting divorces. I pondered that for a bit. I don’t think it’s healthy when a couple argues constantly. But if they don’t disagree and express those differences to each other, they may settle into a pattern of apathy, where they don’t share ideas or look deeper at issues. I don’t agree with John’s views on many things, but we’ve decided that being of the same mind on every issue would result in a boring relationship, or that one person would constantly be biting his or her tongue, feeling subjugated.

4. When things go wrong, you gotta stick together. John and I have survived having a child with substance abuse problems, three parents’ deaths, estranged relationships in our extended family, financial problems, and childhood wounds, just to name a few. If I’ve ever jokingly mentioned divorce, John looked at me seriously and said, “That’s not an option.”  I will add a disclaimer here. I told him there were at least two situations I could never live with: infidelity or abuse. I do believe every relationship needs to have boundaries.

5. Spend time together, away from your children. When our children were young, we got absorbed in the daily responsibility of caring for them. We originally set a goal of going out weekly, but that wasn’t realistic for us. So once a month, we got a babysitter and took a night off. Occasionally we went on weekend getaways, sometimes with other couples and sometimes by ourselves. These trips were well worth the money and helped give us some perspective on whatever was going on in our family at the time.

6. When you disagree on how to discipline your children, do so in private. I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at following my own advice. Sometimes John overreacted (in my opinion) to something one of our children had done, and he would bark out an ultimatum … and then leave me to enforce it. I got so POed about that! And I told him so (away from the children). I recall one instance in Daniel’s adolescence when John and I had a heated exchange, and Daniel remarked, “Should I call a marriage counselor?” He was a hypersensitive child who read a lot into our “discussions” (as I preferred to call them, rather than arguments). We told him that no, we were just fine…we just had a difference of opinion. On the important issues, we presented a united front with the children. We soon caught onto the game of their approaching one parent and asking for something, then if they didn’t get what they wanted, they would go to the other parent. So our refrain became, “Your dad (mom) and I need to talk about this. If you keep pushing, the answer is no.”

7. Spend time with older couples who have healthy relationships. Learn from their example. We are fortunate to have some older friends who have demonstrated love and faithfulness in the midst of trying times.

8. Don’t let the children be the center of your relationship. John and I tried our best as parents. We made many mistakes. Sometimes we got sucked into letting our lives revolve around problems with our kids, but we tried to decompress every day by spending a few minutes talking about anything but the children. As our children have become young adults, we like to sneak off every now and then and do something fun. They always act a little startled that we have a life outside of them, but we remind them that we were a couple first and foremost before we became parents.

9. Forgive, forgive, forgive. And don’t expect domestic responsibilities to work out 50/50. Sometimes you feel as if you are “doing everything,” when in reality you’re not. Couples who keep score of who’s doing the most seem to be the most dissatisfied folks we know. There are times in every relationship when one person has to carry most of the weight to get through a rough patch. That’s okay, as long as it doesn’t become a long-term pattern.

10. In the Christian tradition to which John and I belonged for most of our marriage, there was an emphasis on the wife being submissive to the husband. I have always thought this to be a load of bullcrap. The apostle Paul does say, “Wives, submit to your husbands” and “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (meaning that husbands should love their wives enough to be willing to die for them). But immediately before those instructions, he wrote, “Submit to one another out of mutual love.” John and I believe strongly in mutual submission. It has been key in our relationship. Partners have different strengths. We think that the person with the most strengths in certain areas (such as finances, household repairs, etc.)–regardless of gender and expected roles–should be the one to make the decision…of course, after discussing with the other partner.

Every relationship has its rough patches, and those are the times when you hang onto the commitment you made. Sometimes you may not feel loving toward your partner, but we have discovered that if you act as if you love someone, the feeling usually follows. Feelings are strange things. If you operate solely from an emotional base, you can get in trouble, because emotions are like shifting sands (maybe even quicksand).

So these are my thoughts for today. I hope I will look back on them in 10 years and think that they are still valid! My best wishes to every couple out there who is navigating the sometimes troubled waters of a relationship. There are good times, and there are bad times. As the old saying goes, “This too shall pass.” And scripture says, “Three things remain: hope, faith, and love. The best of these is love.” (Read 1 Corinthians 13 if you want to know more about keys to a lasting relationship. I can write no more wiser words than those of  that beautiful chapter.)

The Sweetest Thing My Husband Ever Did

I guess you could call this part 2 of my blog on “What Makes a Relationship Work?” As I write this, my husband, John, is headed to North Carolina to be with my dad and tend to his surgical site. I just returned from being with Daddy (who’s 89 and had outpatient surgery for a growth on his neck on Monday) for a few days. He’s had continuing problems with the left side of his face, starting with surgery for a melanoma back in December 2011.

I feel like the luckiest woman in the world right now. I wanted to spend more time with my dad and felt bad leaving him the day after surgery, although he was doing well.  If I’d had my “druthers,” I would have stayed for 2 or 3 more days. But here’s the deal:  our family has already planned a vacation trip to the DC area for a cousin’s wedding (leaving on June 22 and returning June 26), and at my work we are trying to get a catalog finished by the end of this month, so it’s not a good time to be away from the office for extended periods.

I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that the pathology results from Monday’s surgery will come back clean as a whistle. Before I got to my dad’s, all I knew was that the lump was on his neck. When I got there and saw the location of the tumor, I noticed it was directly under the site of his squamous cell carcinoma surgeries (he had to go back three times to have all of it removed until the margins were clear). Fear rose in my chest. I’m praying that the tumor is benign. Perhaps I should take consolation in the fact that the surgeon told me it looked good to his naked eye.

But this is my dad we’re talking about. John knew, without my having to ask, that I would feel better if someone from our family was with Daddy. He has a more flexible schedule now that school is out. If Daddy gets bad news, there will be a representative from our family with him.

Meanwhile, we wait. And John has definitely racked up some major “Good Hubby” points.

[Update 6/14/12: The pathology report came back with good news. Whew.]

What Makes a Relationship Work? part 1

My husband and I went to a Three Dog Night concert a few weeks ago and got to talking to another couple. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, finding out what each of us did and discovering some common ground. The other couple has four children; John and I have two. I asked about the ages of their children and was somewhat surprised when the man couldn’t remember the birth order of their children. He was talking about one child and said, “Wait, no, he’s the next to oldest.”

My puzzlement must have shown on my face, because he soon explained, “We’ve been married for only 3 years; we are a blended family.” I know several couples who have made that situation work, so I didn’t think too much about it. Then he asked how long John and I have been married. We both said, almost in unison, “Thirty years this August.”

“Wow!” the guy replied. “What’s your secret?”

For once, I was speechless. After a pause, I said, “I really don’t have a clue.” (John was sitting to my left; the couple was to my right. He couldn’t hear all of the conversation because of music playing in the background before the concert, so I was turning back to him and keeping him informed of most of our conversation. I’m sure he would have chimed in with his own two cents’ worth if we’d had a quieter setting for conversation.)

This guy’s question got me to thinking about John’s and my relationship, what has and hasn’t worked for us over the years, and before the night was over, I was really grateful for my sweet, devoted spouse, because what we witnessed in the other couple wasn’t pretty.

I don’t know if they’d had an argument before coming to the Wild Horse Saloon or if perhaps they got some bad news during the concert. All I know is that the guy was a little too “handsy” for my tastes…he kept touching my shoulder while we were talking. I was trying to ignore it and include his wife in our conversation. In fact, I talked across him to her a lot of the time.

They got up and went somewhere just before the concert started, and when they came back, he positioned himself at the rail (there was a counter in front of us for food & drink) with his back definitely turned toward me and all his attention focused on her. She was upset. I looked at her and told John, “Something’s up. She’s crying.” They had some earnest conversation, mostly the guy pleading with her about something. About one song into the concert, they got up and left. It’s a mystery…but the whole situation got me to thinking about how John and I have managed to stay together for nearly 30 years.

One thing I have always appreciated about my spouse is his love and devotion to me. Not a day goes by without his telling me, “I love you.” I say the same to him every single day, or most days. Often we say this just before going to sleep, even on the roughest days when we’ve bitched at each other about some petty matter or argued. Sometimes when I say “I love you” to him, he replies, “I know.” At first I wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing…then I decided, yes, it is. I certainly want my husband to feel loved.

We’ve gone through many ups and downs, as any couple would in a 30-year relationship.

Four weeks before our wedding, John’s dad died suddenly of a heart attack or stroke. I’ll never forget John’s early-morning phone call informing me of his dad’s death. I was with him as much as possible in the following days. I was so proud of his being able to make decisions about his dad’s funeral, though later I discovered that his brother resented his take-charge attitude. John is the baby of the family; his brother is 6 years older, his sister 9 years older. His mom was 75 at the time. John discussed the funeral arrangements with his family, but he clearly was the decision maker. At times like that, you need someone who is willing to step into the leadership role, even if someone else gripes about it…and where siblings are involved, it seems there is always at least one dissatisfied party.

We decided to go ahead with our wedding, since we had just gotten our invitations and were in the process of mailing them. We thought it would give John’s mom something to look forward to. When I look back at our wedding pictures, she looks shell-shocked.

Early in our marriage, I had to learn to “report in” to John. This was a new concept to me, an impulsive sort who might decide to go shopping on the way home from work. At first I resented calling him. Then I realized that I was responsible for communicating. (Duh.) It’s only right to be considerate of the person(s) you live with and let them know if you’re not going to be home at the time they expect you. This was in the days before cell phones, so communication was a little more challenging then. (Back in the dinosaur age, I could still send smoke signals from my work phone.)

John traveled a lot for his job during the first two years of our marriage. I kind of welcomed his travels, because I still had a chance to do stuff I wanted to do while I was learning to be married. He sold concrete accessories, and I learned more about concrete than I ever wanted to. The highlight of this period of our marriage was a trip to Washington, DC for a convention called World of Concrete. I got lots of jokes about that from my colleagues. Who’d ever think that there could be so much fuss about concrete and the stuff that reinforces it? Turns out the trip to DC was great fun, and I went shopping with the other wives and their children while the guys went to the convention.

Faith has always been an important ingredient in our relationship. John and I met in the singles group at Belmont Heights Baptist Church. When I first met him, I thought he was attractive, but I also thought he was dating a woman I saw with him constantly, so I kept my distance. When I joined the church, he was really friendly. We went out to lunch with the singles, and when I made a face at him in the parking lot, he responded in kind. I guess we were just meant to be together. 😀

We had almost 5 years as a couple before we had our first child, Daniel. I treasure that time when it was just the two of us. We had great fun. When John got a good commission on a sale, we decided to go to Europe. We figured this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel while we still had money before kids. (We were right about that. We haven’t been back to Europe—yet.)

This is turning out to be a longer blog than I thought, so I will go ahead and post this and write Part 2 later.