Next week marks the 50th anniversary of a major event in American history: the Apollo 11 moon landing. On July 20, 1969, at precisely 4:18 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong fulfilled the promise of a new generation by becoming the first man to set foot on a dusty surface some 238,855 miles away. Roughly one-fifth of the world’s population (500-600 million people) watched the moon landing on TV or listened live on the radio. My new husband and I were among them.
I remember it all, all the excitement and anticipation as we raced to our hotel to get there in time to see Armstrong take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The poor cab driver. “We’re in a hurry,” we said by way of introduction, as we loaded my nine pieces of overweight-over-limit, drag-it-all-along-with-you luggage into the car at the New Orleans airport. “Hurry, hurry,” we urged as he made his way through afternoon traffic to the Monteleon. “We have to see the astronauts land on the moon!” It was all so important, so fitting because, you see, we had each just taken significant steps of our own and made one giant leap together into the future. We had just gotten married!
The celebration of wedding anniversaries goes back almost as far as the social institution of marriage itself, which historians commonly trace to the Holy Roman Empire. Traditionally, husbands crowned their wives with a silver wreath on their 25th anniversary, and a gold wreath on their 50th — if they lived so long. (Average lifespans in the ancient world are estimated to have been only 35-40 years.) Legends of Methuselah aside, today’s improved health and longevity have made it possible for more and more couples to celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries.
Demographics show that roughly 7 percent of currently married couples have been married 50 years or more. I’m assuming those statistics refer to those married to the same partner and not to those with 50 cumulative years of serial monogamy — although given the rapidly rising number of centenarians in America, it might be possible to be in a second marriage for 50 years. But I digress … The point is that those of us hitting this landmark have defied the odds of both death and divorce and have weathered together all the other unexpected obstacles in life to get here. We deserve to celebrate!
Our son, old enough now to be celebrating anniversaries of his own were he married, has been anxious about what he might do for us to mark this special occasion. When we lived in Connecticut, we had a big party with a renewal of vows for our 25th, so he asks, “Can I throw you an anniversary party?” We laugh and demur; we don’t have enough friends where we live now to fill our dinning room, much less a hall. “How about a bigger TV or a new mattress?” he suggests — both of which he thinks we really should have. Bless him, he keeps trying. Finally, we agree to a new barbecue smoker and a plan for a long weekend for the three of us together on the Gulf Coast later this summer. At this point in our lives, my husband and I really don’t need any more “stuff.” As friends and family members fade away, all we really want more of is time, time spent with each other and with those we love.
In the early days of my career as a writer, I specialized in weddings and marriage and was a contributing editor to Modern Bride Magazine for several years. I interviewed numerous couples at various stages of their unions, consulted many counselors and family therapists, did “on site” research at catering venues, wedding expos, and in bridal shops (including spending the day as an “undercover consultant” in the famous Kleinfeld’s bridal salon in New York). It was what I always called “happy writing,” in that people were delighted to talk about their romance and relationships and yes, with hindsight humor, even their wedding-day disasters. Through writing three books and hundreds of articles on almost every aspect of planning a wedding and creating a new couple-family, I not only learned about the whole bridal industry, but I also gained deeper insights into the hopes and values couples brought to their married lives. Inevitably, every story, every interview, every anecdote gave me yet another perspective on my own.
Couples celebrating landmarks are often asked what makes for a successful marriage. Dear, dear parents of a childhood friend of mine who were married 75 years before one of them died were asked on a celebratory cruise to cite their secret of marital success. “Be kind,” she said. “Do whatever she tells you to do,” he replied. People laughed and nodded assent at such sage advice.
If anyone asks me that question, my answer would be simple: the freedom of choice. You see, my husband and I were both raised by young, prematurely widowed mothers, which explains a lot about our natural compatibility. We both eschew traditional gender roles, for example, because we watched our mothers do it all; we both share a keen awareness of the vicissitudes of life, so we never fail to be grateful and to enjoy what we have while we have it; and we both believe in planning for self-sufficient adulthood with a good education, a strong work ethic and practical life skills. Thus, we came together as independent people with goals and dreams of our own, but with the same expectation that any meaningful partnership has to be built on strength and equality. Marriage is but one lifestyle choice among many, after all, not simply the default mode.
We chose to get married because we wanted to, not because we needed someone else to complete us, and we have continued to choose to be married because we wanted to, not because we had to, or were in a rut, or ever felt we had no other choice. There is always a choice. Every time either of us comes up the driveway, we are reiterating that choice, reaffirming our commitment, and recognizing that home is wherever the other one is. We choose, and we are chosen; we love and we are loved. Could there be any better formula for marital success than that?
Sometimes, like when I come home to a power-washed message writ large on the driveway as I did just the other day, I have to marvel at our 50 years. I would have no more foreseen this back in the day as “a man in the moon,” as they used to say. But then, there was one. Happy Anniversary.