“That’s Willard,” she said to me, pointing to the picture of two happy people frozen in the width of a black and white photograph. “He sure had a knack for making me smile.” She stared at it for a while, smoothing out the crinkled edges, letting out a sigh. I shifted uncomfortably, feeling like I was in the middle of an intersection, of two lights trying desperately to collide again, trapped only by restraints of time in the universe.
“He loved to dance,” she continued. “We’d spread the furniture to the sides of this room and we would dance the night away.” She closed those wrinkled eyes, and her tiny, ninety-something body swayed a little, like she was somewhere else, dancing to a song whose melody I could not hear.
This is the story of an ordinary marriage.
“We were married in October 1940,” she continued, talking not to me anymore, but maybe to him. “Mama made me a new dress. I turned twenty just two days earlier. The Baptist minister did our ceremony. I was just about jumping down that aisle. I couldn’t wait to get into his arms.”
She smiled, and the crinkles of extra skin gathered over the years folded back to make room. “I met him when I was twelve,” she said. She opened her eyes and looked at me, a little surprised to be back here, back in this space, with me, of all people. “That was eighty years ago. Eighty, Good Lord.
“The U.S. entered the war a year a few months after our wedding. We sold our car and bought two bicycles. We rode those everywhere.” She laughed, as though Willard had just told her some unheard joke, one not meant for me. “You should have seen my calf muscles— best legs in town.”
She lifted up a pant leg then, inspecting her skin. “Not too bad now, either, I don’t think,” and then she let out a laugh that sounded too strong for her frail body, shaking her ribs with its mirth.
She folded up the photograph and placed it back into her jewelry box. “Sure do miss him,” she sighed, staring again into a place I couldn’t see, into a territory that would never be mine. Then she stood up and brushed herself off, checking her planner, which was filled with items like: Call Darlene. Go to Bingo. Call Doctor. Record Dancing With the Stars.
Wendell Berry said once, that when two people are in love, they have a light between them that only they can see. Is that light strong enough, I wonder, to pass into even the shadows of death?
She married at twenty. They had one daughter, one grandson, two great granddaughters. They loved, danced, fought, and laughed. They walked through life holding hands, and when Alzheimer’s chose his brain, she nursed him and bathed him right up to the bitter end.
The story of an ordinary marriage.
My grandma found a man who fell in love with her smile, with the blue of her eyes as she sang at a wedding. He vowed to love that smile and those blue eyes at their own wedding a few years later. For fifty seven years, he put that smile before his own. He held her hand, held open doors, held tight the promise he made to her in the peak of that 1954 summer. He was hers until he breathed his last, until he passed into the arms of love’s Creator.
And really, who doesn’t want to be loved like that?
“Willard loved coffee,” she told me as she tied her shoes and looked for her coat. “I could not stand the drink, but I made it for him. Enough for a cup and a half every morning.”
An ordinary marriage: just two people clinging to each other and a higher power as they traverse the unpredictability of life, refined by hardships, laughter, adventure, and faith. An ordinary marriage, built on an everlasting Rock, bound by a love that even death cannot stain.
We argue about mental illness, about terrorism, about rights for women and equality for all. To solve our problems, we create programs, educational systems, and anti-bullying campaigns.
I once watched my grandparents stand on the edge of the water in the heat of an afternoon. Fifty some years of marriage tucked into their pockets, they watched the lake come forward in ripples and tiny splashes. Without saying a word, he reached out for her hand and she took it; both safely nestled into the love that surrounded them like a chorus, that made each a rare treasure.
Maybe the solutions for our problems aren’t found in organic food or in educational programs.
Maybe the greatest hope in all the world today is an ordinary marriage.