“It’s so beautiful,” I said as we watched the Blue Angels making the final pass of their 2019 flight demonstration over the Severn River.
“Mom, you think everything is beautiful,” replied my teenage daughter.
I looked over at her – sandy blonde hair – taking videos with my phone.
Practically all of Annapolis clamors to find a spot somewhere near the water to view the planes at 2 pm on the Wednesday of Commissioning Week – those 5 blissful days in May when the Academy sends off its newest batch of brilliant officers to represent our nation across the globe. I give that praise with no sarcasm whatsoever. They are – to a woman and man – among the very best and brightest our country has to offer.
So we’ve come to watch the flight demonstration honoring them every year for the past 12? I’ve lost count. Except when the Blue Angels were grounded because of weather or budget cuts (2013), we were there. With friends or by ourselves, we make this annual pilgrimage to appreciate the display of skill, training, courage, complete trust and raw nerve it takes to fly one combat airplane at 800 mph just inches from another. The show celebrates those who serve. It is about noble character, sacrifice, and working as a team for a cause greater than one’s self.
The elegance and energy of the moment will take your breath away.
And the glinting sun on the wings, the howling engines, and the cooling breeze make me wistful. In this week, more than any other in the year, I feel the passage of time.
My wedding anniversary…the near-end of another school year…the dying away of the spring flowers and the full-on growth of green shade for summer…all are happening right now in this week.
Is there a spot in your geography which makes you grateful? Where you see your days spread out before and behind you? You remember the good and the bad simultaneously? You hold the joy and the pain together as one?
The key to a full heart, I’ve found, is taking an inventory of the GOOD and raising it up high.
Even when there’s hurt. Even when there’s suffering. Even when concern is knocking on your door.
My days are not the same as they were just last year or two years ago, and I’m sure yours aren’t either. There has been success and sadness. There have been sound decisions and bad ones. And there are battles still being waged.
But in our favorite spots we are reminded that we are never independent of God’s grace. His presence – which continually blesses us despite all the ways we continually screw up – is just that – PRESENT. Always.
Every year, I stand on Hospital Point and I just feel so darn thankful to be alive. And this time, I knew why.
Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.
All the days of my life
The first 7,304
It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice. Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath. I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again. Breathing that is. But you get the point.
We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done. I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.” It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.
I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel. But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before. It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life. I recall thinking calmly to myself,
“So this is her. The love of my life. I knew she’d be smart. Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”
And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.
Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences. To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment. The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come. Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.
The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy. I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach. Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.
I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards. I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later. After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.
When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened. It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.
And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.
An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate. That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.
That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups. These include:
No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns. No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy. We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other. Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
No quinoa. Ever. I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit. Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.
Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals. Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws. I still bring me into every situation.
That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together. We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to. For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert. Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy. On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.
Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple. Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times. But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.
When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road. I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.
The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles. Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about. Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.
I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life. Gretchen is my greatest blessing.
When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead. And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.
Now please understand – I’m not a person who looks for signs.
I lean on the One who tells me to trust in Him, not in the ways of this earth. And so I’m not searching around for material things, wondering if they hold some cosmic meaning for me.
But every once in awhile, life seems to line up in way that speaks to me of comfort and peace beyond my understanding, and the only correct response can be, “Thank you. Thank you for this moment of grace.”
Today would have been my paternal grandparents’ 76th wedding anniversary.
If you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time, you’ll remember that my family celebrated their 75th anniversary with them last year (in 2017). My grandparents were in good health and in great, great spirits. However, they both passed into eternal life within weeks of the magnificent event, and the rest of us are left to contemplate how blessed we were to have this amazing couple with us for as long as we did.
All grieving families go through a mourning process that includes shock and sadness. It’s been an up and down year for each of us, but overall, it has brought us closer together. And joy has been a part of these long months, too, as we welcomed our family’s newest member – my sister’s first child, my beautiful nephew.
My heart held fast to these memories as I clasped Grandma’s gold cross around my neck for the first time this morning. My aunt just gave it to me on Saturday during our first visit together since some sad days last February.
As I held onto the necklace I was thinking about God’s words, “And behold, I am with you always,” (Matthew 28:20).
I stepped over to the mirror to take a look and just then a cardinal appeared to my right in the bush outside my window.
The brightest, fattest, reddest, cardinal.
It has been said these birds are the spirit sign of a loved one you’ve lost.
And so I wondered…
I was transfixed, rooted to the spot, as it sat there swaying on the branch, its wings, head, and breast glinting in the sunlight.
It stayed long enough for me to hear my mind compete: “I will not move until it does.”
And then…finally…it cocked its head and took flight.
I firmly believe there is an unseen reality and One God who is with us always.
He lives to show us He loves us. He lives to show us His love.
It seemed like a dream as I pressed the receiver to my ear and heard my dad’s voice.
“Grandma is no longer with us. She’s with Grandpa now.”
She passed late Thursday night. Her decline had been swift. Just 11 days earlier I was in Seattle for my grandfather’s memorial service and she had seemed frail but steady.
But when you lost your spouse of 75 years just weeks ago, and you’ve held out for one final trip down memory lane in the company of family and friends, perhaps you just decide once and for all that enough is enough.
At a certain point, the body won’t hold a soul that wants to go where a body simply can’t.
She was one half of the most beautiful couple I have ever known.
I said on their 70th wedding anniversary that it was my right to put them on a pedestal, and I still believe that it is. Their relationship exuded a quality I seldom see – a quality they would never have thought described them, but then, most people who have this deny it out of sheer humility.
That quality is holiness.
Too often, holiness is associated with religiosity, and this, my grandparents were emphatically, not.
Holiness is something so much more sublime. Divine. An intention of the heart.
As I wrote on their 75th wedding anniversary, which we celebrated together in January:
It has been said that the purpose of marriage is not to make us happy, but instead, to make us HOLY.
I’ve been considering this statement for the last several years. And even if a person does not submit to the idea that our universe – and all that lies within it – is here for a divine purpose, namely, so that we can learn how to live like the Creator – a force of Love with a capital “L” that gives so freely He even wants to live through each one of us….Yes, even if someone does not agree with this heartfelt belief of mine, there is value in considering holiness as a purpose for marriage. And here’s why.
The process of becoming holy is the refinement of a person. It is a gradual sloughing off of all that is flawed in order to move toward perfection in goodness and righteousness – like placing rocks in a crucible and burning away impurities to reveal hidden gold or silver.
When I think about the ideal marriage, this is exactly what happens for the 2 individuals involved.
When it works well, marriage does several things to us and for us. It brings us joy. It brings us love. It brings us companionship for life’s adventures.
Most importantly though, it helps us to understand the long-term benefits of practicing a myriad of virtues such as acceptance, compassion, consideration, flexibility, generosity, humility, kindness, and forgiveness….
A good spouse encourages us, and calls us back toward the best version of ourselves. Over the long haul, there is benefit to both people in choosing:
patience over edginess,
service over self-centeredness,
understanding over egoism,
honesty over deceit,
and unity over division.
Was the path my grandparents took an easy one? Almost certainly not. I’m sure they faced tests and struggles that the rest of our family never knew about. But they passed through those fires and came out stronger and purer because of them.
My grandparents taught me by example what the path of holiness looks like. In their quiet way, they kept faith in God and lived as servants to one another. This, more than any other, is their enduring legacy to me.
Yes, they have left me beautiful memories, family I love deeply, and a few precious mementos, but it’s the love and honor they gave each other that I value the most.
Perhaps that’s why I can’t think of one without the other, and why Grandma couldn’t stay with us any longer than she did.
“Come live with me, and be my love, And we will some new pleasures prove Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, With silken lines, and silver hooks.” ― John Donne
I lost my grandpa this week. The pain is new and deep, and I know that I will miss him for the rest of my life.
Memories comfort me, yes, but so does something else. The knowledge that I told him on so many, many occasions that I loved him. I did not let key opportunities slip by.
Just a week before my grandpa passed, my family and I had gathered in his retirement home in Seattle, WA, to celebrate his and my grandma’s 75th wedding anniversary. They were married in January 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Grandpa realized he’d be entering the Army Air Corps and knew he couldn’t go without his love. Allen and Hazel were high school sweethearts who truly grew up into adulthood together. As Grandpa said just a few days ago, “We met in May 1939, and I knew she was the one for me.”
Over the years, our family gathered from across the U.S. to celebrate 4 of their major milestone anniversaries: 60, 65, 70, and 75. At the 60th, I hardly said a word about the love and pride I was feeling. But something changed by the 65th, and today I suddenly realized why.
It was January 2007. I was midway through the 8-month process of learning and discernment that is required of people who wish to enter the Catholic Church – smack dab in the middle of the longest stretch of time I had ever spent considering God’s Word and thinking about His role in my life. And since we often can see with clarity in hindsight those things which seem muddled in the moment, now I know that God was working in my heart and gently coaxing me on to joy in the pursuit of His purposes.
Not everyone is comfortable expressing love in words, and the truth is, it wasn’t always that way for me. On the flight out to the West Coast in 2007, I wrote a letter to my grandparents that I planned to read at the anniversary dinner. I was full of adrenaline as my pen shot across the pages, charged with emotion as I lay down memory after memory, puffed with happiness at the thought that I would be able to share them with Grandma and Grandpa. And when the time came to read, I was shaking all over. It wasn’t seamless, but I got through it, word by word, my voice faltering and cracking.
My family praised me, but what meant the most was the knowledge that my words were a gift my grandparents truly treasured. Grandma called me over with a gentle wave, held my hands in both of hers and said, “Gretchen, dear, have you ever thought about being a writer?” She knew I wrote nonfiction educational materials, but she was talking about something more. She was urging me forward. “Yes, Grandma. It’s actually what I think I want to do.” “You should do it.” She nodded slightly to indicate her seriousness and squeezed my hands. “You should do it.”
I had reservations and told her so – that I didn’t think I had any worthy material, had no idea what to write about. She listened lovingly and nodded understandingly, but my grandma encourages regardless of fear. She is a quiet repose of strength and confidence.
I would go on to write another letter for their 70th, and deliver it with less anxiety than I had on the 65th. And when last weekend came, I was filled with calm and a deep conviction that I was doing the right thing, regardless of whether the thoughts I expressed were the same thoughts as those of others in the room. It turns out I was right – Grandpa was just a couple days from meeting his Creator, and this was my last chance to pour out my heart to him.
How can we know when we’re on the right path? How we can know we are saying or doing what we should? For me, there are a few indicators:
1) I ask who I’m serving. Who am I doing this for? If my actions are born of love, a desire to be in community and relationship with others, and above all, if I’m aiming to please God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength, I’m probably headed in the right direction.
2) I consider the voices I’m hearing. Encouragement and gentleness come from Love (with a capital “L”). He does not chastise or tell me I’m an unworthy, useless, untalented wanna-be. If negative voices are dominating my thoughts, I must call them out to fight with the blinding light of Truth. God is Love. He is Light. There is no hate and no darkness in Him. And He alone can give me the strength and confidence I need to move forward, if I surrender to His good will and love for me.
3) I remember in faith that I am not an accident. The desires of my heart to do good work in my life were planted there by the One who loves me more than I can comprehend, and wants me to enjoy life to the fullest. My desires are part His divine plan.
In His Word, God tells us how to live joyfully, and He promises us that we are all given gifts. Don’t we believe that He’ll help us to use those gifts? Don’t we know without having seen that Love is real, and therefore we can step out with our talents, trusting in that Love to see us through? We move in faith, believing that He has blessings in store for us if we work with Him, if we don’t give in to the lies that plague us.
“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” – Hebrews 3:15
Today, my husband and I celebrate the 17th anniversary of our wedding. As my sister-in-law was taking me to get my hair done on that bright spring morning, she gave me the single best piece of advice: “At a couple points,” she said, “just STOP. Take a look around. Take it all in.” I’m so very, very grateful that she offered me this wisdom, because thanks to her, I have several clear memories of that gorgeous day, when I so easily could have lost them in the shuffle and momentum of the celebration.
Of the Scriptures that were read, this one stands out for me:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)
I’m not even going to begin to claim that we’ve done everything right in our 17 years of marriage. And anyone who has been married for any length of time will tell you that rain will fall, floods will come, and winds will blow. Your commitment to one another will be tested, perhaps not to the breaking point, but there will certainly be challenges.
My sister-in-law’s wisdom is still the one and only thing I tell brides-to-be, and I think it applies well to the rest of life too. And I’m sure you’ve heard it before, too – because we all know that life goes by so, so darn quickly. You don’t want to let precious moments with your loved ones or friends slip by unnoticed. But I would argue that stopping to take a look around is also critical for the long-term success of a marriage.
When my husband looked into my eyes and pledged to be with me until “death do us part,” I could see in his green eyes that he meant every word. We both meant what we said, and still do.
It’s easy to stop at the good moments – to appreciate sweetness…The feel of my hand in my husband’s. The way he always kisses me goodbye before leaving the house – for any reason, big or small. The fact that he is exceptionally good at picking out gifts for me, and at whipping up the most delicious meals. At these times, it’s also easy to remember to thank God for this good man.
But then of course, storms do occasionally blow through. What I’ve learned is, they don’t have to tear us down – because in the midst of them, we can keep building the foundation of our house – brick by brick. It’s grace that taught me this – worked on me, really.
As often as possible, we STOP in the moment and take a look around. We look into one another’s eyes. We examine what’s really going on in the here and now – take an unflinching look so that patterns we know didn’t work for us in the past can’t repeat themselves. We speak honestly and openly about the present, and if there’s something that needs work – we work on it. Nothing gets swept under the rug. And the words we use with one another are words of affirmation – they support, encourage, reaffirm our connection and commitment to one another. They build up the foundation of our marriage – the foundation of “us.”
A house isn’t built overnight, but when the foundation is re-fortified, it can stand for a long, long time. May ours be built stronger, again and again. This is my prayer for us, on this 17th anniversary of ours.
They were married by the local pastor on January 18, 1942 in the living room of her parents’ home. It was a simple ceremony with immediate family in attendance. She wore a navy blue dress and an orchid corsage, and afterwards they had a celebratory lunch. For their 60th wedding anniversary, I asked her sisters what kind of cake they’d had so that I could replicate it. Neither one could remember. I had wanted the cake to be a surprise, but I finally broke down and asked the bride – my grandmother – and even she couldn’t remember. Such details weren’t important, apparently. What was important was that they’d made a lifelong commitment that day, at the young age, both of them, of just 19.
As of today, they have celebrated 73 years of marriage, and 73 Valentine’s Days as husband and wife. If that isn’t “a love that lasts,” I’m not sure what is.
In 2012, my family gathered to celebrate my grandparents’ 70th anniversary, and I was one of several people who gave toasts at dinner. I read a longer version of the letter below in a trembling voice. A few months later, my grandmother wanted to publish my letter in their church’s quarterly newsletter, and so my thoughts were shared with a broader audience. I was flattered, but also a bit nervous, since I guess you could say this was my public writing debut – at least for the kind of writing I care most about – matters of faith and the heart.
On Tuesday this week, as Grandma told me she and Grandpa would attend a Sweethearts Luncheon for Valentine’s Day, I asked for her thoughts on publishing a short form of the letter here. She consented and said it was a good idea. She has always encouraged me. And so, in celebration of this day of love, I venture into heart-filled terrain once again.
A tribute to my grandparents:
Dear Grandma and Grandpa,
Five years ago we gathered together to celebrate your 65th wedding anniversary, an extraordinary event. Yet here we are, blessed again, with another 5 years of a remarkable marriage….
Your marriage didn’t simply last, it flourished. How did that happen? I explored the idea with the goal of more deeply appreciating your marriage, and strengthening my own. And here’s my theory.
For the last seven decades, consciously or not, you have each cultivated a servant’s heart. You have awoken each morning and asked your soul, “How can I promote the well-being and happiness of this person I love – today?” And then you got up and did what was needed. It was through billions of kind words, billions of small acts of love, and billions of tiny moments. In short, whether you always did it intentionally or not, you made the love you share a higher calling.
Even today when I sit and observe you, I see the ripple effect of a small, seemingly insignificant choice – the way you say one another’s names. Hazel. Allen. You say each other’s names lovingly, softly, in a voice that asks, “Are you here for me, my love?” And the response, however it comes, is always, “Yes. I am here for you. I am fully present to you. You can be confident in me. I am devoted to you.”
In all my life, as I have listened to your exchanges, I have never heard resentment or bitterness creep into your voices when you speak to one another. If you have been angry, you have discussed the issue, reached a decision together, and let it go. To my knowledge, and from what I have witnessed, you have never carried grudges against one another. You have never ledgered wrongs. You forgive. …
Now I look forward and ask, “What can we as a family do to continue your accomplishment? What lessons do we carry forward?”
We can move forward as you have, with servants’ hearts. Love is only advanced in the world when people choose to serve others. To do that, we must set ourselves aside and focus on one another. I look to you both as role models in how to do this, and in how to live a full life, rich in all the ways I want mine to be. …
Cathedral builders worked entire lifetimes without ever seeing the results of their work fully incorporated into the finished structure. Every individual life is like this. We don’t always know the full impact of the countless small decisions we make every day. But we move forward in faith, and in your lives, the results have been beautiful.
Our family gathered here is your cathedral. Your marriage was the cornerstone, and we are building upward. The values, skills, and morals you have passed on to us are the buttresses and beams. The memories and stories are the artwork and stained glass windows. And an occasion as special as this one is like a visit to the cathedral – a chance to celebrate what has been accomplished.
I love you more than I can ever express here. I am honored to be your granddaughter. And I will take what I have learned from you and pass it on. I will do my very best to make your story my own.