marriage

Still connected and still beautiful

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As published in The Providence Journal, November 19, 2017.

It would be a bicoastal celebration – Massachusetts and California – with the first part just up the road in Boston. Deb and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel to begin our anniversary getaway, and there was an immediate hiccup. The twentysomething desk clerk informed us that our room had twin beds.

“That’s what happens with Groupon,” she added apologetically, her eyes fixed on her screen.

“We’ve been married for 30 years,” I said. “Doesn’t that at least merit a double?” I made a joke about Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but only Deb laughed.

After tapping her keyboard with rapid-fire efficiency, the clerk told us she’d be happy to switch our room. She was also giving us free Wi-Fi.

That’s what three decades of marriage get you – free Internet access.

Deb and I were 24 when she peeked into my cubicle at the ad agency where we both worked. I was smitten by her easy laugh and the freckle on her lower lip. We shared a love of Talking Heads songs and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which we chose for a reading at our wedding ceremony three years later:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …”

Our early days were carefree and fun, with Deb’s outgoing personality balancing my introversion. When we went on weekend jaunts to Cape Cod, I wrote out the driving directions beforehand, while Deb struck up conversations with strangers along the way. Soon we had new friends.

Three children came in quick succession. Ours was a boisterous and happy house, with preschool artwork on the refrigerator, toys on the floor, and a sweet dog at the foot of someone’s bed each night.

When people asked how we managed the almost-constant commotion, Deb and I paraphrased a David Byrne lyric: “We’re making it up as we go along.”

But as years passed, we weren’t always in tune – about finances, about career paths, and, more distressingly, about what we wanted from one another. With increasing frequency, we got tripped up by the “impediments” we had so glibly dismissed on our wedding day. Our relationship had less spark and more friction, and our 20th anniversary passed with little fanfare.

When Deb suggested we “see someone,” as in a marriage counselor, all I heard was “failure.” When she said we needed help to figure things out, I countered that we’d work harder. Or I said nothing at all. It would be a year before I agreed to go with her to our first appointment.

The twice-a-month sessions surprised me, as did an early observation by our counselor: “You made progress just by coming here,” she said. “You both still care.”

Deb and I began to see how, for all our compatibility, we came from very different places. My grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants; Deb’s roots went back to the American Revolution. My mother and father divorced before I was 10; Deb’s family had vacationed together in Florida and out West. My actions were usually premeditated; my wife lived in the moment. The list went on. Our marriage would either reconcile the gaps or accentuate the distance.

Couples therapy didn’t erase our differences, but it did lead us to new conversations and a renewed faith in one another. Eventually, we had the confidence to go it alone again.

Three months after Deb and I wed, Bruce Springsteen released “Tunnel of Love,” a 12-song meditation on relationships and marriage. On the title track, the Boss sings “it’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” It’s my favorite Springsteen album; Deb’s, too.

On the Californian segment of our anniversary trip, we were drawn not to a tunnel, but to a bridge – the Bixby Creek Bridge, which traverses 714 feet over a steep canyon in Big Sur, audacious as a nuptial vow. Later, martinis in hand, Deb and I marveled at the iconic concrete span – still connected and still beautiful despite (or perhaps because of) its nicks and wear.

We could have been toasting ourselves.

Crossword offers clues about my amazing in-laws

 

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2015.

Fourteen inches of snow had fallen in northwest Connecticut overnight, which meant the drive back to Rhode Island might be dicey for my wife, Deb, and me. But my mother-in-law had more immediate concerns: was the Sunday newspaper outside?

“Sometimes they don’t deliver if the road’s not plowed,” she said.

Deb and I were sitting with Ellie in her living room, cozy in familiar chairs. Framed family photos stood on a bookcase, including one of Deb and me with our sons and daughter on a long-ago vacation, when I was still taller than the boys.

“Bill?” Ellie called out. “Will you see if the paper came?”

My father-in-law didn’t hear her. He was at his computer, plumbing for ancestors with the genealogy software Deb and I had given him. Last I heard, he had traced the family lineage to 14th-century royalty. Deb’s older brother said it was only a matter of time before Jesus turned up as a relative.

“I’ll get the paper,” I said. I knew my mother-in-law wanted to do the crossword puzzle.

“More coffee, Mom?” Deb asked.

“Thank you, honey.”

I pulled on my boots and trudged out to the mailbox on Pine Acres Drive. The Hartford Courant was there. With the paper under my arm, I walked back to the yellow ranch house where Deb’s folks have lived for nearly six decades.

In the living room, I found the crossword page and grabbed a pencil. Ellie sat across from me, fresh cup of coffee in hand. I gave her the first clue: “Banks or Kovacs – five letters.”

“Ernie,” she said.

“List-ending abbreviation – four letters.”

“Et al.”

“Skirt edge – ‘hem’ fits.”

“Sounds right.”

When answers were elusive, I did what I always do – jumped to the next clue. Ellie would have preferred to work longer on the tough ones, testing letters and words with deliberation, but she indulged my impatience.

I wasn’t surprised. Since we first met 30 years ago, my in-laws have shown an unwavering kindness toward me. Over lunch that day, as Deb’s new “friend,” I expected the Grand Inquisition. Instead, I found open arms. Soon, birthday cards arrived with “We love you!” sign-offs and smiley faces. And when I was a young and sometimes bewildered father, my mother-in-law’s words were reassuring: “You’re doing great.”

Bill walked into the living room and announced, “Debbie, you’re descended from Attila the Hun.”

“That explains a lot,” my wife said, chuckling.

“What about royalty?” Ellie asked.

“Apparently, we’re a mixed bag,” Bill said, “but you’ll always be the Lady of Pine Acres Drive to me.” With boyish playfulness, he made a flamboyant bow to his wife of 59 years and she laughed like a teen with her steady.

“I’m putting the Attila news on Facebook,” Deb said. “It’s going to blow up.”

Ellie and I returned to the crossword: “Throat-clearing sounds,” I said. “Five letters.”

“Ahems.”

“You’re good,” I said. My mother-in-law smiled, eyes sparkling.

When we had the puzzle three-quarters done, my phone buzzed. It was my son Evan, who lives in Los Angeles.

“I just woke up to Mom’s Attila post on Facebook,” he said. “I need verification.”

“You need Grandpa,” I said.

I looked across the room. Bill was helping Ellie get up from her chair. In a graceful duet, he grasped her forearm and leaned back as she rose slowly to her feet.

“Walking or riding?” he said to her quietly. It took a second for me to understand what he was asking: cane or wheelchair?

“Walking,” she said.

I told Evan that Grandpa would call him back and pressed a button to end the call. Bill handed Ellie her cane. She steadied herself and then started slowly, deliberately for the kitchen, her vigilant partner at her side. Six years ago, after the stroke, no one knew if she’d ever walk again.

“Be right back, John,” Ellie said. “We’ll finish that puzzle.”

“I need you for the tough ones,” I said.

She laughed, edging forward.

I wanted to call Evan back right then and tell him it didn’t matter about Attila the Hun or King Olaf of Norway or any other purported ancestor identified by a software algorithm.

He does descend from amazing people. They just happen to be his grandparents.

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