Recently I journeyed back to my hometown, Muskegon, Mich., to toast my aunt and uncle on their 50th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely, nostalgic time and, since I was to be a speaker at their big dinner, I had to do some thinking about the meaning of it all.
A half century together . . . what an awesome statistic. Had they been happy? Couples of this generation often feel embarrassed by the question; it seems almost grandiose to be verbalizing about such concepts.
But sitting around the kitchen table after a late supper, with my aunt pressing still another piece of her fresh cherry pie on me, I felt the same comfortable glow of affection and respect between them that I had known all my life.
Vern has a gentle kidding style toward his wife, while Leona pretends to be the practical one, setting this dreamer straight. But they smile a lot, and none of us can ever remember any great undercurrent of tension between them.
They must have had a fight somewhere in all those years, I insisted. Well, there was that time back in the Depression when, with hardly enough money to pay the grocery bill, Vern came home to find workmen replacing their icebox with a handsome new refrigerator.
Vern got pretty mad about that before Leona could tell him that she had, miraculously, won it in a department store promotional raffle.
A large part of our society is still traumatized by the "What's in it for me?" message of the '70s. But we are beginning to see once again that it may be the underlying emotional surety of a marriage that best allows us to "do our own thing." Vern has no doubts. Starting in a local engine-block foundry with only a high school education, he moved up to foreman, and finally into management.
Novel Theories for His Time
It was hard going because he had some novel theories for his time, ideas about giving men respect and building teamwork instead of driving them through fear. He pays tribute to Leona for the day-and-night support that helped him succeed.
Most couples, of course, look to the success of their children as the best proof that the marriage has worked. At the celebration my aunt and uncle assembled their brood with doting pride: four kids with good careers, no tragedies, no divorces, 13 grandchildren.
From the beginning Leona and Vern, consciously or unconsciously, must have seen their partnership as a source of strength for others. They had had to delay their marriage for two years because in 1933 Vern was the sole support of his parents and three brothers and sisters. In the next 50 years they never stopped offering love and succor to the many relatives on both sides of the family who needed help.
Important Role Models
Many of us came to rely on them as a secure haven. After my parents divorced, for example, they took me into their home for a year, just as they were starting their own family. It surely wasn't easy. They became important role models to me--and to many others.
Both of them also found time and energy to give of themselves to the community. In and around raising her own children, Leona was a very creative schoolteacher for many years. Among her many memories is the small girl who threw her arms around my aunt, sobbing: "I wish you were my mother."
Vern has always been a soft touch when anybody needed a volunteer for charity or community good works. He knew how to get things moving. On the day of their golden wedding, hundreds in the community turned out not just to express perfunctory good wishes but real gratitude.
What is the secret of a happy 50-year marriage? Perhaps it is the sum total not only of what a man and woman can offer each other but what, together, they can afford to give away to the world.
Jim Sanderson welcomes comments from readers; please enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope if you wish a reply. Write him in care of Sun Features Inc., Box 45, Cardiff, Calif. 92007.