On my parents’ marriage

Today my parents, Michael and Beth, celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to say something about them and their marriage, from my perspective.

Here is a photo of them from before they were married:

Michael and Beth sometime before their wedding in 1979.

The joy you see here proved enduring. You can see it a decade later, after I was born:

Michael, Beth, and Sam in Cahaba Heights in Birmingham, 1987.

And the decade after that, by which time Ginny, my sister, had arrived on the scene:

Michael, Beth, Sam, and Ginny at Gulf Shores sometime in the 1990’s.

And the decade after that, in this photo taken just after Michael gave Beth a kidney:

Michael and Beth in 2008 after a kidney transplant.

And in this photo from today:

Of course it hasn’t always been just smiles. They’ve had their worries (that kidney transplant, for example), their defeats, their crises, and their arguments, like every couple. According to them, in fact, they argue frequently. But they say they always make up quickly. They claim never to wake up angry at each other. I find that hard to believe. Still, I can’t detect any trace of long-term resentment–about anything–in either of them.

I don’t know what to make of that. It’s freakish.

Maybe the secret is this: they don’t necessarily communicate well every minute of every day (who could?), but they communicate really well about everything that really matters to them.

It must help that they’re both among the most empathetic people I’ve ever encountered. Michael somehow manages to be extremely empathetic and also not totally despise practicing law for a living. Talk about freakish! In all seriousness, I’ve gathered from talking to him that practicing law in an adversarial legal system requires suppressing and selectively channeling empathy in order to perform optimally for one’s client, which is necessary for the system to operate fairly (the assumption being that the opposing counsel will do the same). It helps, I think, that he believes this system generally produces about the fairest outcomes that can be hoped for. But it still often strains and stresses his natural inclinations.

Beth, wisely, has chosen occupations that put fewer constraints on empathy: mothering and hospital administration. I say “wisely” because, in becoming a teacher, I have followed her example.

I’ll conclude by describing one way in which Michael and Beth are different that could have caused major problems in their relationship (I would think), but seems not to have done so.

Michael loves forests. He grew up roaming all over the forested hills of Huntsville in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Fifteen years ago he bought a small chunk of forest in Mentone, Alabama. Not a lake house or a beach condo, notice, or even a cabin: a chunk of forest where the Cherokee hunted deer before Andrew Jackson’s administration forcibly relocated them to very different land in Oklahoma, and which before Michael bought it was owned by hippies, who bathed in the creek and lived in a simple and ephemeral structure they had built themselves. So far, about the only “improvement” that has been made to the property since Michael bought it is the contraption for grilling things over the fire that you can see in this photo (an invention of Pawpaw‘s):

Beth, Jimmy, and Michael at Mentone.

Beth is in this photo on the far left, and she looks happy enough, no? But she would be the first to tell you that she is not, and has never been, a huge “nature” person. (I’m hoping to convince her that “ecology without nature” is just the thing for her, but that’s a topic for another post.) Her parents didn’t care much for the outdoors, so unlike Michael, she didn’t grow up with beloved role models teaching her to experience forests as beautiful, wondrous places. Nevertheless, she has managed, happily it seems, both to give Michael space to explore his love of forests, and to open herself to that love, as you can see also in this photo:

Beth and Ginny at Mentone.

For his part, Michael understands and empathizes with where Beth is coming from, and he doesn’t resent that she doesn’t spontaneously feel the same enthusiasm for forests that he does.

“Compromise” is too weak a word for what each of them is doing here. “Growing”, even “changing”, might be better. Best, of course, is “loving”.

Happy anniversary, y’all.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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