Our son is engaged.
To be married, that is. He called us a few nights ago. Before telling his mother and me the news, he made sure we were both on the line; his mother held her breath in the kitchen (she had a feeling this was coming), while I (clueless) hustled upstairs to pick up the extension.
Something like pandemonium erupted shortly thereafter.
By our reckoning, Graham and Amy have been together for about five years. They met in college, where they traveled in the same circles; then they were friends, who managed to navigate the various iterations of today's courtship rituals, including moving in together and moving to another state.
All of us know how fraught marriage has become. It's almost as risky a proposition as opening a restaurant. Something like half the couples who agree to marry wind up getting divorced. That's what happened to me the first time I tried it. I can still remember sitting alone with the judge in his office in the county courthouse as he signed the no-fault papers. It was late in the afternoon on a bone-chilling day in early spring. When he was finished, the judge looked at me in a way I would like to think of as kind. In that moment we were like two characters in an Edward Hopper painting; there was nothing left to say.
Graham's mother and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary this June. I am at a loss to account for our good fortune. All I can say is that hardly a day goes by I don't thank my lucky stars I had the presence of mind to ask her to marry me.
And that she said yes.
Like Graham's mother and I, Amy's parents are long married. I am told that when Amy offered them the news over the phone, Graham could hear the whoop of joy from across the room. I can't help but think this makes some kind of a difference, that if the mothers and fathers in this story were living apart in different towns, different states — geographic and otherwise — their feelings, while no less loving, would surely be tempered somehow by bittersweet experience.
As it is, the prospect of this impending marriage feels tidal, like the natural movement between and across generations. Our family histories make it possible for us to celebrate it as both a distinct moment in time, one to be gathered round and savored for itself, and a continuity, another turning of our mutually familial wheel.
A dear friend of ours, twice divorced himself, asked why anyone today would feel a need to marry. I doubt there is a need, as such. We've known couples that have made long and rich lives together, and never needed vows. Perhaps it's the word "need" itself that's a culprit here. You shouldn't get married out of need; and need is certainly not enough to hold a marriage together in any true or nourishing way.
The wanting to be married must run deeper than the imperative to scratch a certain itch. For some of us, it's a family thing, but it's a community thing, too. Marriage is an opportunity to stand before whomever it is we consider our tribe to acknowledge that two of us are crossing a threshold. It doesn't matter how old we are, where we've been or what we've done, getting married is a way of finally declaring ourselves adults.
No wonder then so many same sex-couples want to participate in this. Laws supposedly intended to "defend" marriage, by forbidding some of us from tying the knot, actually do little more than consign an entire class to a state of perpetual relationship adolescence. As countless Internet dating sites attest, it's hard enough for two people to find each other in a way that matters in this world. What's crazy is that, so long as we have this thing called marriage, we try to prevent some of us from being part of it.
Marriage, of course, is also a way of believing in the future. But even that has become a loaded proposition these days. There was a time — not that long ago — when the idea of progress was a palpable thing. Standards of living improved from one generation to the next, as surely as day follows night.
Well, we're not so sure about that now. It seems we work more and earn less. Even a college degree isn't what it's cracked up to be. As for the planet, we keep pushing it harder, making more demands. We know we're doing damage, finding it in the air we breathe, the water we drink, hiding deep inside us.
As Rick tells his lover Ilsa in the movie Casablanca, the problems of little people like us don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. Under the circumstances, it can be easy for marriage to seem like just another pale gesture.
Or its defiant opposite. Because when two people get married, they show us a way forward. In this, Graham and Amy, bless them, are leading with what is best about us all, their hearts.
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