On July 14, 1956, when I married the only husband I’ve ever had, I was 18 years old, a high school graduate and a long-distance telephone operator. My husband, Ed, was 23, just a year out of the Marines and working as an electronic technician at a small shop near Detroit.
We lived five houses apart, but, since I was in the ninth grade when he joined the Marines, our paths weren’t likely to cross. Three years later, in September, we met through mutual friends, and we were engaged by Christmas. If I had doubts about getting married so young, they were drowned out by the potential spectacle of a grand wedding. I remember thinking, in the wee hours before I said, “I do,” if this doesn’t work out, I can always come back home. My parents weren’t that crazy about him, anyway.
My mother had other plans for me. She hoped all of those expensive singing, acting and dance lessons I had taken would eventually pay off. She wanted me to be the first in our family to go to college. She never dreamed I would give it all up to marry this boy I barely knew, this boy who was nothing like me, this boy who had habits I should have hated, who she believed showed no promise and would no doubt break my heart.
I ignored her fears. All I wanted was a big wedding. I loved how my boatneck, cap-sleeved, embroidered organdy wedding gown fit my wasp waist and showed off my curves. I paid $99 for it, using an installment plan, and wearing it was the closest I would ever come to feeling like a princess.
I couldn’t stop what I’d put in motion then, even if I’d wanted to. I couldn’t throw all that pomp away. I was about to star in my own carefully planned production and whatever might come afterward was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
Ed hated every minute of it. He hated being in the spotlight and thought it was crazy to spend that kind of money on a single day of glory. But he did it. He put on his tuxedo and went along with it.
And from that day forward I was a married lady. I took his last name and our lives became so intertwined, I barely remember what it was like before he came along. We had three children, and our children had children, and one day Ed and I woke up and laughed at how carelessly we had joined, and how grateful we were that we had lived for the moment and couldn’t see ahead until it was too late ― until we were so entrenched as a couple we couldn’t imagine our lives any other way.
So, how did we do it? How did we get this far without running away or killing each other? You’ll have to give me a minute. Sifting through more than six decades of memories to find those nuggets isn’t easy. And, as you can imagine, some of it I’d really prefer to forget. Still, the memories that count ― that stay with me ― are the happy ones.
As couples went, we couldn’t have been more different. Ed was an ex-Marine who liked baseball and Dixieland jazz and didn’t get literature or the arts at all. I was a bookworm, a dreamer, a romantic, a writer-in-hiding, a singer — and a soprano, at that. I liked classical music and singers like Mario Lanza and Deanna Durbin.
Ed smoked and drank and I didn’t. In fact, I hated both of those vices. He also didn’t especially like or want children. I, even at 18, couldn’t wait to have them. But from our very first dates, beyond the usual red-hot lusting, we discovered we actually had many things in common that just might make our unlikely pairing work.
We talked. A lot. We were both FDR liberals who wanted to change the world. We both loved our parents and our families. We didn’t go in for ostentation or bragging and preferred quiet evenings to parties and noise. We were both curious and interested in the world around us, and saw ourselves exploring every bit of it together. Fearlessly.
So there was that.
We had three children in 10 years, and damned if Ed didn’t love each of them, right from the start. Later we had three grandchildren, and, if they didn’t invent wrapping their grandfather around their little fingers, they became major experts at it.
But neither of us were saints and the waters sometimes seemed to roil as often as they stayed calm. You can’t live for more than six decades with someone who started out as a stranger without some major gnashing and clashing. If there are no fights, it’s a sign that one of you has given up, waved the white flag and ultimately surrendered. The key is in how you handle the fights.
Both of us, thankfully, are good at getting over whatever it is that has us going at it. We apologize and we forgive. Early on, we adopted that old adage, “Never go to sleep mad,” and most of the time we can do that. Though not always. But holding grudges is exhausting and, luckily, neither of us has ever been very good at it. It also helps that we’re both really, really bad at remembering what happened ― even yesterday.
You can’t live for more than six decades with someone ... without some major gnashing and clashing. If there are no fights, it’s a sign that one of you has given up, waved the white flag and ultimately surrendered. The key is in how you handle the fights.
Through the years we’ve had our share of upsets and heartache and even sheer terror. We’ve experienced life lessons so painful it still hurts to think about them. Ed has had heart problems, and I’ve lost a breast to cancer. Depression runs rampant in my family, and it strikes in every generation.
At times we’ve been the helpers, and at other times we’ve needed help. We’ve buried all four of our parents, along with siblings who died too young. Those weren’t events we would have chosen to face, but with each one we grew stronger together. We became battle buddies, bound forever, each of us grateful that the other was there by our side when things went wrong.
Ed and I aren’t romantic in the usual sense. We don’t write each other love notes, or work for weeks to find or make the right gifts. If we do give each other a gift it’s usually spontaneous and something inexpensive ― and not always on a birthday or a holiday.
Ed once bought me a bright yellow sweater, miles too big for my 5-foot frame, with a cowl neckline that threatened to devour me, simply because he’s colorblind and can only see bright yellow as a true color. It called out to him and he bought it. I wore it and he loved it. One year I bought him a dozen orange golf balls, forgetting that his colorblindness makes green and orange look the same to him, so he couldn’t find them on the fairways.
We don’t hold hands when we walk, or kiss in public. We say “I love you” at least once a day, but in private, so nobody will hear. And it works in his favor that he’s never once called me “the wife.”
But I am a wife, and I was a full-time wife during the volatile women’s liberation era. Those years were hard on us. I had grown used to being called by my husband’s name (Mrs. Edward Grigg), and it didn’t seem odd to me then that I couldn’t get a credit card without my husband’s signature, or have my name on the car title. He was the breadwinner and I was the stay-at-home mom. That’s just the way it was.
Then, in 1964, with the publication of her best-selling book, “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan came along and showed us housewives we had many reasons to be dissatisfied. She opened our eyes to our own self-worth and suddenly the men in our lives came to be seen as obstacles to our freedom. They got in the way of our achieving our true potential.
Those days were lethal to a lot of marriages. Ours survived, but not without a lot of push and pull. It was as if the earth began to shake underneath us, and when it stopped, the terrain was never the same.
By 1971, when I became a charter member of Ms. magazine, subscribing even before the first issue came out, I called myself a feminist. I saw feminism as a call for equality and as a movement to shine a light on the abuses many women endured at the hands of the men they wanted to love and trust. But I couldn’t disavow the men in my own life: I loved my husband, my father, my father-in-law, my brothers and my son. I did not see them as the enemy.
I also read Marilyn French’s “The Women’s Room” and understood, on one level, the reason for the rage. Women had been held back for centuries, treated as chattel, as second-class citizens, as expendable baby carriers. I got it, and I wanted to help, but I couldn’t feel the hate that so many other women seemed to be inspired by. I was, in fact, often repelled by their rage.
I felt guilty that I was reasonably happy, even though, as a housewife and a mother, I wasn’t particularly productive ― at least I wasn’t productive in the sense that I was accomplishing anything outside my home, or taking advantage of these new and hard-earned freedoms the feminist movement was shining a light on.
In an effort to find any euphemism that might legitimize the mostly thankless work we did in our homes, and to give us some sense of stature, we housewives became “homemakers” or “domestic engineers.” For the first time, women were ashamed to stay at home.
It didn’t help that husbands everywhere, including mine, didn’t get it at first. They still lived with the notion that they were “babysitting” any time they had to watch the kids. We had grown up with specific roles in place: The husbands were the breadwinners and the wives held down the domestic front. Our husbands did home repairs and car repairs, and yardwork, but, for the most part, wives were expected to take care of everything else. There was no time for outside work ― or so the story went.
I give Ed a lot of credit for taking only a little time to come around. I’m sure the whole women’s lib prospect threw him for a loop, but I don’t remember arguing about it. I don’t remember ever making a decision about my own life, only to have him tell me I couldn’t do it. That wasn’t the way it worked with us.
When my youngest child was in school all day, I got my real estate license and went to work. I sucked at it. I loved houses but hated selling them. I thought the houses should sell themselves. I even thought I should point out the problems potential buyers might have missed. I didn’t last long.
I lucked into a job as secretary to a nursing director in a large hospital, even though my typing skills weren’t anywhere near the minimum requirements. She liked me, and that was enough. I loved working but I found I loved being at home, too. So when I quit after a few years to take care of my first grandchild, I found some semblance of balance by working as a freelance writer. I had dabbled in writing since I was a child, and it was the best of both worlds: I could watch my grandson grow and I could work from home.
By that time Ed was traveling a lot as a civilian tech associate working on government projects. He was away more than he was home — and I immersed myself in the thriving writing community in and around Detroit. Over time, I saw my main role as a writer and not as a housewife, which meant, as a couple, we were at another crossroad. I didn’t see it as moving on — I saw it as growing right where I was and blooming in a garden that, before, had been lying fallow.
A good long marriage is a gift but it won’t come without determination, dedication and a whole lot of love. ... You forget those ugly words both of you threw out there specifically to hurt. You remember what brought you together in the first place, and you relive the moments that brought you joy.
I was a different person but so was Ed. And, miracle of miracles, once we got over our fears about growing apart, we began to talk. Again. His job and his travels all over the country gave him new stories worth telling. My experiences as a writer, an instructor, a conference speaker, a resident at writers retreats and a grant recipient gave me new stories to tell him.
He’s now my first reader and he’s good at it.
For a man who came of age in the ’50s, Ed had no real problem with helping his daughters turn into strong women. His awareness grew as the two of them grew, and they taught him more than I ever could about feminism. He gets it and he isn’t afraid to express it, something that delights the three of us to no end.
Ed and I moved away from the Detroit suburbs more than 20 years ago. We now live on an island in the north woods of Michigan, which is so remote we have to take a car ferry and drive the back roads for an hour to get to the nearest McDonald’s. Or the nearest hospital.
Healthy as we both thought we were, bouts of heart disease and cancer eventually caught up to us. With each scare, we become more and more desperate to hang on to each other.
We’ve grown old together ― something our young selves couldn’t even imagine. At 18 and 23, we couldn’t fathom ourselves in our 80s, still saying, “I love you,” grateful that we didn’t go through with any of our threats over the years to call it quits.
A good long marriage is a gift but it won’t come without determination, dedication and a whole lot of love. You learn after a while not to sweat the small stuff. You forget those ugly words both of you threw out there specifically to hurt. You remember what brought you together in the first place, and you relive the moments that brought you joy.
You become a family, not by blood, but by heart and by endurance. You come to that point where, together, your old selves replace your young selves, and “until death do us part” doesn’t seem like such a long shot.
Ramona Grigg is a longtime columnist, essayist and blogger. Her political blog, Ramona’s Voices, ran for 10 years, starting on Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day in 2009. Ramona and her husband live on an island off the eastern coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula until the snow flies, and then they join a huge flock of snowbirds and head south for the winter. Some of her more recent work appears here, where she is editor of her own publication, Indelible Ink. You can find and follow Ramona on Twitter here.