Fifteen years ago today I woke up as Brenda Johnstone for the last time. It was a bright, clear August day in Washington State when I exchanged vows in a tiny white church with my beloved. The whole congregation was there. My family was in force. His family had a long way to travel, but came too. Some intrepid college friends made the transcontinental journey.
I remember that a big beetle got caught in the lace of my mother’s wedding dress. My left knee shook through the whole service. Adam wouldn’t stop mouthing “I love you”. My brother forgot a verse of the Wedding Song (a faux pas he’ll never be allowed to forget). I insisted on Wagner’s version of Lohengrin’s Bridal March for the processional and Medelssohn’s proper recessional. But we did not have live music. We used the same version of the wedding vows my parents had used – and have claimed ever since that “I slipped Elden a $20 to add ____ to the vows.” (Usually “entertain me”) (Elden’s integrity and incorruptibility is what make that so funny.) At the buffet reception there was chocolate cake, Martinelli’s sparkling cider (it was a dry wedding) and an espresso van.
That night I fell asleep in a bug-ridden nearby bed and breakfast as Brenda Flynn, for the first time.
Fifteen years is a long time. If you’re thinking “I didn’t think Brenda was that old!” Well. I was 21 on that bright August day. Fifteen years, three homes, two children. Fifteen years also marks the length of time we’ve been playing once a week with the same gamers, and how long we’ve been members of our church. These are not coincidental numbers. That day fifteen years ago marks not only the beginning of my married life, but my adult life. It’s been a wonderful, joyful fifteen years.
If I had it all to do over again, I would joyfully do so.
Camp Gramp time is usually a week when Adam and I slip away, and remind ourselves joyously of why we chose to marry each other in the first place. It is appropriate, then, that Camp Gramp week almost always falls on our anniversary. On August 5th of this year, Adam and I marked thirteen years of joyful marriage together. Thirteen has always been a lucky number in my family, as my parents married each other on a Friday the 13th. I’m feeling 13 years lucky myself, these days.
Still, there was the weekend. We left Friday night – after a full day’s work. This was – of course – the Friday night where the beer truck dangled off the side of the freeway. (An incident only amusing because I ended up making it home in good time due to some excellent and thoughtful reaction by MBTA employees, and because no one was hurt.) I fetched our farm share, prepared that which would not keep, schlepped the rest of it in the ‘fridge and consigned the three watermelons and two vast cantaloupe to Camp Gramp consumption. We packed full the back of the car and cossetted our sons with pillows and blankets.
The last pink traces of sunset found the Flynn family singing “Red River Valley” in the car, with certain young voices picking up the refrain. I thought as I sang “Come and sit by my side if you love me” about Michael. I remember him crying when I crooned the old words to an infant grandson of his, remembering his lost brother Jimmy. And now those small voices from the back seat may someday fondly remember the same strains, and their beloved brothers. One of those small voices begged anonymity, as though I would ever find a love of singing something to be ashamed of, so you will never ever know who sang so sweetly back there.
Through construction, leaving the Red Sox broadcast area, crossing the mighty Hudson and late into a starlight night we went. Only I was awake when we finally got to Middletown. My mother was waiting for me on the steps – waiting up for me to pull in to the driveway, like she has done so many times. Small bodies were carried upstairs – perilously close to the last time that will be possible. Cantaloupe were unloaded. Blessed flat, soft surfaces were revealed.
We left not too late the following morning. It’s funny how little time is required to fall into the cadence of your family. For me this is a blessing – I’m very fond of my family. I ate breakfast, kibbitzed with my brother, brushed my niece’s hair, took a picture of the four of them – Thane clinging to his Kay, Grey with a comradely arm around his Baz – and we were on our way. We only forgot four things, and we hadn’t even left town by the time my mom called to tell me of it.
It was 11 on a Saturday morning, and my husband and I were at LIBERTY. We went shopping. We ate at Denny’s. We pointed the car northward in search of an elusive hike on the Appalachian trail. By the way, in case it ever comes up, I highly recommend searching for a particular unmarked trailhead on the Appalachian Trail as an excellent way of discovering and becoming intimate with the rural ways of Connecticut. We sought for signal to update our directions in the high places of grassy, half-forgotten graveyards. We went round and round main square intersections looking for signs. We accosted random hikers. We went on one-lane, washboard gravel roads thickly papered with no-trespassing signs. We did u-turns. We drove past horses and pastures and woods and rivers. We went past shoulder-high corn, dappled streams, private schools and mansions in Salisbury.
We finally gave up, and hiked a different section before turning around to Kent for our night’s repose in a fancy inn. Any implication that I picked the Starbuck Inn because of my coffee leanings is purely hypothetical, mind. We had a lovely dinner at the Fife and Drum, right next to the pianist. We laid out in the dewing air and watched the Milky Way stretch itself luxuriously across the country sky, hardly blemished at all by any falling Perseids.
The next day we got a good start on the morning, up in time for the breakfast part of bed and breakfast. Our host, calloused feet clad in sandals, regaled us with tales of what we’d missed the prior afternoon. The portraits and maps adorning the walls of the well-kept colonial attested to the fact that Starbucks had been in New England a very long time. I wondered if he was the hippy scion of a long and proud lineage. Anyway, two blocks to town for a cup of coffee! But look! The bookstore is open! I consider it a moral duty to stop at small local bookstores and find things I desperately need (even if you can get them cheaper at Amazon). So we found the new Arthur translation by Tolkien, and books for the boys. But hardly had we gone a block before we discovered the library was having a book sale! Tables and tables of trade paperbacks, clothbound books, best sellers and all manner of odd books were laid out. Well, that set us back long enough that I had to get a refill of my coffee before we left (happily, four times as many books cost a tenth as much as the bookstore). Finally, we were awa’.
This time, we did find the Appalachian Trail. We walked our way up the gold and green Connecticut hillsides, punctuated by old stone walls and periodic views. Adam was nursing a hamstring injury (a parting gift of aikido) and a nasty cold, and I was still trying out my new knee, so we didn’t go to far. But we talked and laughed and ate pretzels and talked through the latest developments in Season III of Downton Abby. We noted various interesting bugs and talked about how astronomy and atomic theory seemed on the point of convergence, like a fractal. We missed our children in the cheerfully satisfied way parents miss their children when those parents are perfectly satisfied that the children are having a blast and not missing them at all. Finally, we turned back (the path racing below our feet as we returned). We wound our way north over 7 and returned with abrupt reality to bad traffic on I90 – two days and a vast refreshing distance since we had traversed it Westbound.
And here I am now – at over 10,000 feet – on yet another business trip (missing my husband of 13 years, and my still-satisfied-to-be-gone children). It’s remarkable that although the days seems to blur together in an endless March of sameness, when I cast my memory back I find so many joyfully memorable moments popping up.
Business travel is losing what allure it once had by novelty, but yet I am content. Thirteen years I’ve had with my husband, and two bonny bright children. A thousand joyful memories we’ve made together, along with a home and a life strong enough to endure. I hope for thirty and thirteen more. Maybe then we’ll do the whole length of the Appalachian Trail together!
*I discovered later in life that manse actually has two meanings. In a New England context, it’s synonymous with mansion and means a fancy house. In a Presbyterian sense, however, the manse is the house that the pastor lives in. It usually specifically means a home provided for the pastor by the church. It is in this second sense I use it – since it is a classical manse, so close to the church as to almost be touching and built in a similar style. We actually lived in The Manse (a double-wide trailer) for two years when I was a young girl.
I’ve been very happily married – to the same man, no less! – for twelve and a half years now. If you count the time we dated before marriage, I’m perilously close to having been with my beloved husband for as much time as I was alive prior to meeting him. In that dozen plus years, we have developed something of a tradition that I have found extremely useful and – as it is topical – I thought I would share our “State of the Union” dinner with you.
Adam and I communicate well with each other. We both understand the other’s preferred form of communication and know how to adapt our language to reach each other. In addition to talking well when we’re together, we’ve developed a family toolset for managing the logistics of a two kid, two job family: the sacred Google calendar, the text messages and the emailed reminders. Basically – we have no problems with tactical communication. But just as in a company or a career, it’s not enough to be tactical in your relationship. You need to be strategic too. Otherwise, you drift and find five years later that both of you were doing something because you thought it was important to the other person… and neither of you actually wanted to be doing it at all. Drifting is no better in marriages than it is in other endeavors.
So every year, after Christmas is accomplished, we go out to a very fancy dinner at our favorite restaurant. We dress up. We hire a babysitter. And we have our State of the Union dinner. This started around the time our youngest was born, when the opportunities for casual deep conversation became more limited, and we found ourselves practically bullet-pointing conversations to get all the critical information out. We were in crunch, and it was very difficult to step back. There’s nothing like Melissa’s lamb shanks to help you take a long look at life.
Whether you have a fancy dinner together, take a long weekend, or just catch up over breakfast – the things we talk about are worth conversing with your partner with on a regular basis. You might find that even more often than annually is fruitful.
I’m the keeper of the book in our family. I’ve made sure to document things so that if I was unable to advise Adam, he’d know where everything is. But as a family gets more busy and division of labor gets more critical, we can’t duplicate the job of bookkeeping. But it is critical for the health of a family to know how things stand in the moolah department. Some years I’ve actually generated a full report of where we stood: assets, liability, concerns, run rates etc. Other years, I just give him a high level overview. Some questions to discuss on finances are:
– Are we cashflow positive or negative (eg. are we getting into debt, getting out of debt or building on our savings)?
– If we are cashflow negative, why, and what can we do to stop it?
– If we are cashflow positive, how are we allocating our funds? Are they going to the things that are our top priorities?
– Do we anticipate any major changes in the money situation? Eg. do we think we might have a change in job, huge expenditure, inheritance or other looming event that is going to change the way things are?
That leads to the next conversation….
Does your boss know more about your career objectives than your spouse? Are you angling for a particular promotion? Are you becoming increasingly unhappy and daydreaming about a career change? Is your company facing shaky finances, or opening a new headquarters? We often talk to our spouses about day to day events, but it’s even more important to understand the larger context of your employment together. Adam and I talk about our relative happiness with our jobs and careers (two differently things, by the way), what we might need to do to fulfill our next-step ambitions, whether we need training, education or a new opportunity, etc. This has the advantage of causing us to pause for reflection about what it is we want – together – in our careers. It also means that shifts in employment are not the first you hear about a possible issue.
We talk about our kids a lot. All the time, in fact. But this is a good chance to compare notes on how we think the boys are doing, whether they’re getting the things they need or if we need to adjust our parenting strategies. This year, I raised ideas like sending Grey to an overnight summer camp, to see what Adam thought. We probably need a check in less for kids than other topics, but it would be hard to imagine a serious discussion about our lives not including them.
This is also a great time to talk about whether your family has the desired number of children. You might discover that since your last heartfelt discussion, your partner has been taken with baby fever. Or it might be the impetus to schedule that surgery that indicates your family is complete as-is. Or, perhaps, you collectively decide not to make any decisions yet.
By the time you’re cleaning your plate, it’s a good time to figure out whether you’re still living in the right place. Is your house still the right size, with the right number of rooms? Is your commute killing you? And assuming you’re not inclined to move, then what sort of home improvements – if any – would you want to prioritize for the coming year? How will you pay for them? What’s bothering you about your living situation?
Finally, you get to the dessert topic of the dinner…
It was at one of these dinners that we conceived the plan to go to Istanbul for our 10th anniversary. It was – obviously – the sort of thing that required months advanced planning. But it was a memory for a life time. Many of these kind of memories require advanced planning. If you sit around and wait for vacations to happen, well, you end the year with two weeks paid leave and a bad case of burnout. This is the time to figure out what you (collectively) want, and what it would take to make that thing happen. Bonus: I can usually send my boss my entire year’s vacation schedule in February.
As we linger over the last cup of coffee, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes, we went through every single recurring event on our shared weekly calendar to make sure it still deserved its place. Is the weekly gaming just a habit, or is it a meaningful event in our life? Does Aikido still fill the need it was meant to fill? Does our worship life at church reflect our call to serve God? Are guitar lessons still gusting me? We didn’t end up changing any of our recurring events, but it was really liberating to consider our days as completely free – to be filled with the things we most value. This exercise affirmed our choices, and made them choice instead of tradition.
You might think this sounds incredibly unromatic. In fact, it might sound a bit like a running a family as a business. I mean, a meeting agenda for a romantic dinner? Really? Has it come to that?
In the history of marriage, the institution has never been JUST about love. Love plays a tremendous role as initiator, motivator and facilitator within marriage. But marriage has also been the way we organize the work of our days (especially for women), decide where to live, how to spend our time, organize our money, and raise our children. I think it’s much easier to enjoy your shared love when you also have a clear vision of what your spouse hopes for, what’s bothering them, and what they’re thinking about. When the participants in marriage have clear, shared goals for their lives, it cuts down tremendously on uncertainty and conflict and increases joy.
So that’s part of how my family deals with the complexities of being a family in the 21st century. (I must admit, I’m tempted by the Agile/Scrum family meeting concept in the article above!) How does your family make big decisions, and talk about big issues?
This past weekend was full of the celebrations of love and marriage. On Saturday, I had a (likely!) once in a lifetime experience. Two of my dear friends announced their engagement last fall – to my delight. When they asked me if I would be willing to perform the ceremony of their wedding, I was even MORE delighted. I am ordained (as a Ruling Elder and a Deacon – for those of you who are Presbyterian Polity specialists and wanted to know. Of course, most people I know who are keenly interested in Presbyterian Polity are my family and my church – both of whom already know. I digress.) But the kind of ordination I have is to serve in specific ways (in the governance and service of a church) and they don’t count for doing weddings. So before I said yes, I asked my pastor if it was ok for me to perform a wedding. With his blessing (and letter of recommendation), it was full steam ahead!
Massachusetts has a neat program where once a year a person may petition for and recieve a license to perform exactly one wedding on one day for two people. You fill out a form between 6 months and 6 weeks ahead of time, including a letter of reference from someone whose marriage you are NOT performing. I was _very_ impressed by the Commonwealth’s handling of this: they communicated in a timely and useful way. They were clear about the requirements and steps. And they were very fast in getting my approval and letter.
Shiny certificate in hand, speech written, extremely-dfficult-to-shop-for-dress put on, I showed up at the Arabian Horse Inn in Sudbury two hours early, and with two of my three boys. Grey was the “ringleader” for the ceremony, so his presence was required. It was a stifling hot day – 93 degrees on our way in with very high humidity. We did a quick run through of the service, we lounged around, the bride and groom disappeared to get dressed and suddenly “Froggy Went a’Courtin'” was playing and a lovely pair was walking over the bridge to the service. With a deep breath I launched into the service.
It is a wonderful thing to be at the front because you can watch people’s faces as they see their son and daughter, their siblings, their dear friends joined to each other in marriage. All the faces in front of me reflected back joy from the faces of the two marriagees.I got to call my son forward to bring the rings (he actually got to carry the real things, and to keep the box afterwards). I spoke about my favorite metaphor for love in marriage – the garden. I pronounced them husband and wife. I told them to kiss each other. It was over in just the right amount of time, at which point I finally got to tear up myself.
There was joy, my friends. And then there was cheese, dinner and dancing. I even got to sign the marriage license, which is pretty cool. And Grey was PERFECTLY behaved. He made friends of the staff of the Inn, whom he talked into letting him ride on the tractor and mix the punch according to his own recipe. He was excellent.
We went home tired and satisfied that night. It was a great day.
Now all of you who know me well are wondering… where is your other son?
Six weeks ago or so I asked my friend and babysitter if she could take Thane basically all day on Saturday (given that schedule). She said she would and there was much rejoicing. I pointed out that if she wanted him at her house, that was perfectly reasonable and we could accommodate it. But then, two weeks ago while I was in Ashland, she called. “Hey, I was just calling because I’m going to be vacationing in Maine the weekend coming up.” At this point, I was lamenting in my mind and wondering what else I could do. She continued, “So I was wondering if you would mind if I brought Thane with me and kept him overnight at our beach house. You guys could come up on Sunday and go to the beach too.”
My sons took turns, the week before, being jealous of each other. “Why does Thane get to go with her for a sleepover?” “Why does Grey get to go to a wedding?” but in the end each kid went joyfully to their special event. Sunday morning – at a reasonable hour – we got dressed and drove up to Maine. After the application of some sunscreen (subpar*, as it turned out) we all hit the beach. I got to do something that has been a fantasy of mine for six years…. go to the beach with a babysitter so I can swim with my husband. We had a BLAST in the waves at York beach while my kids had a blast with the babysitter-friend, who is one of the very few people in the world capable of convincing me that she’s really enjoying taking care of my kids. We chatted together. We lounged in the beach. Adam and I played this game where he would shoot the intertube I was in into a breaker and I would launch back at him. Superb.
Then we all went out for dinner, where I got an incredibly cheap lobster and Grey got the champion for his age division at Pacman.
That lovely Sunday together as a happy family, right after that lovely Saturday together as a community celebrating love. Well… that Sunday was the 12 anniversary of the day Adam and I stood before friends and family and declared to everyone that we loved each other, and we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Twelve years, my friends. Many people talk about the ups and downs of marriage. I feel like our dozen years has had many, many ups and very few downs. If tomorrow was my wedding day, I would make my vows just as (or more) enthusiastically as I did 144 months ago.
*I think it may not have been waterproof, since those of use who used it turned to a crispy lobster red. I’m juuuust about at the peeling stage now. Yay.
We are in last phases for our trip to Istanbul. The boarding passes are printed. The bag are packed and by the door. The chargers are being slipped into luggage. The debate is raging whether fresh grapes will cause any anguish in security. I am seconds, seconds away from putting the auto responder “You’re on your own, suckas!!!” (or the professional version thereof) on my work email.
I worked very hard today, and it’s tough beginning to peel my mind away. I’m awash in all the details of two very consuming projects at work. There’s the million and one things I do to keep my household and my family running, “Ok, Mom, Magic needs to get her pill morning and night. Thane eats Life cereal with milk… with his hands. You might want to wait until after breakfast to dress him. And if there are apricots in the farm share, would you mind dicing and freezing half a cup? I’m just short for a batch of jam.” All these things that I carry and remember and think about… now is the time to lay them down. If I haven’t explained something to my mom, well, she’ll figure it out. If I haven’t addressed an issue at work, well, they’ll either have to cope or wait. If I’ve forgotten something, it will have to remain forgotten for a week.
This is why we go on vacation. Because we must see how much we are laying down, and then when we return we can choose how much to pick up again. Maybe, perhaps, the perspective of that freedom of going away will show that some of those things we work so hard to sustain are not worth the energy they sap from us. On the other hand, some things we deal with as mundane requirements of our day to day life are revealed as the shining jewels of existence they are. (See also: bedtime reading time)
I am so ready for this. Tonight we will crawl on a plane — the same flight, I think, I recently took to Amsterdam. It feels funny to have Schipol become, instead of this exotic destination across the world, a familiar place where I’ve mapped out the Starbucks, thankyouverymuch. (Funny note: also on the flight will be a friend from church headed to his family in Denmark. The world is a small place.) I promised a colleague in Amsterdam I’d wave as I landed. I have a bunch of Euros from my last trip to unload, so I think some good chocolate at that nice stand is in order.
Then I start travelling space I’ve never traversed before. Never in my life have I been to Turkey — not even as a squalling bairn (which is, for the record, how I was dragged through much of Africa and Europe). I will set foot on Asian soil for the first time in my life, this trip. We are hoping to visit Hagia Sophia, the underground cistern, the Bosporus. We may take a day to go and visit Ephesus. My husband and I will read, eat, walk, talk, read books, play games and celebrate (get this!) TEN YEARS of married life. Ten years ago this week, we honeymooned in Greece when we did largely the same sorts of things, plus the beach.
These new things – experiences, memories, contexts – will provide rich fodder for my mind and spirit when I return. I know this. I still draw strength from the joy of our pre-kid trip to Austria & Italy. I’ve packed all these books on Byzantium so I can truly BE there and feel the weight of 1500 years of history. I will breathe Belisarius, Justinian and Theodora. I will hear the echoes in ancient cathedrals. I will, I’m sure, meet new characters from legends I have not yet learned.
Sometimes, lately, I have felt rather boring. The things running through my mind… they are largely not things you would be interested in. Much of the time I’m not even interested in them. Not that this is why I have not been blogging lately. No no, trust me. I am perfectly willing to blog about boring stuff. I haven’t been blogging lately because I am SUPER BUSY. But even if the super busy isn’t much affected by wandering Byzantium, the boring will be. My mind will have all this new stuff to process — things I have learned and done for the joy of them, instead of for the need of them. I am so excited about this.
And then there is my love. My husband. My joy. My partner in chaos, parenting and gaming. We are very good partners and enjoy each other a lot… when we can focus on each other. But through necessity, many of our interactions are tactical. “Who’s picking up the kids today? What are we making for dinner? Did you pick up the cat food? Do the kids sound too quiet to you?” I so intensely look forward to talking with my husband about the larger things in the world – those same things I’m eager to put into my mind. After ten years of marriage, I love my husband deeply. I also like him. I can’t wait to be with my friend and my beloved, and to have a great time.
So it’s time to kiss the kids and wish my parents luck with Camp Gramp. It’s time to shut down the computer for (gasp!!!!) like 9 days. It’s time to fill up a memory card with tourist pictures.
I will pick you up when I return. May blessings abound.
Four years ago today, my husband and I stood before friends, family, community, and God and made promises to each other. (Of course, *remembering* those promises is something else. I slipped the pastor a $20 to include “entertain” in the vows, but A. doesn’t quite remember that part.) Those promises have been kept — in thought, word and deed.
Marrying my husband was the best choice I have ever made. We have now been together for nearly 8 years. That’s roughly a third of my life. I cannot fathom adult life without him. My husband is handsome. I’d go on about all the features of his I like, but he’d probably end up embarrassed, and I’d have to fight people off him with a broom. He is kind. He will pick up a bug on a piece of paper and patiently walk to the door (trying not to drop it) and let it go. He is as kind (or kinder) to me than he is to bugs. My husband is smart. He can deal with complicated intellectual arguments, sythesize them, and deal with them accordingly. There is no word in my vocabulary I have to censor from him. There is no concept I understand I cannot explain to him. There is no discussion we cannot and do not have. My husband is generous. He gives of himself to me, to our church, to our friends and to our families. He doesn’t even realize how much he gives. Best of all, though, my husband is silly. The night before last we took an evening walk in the soft summer darkness. And we passed a playground. That had swings. We were up in them almost instantly, and he gave me good pushes before he got on himself. He’s never ashamed to do something he will enjoy, and never makes fun of me for doing what I enjoy. He always deals with me kindly, with amusement where someone else might be frustrated or annoyed.
I can spend 24 hours a day with my husband, and not have enough of him. I go through my daily life with the roots of my heart deep sunk into the firm earth of his love for me. I never tire of my husband. I love him more now than I did the day I married him — and as my friends can attest, I loved him a lot that day.
A. knows I like surprises. He, himself, hates most surprises, so this took a lot of getting used to. Yesterday, he was so thoughtful and kind as to surprise me. See, he told me he was going to the mall to get Doom III (a perfectly natural thing to do!). And he came back with two cards (one funny, one for real) and a gorgeous sapphire pendant that I absolutely love. I was surprised, and delighted.
These four years of marriage have been wonderful. I look forward to another 60 or so with him. He is my beloved husband. He is my dear lover. He is my best friend. He is my buddy. And I love him.