My parents were married 50 years ago today, at St. Therese Catholic Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. It was a cold day -- the story used to go that it was Ice Bowl cold, but from what I can tell from the records it was about -2 for the high temperature in Appleton that day. The picture I'm including here doesn't make it seem especially balmy.
My parents were both 29 years old when they were married. Dad had been in the Army and had done a few other jobs, but by then he was a college student and was finishing his senior year at UW-Madison and would take his first job later that summer with CNA Insurance in Chicago. My mom was an executive secretary for Kimberly-Clark, the huge paper company based in nearby Neenah. I was born at the end of the year.
My parents had a tough marriage - I've chronicled in this space my mother's lifelong challenges with mental illness which were at the root of many of their marital problems. They had seven children together (one daughter died shortly after birth). There was a pattern to how that seemed to happen -- Mom would get ill and would end up hospitalized, then she'd get better, at least for a time. Things would get better and about a year later another sibling would arrive, although the cause and effect wasn't precisely linear. Ultimately, my dad couldn't take the abuse any more and they ended up separating in 1977 and divorcing in 1980. Those three years coincided with the beginning of my high school career, so I was personally able to find plenty of ways to keep myself busy and not think about what was happening.
My siblings, especially the younger ones, really have no memory of my parents living together. We continued to live with my mother, who was somewhat functional during those years, but she had some bad episodes. She had to go back to the hospital in the summer of 1981 and again in 1983. By then, my dad decided that he needed to get custody of my younger siblings and bought a big old house on the outskirts of town. He'd remarried by then and my stepmother ended up doing a lot of child rearing for my younger siblings.
It wouldn't last, though. My father died in 1990 following complications from heart surgery. By then I was long on my own and was already engaged to the future Mrs. D. My mother bounced around for a while and eventually she ended up living in assisted living. That provided the structure she needed and made it a lot better for her. She died in 2000, also following surgical complications, in her case from a mastectomy.
My dad has has been gone for a long time now and my mom has, too. Life didn't turn out the way they would have chosen. But even though their marriage ended in divorce, it does not mean they failed. My dad faced experiences that I cannot even begin to understand, especially as he tried to pull things together in that fateful summer of 1983. I cannot even imagine how he did it -- for a time he was trying to juggle three mortgage payments, since the sales of my childhood home and his small house in Kimberly hadn't gone through by the time we moved into the big house outside of town. This was at a time when interest rates were well over 10% and the experience was close to financially ruinous. He was also trying to provide for six of his own children and, from time to time, 2 or 3 of my stepmother's kids. I'm convinced that the stress of that summer took more than a few years away from his life.
I simply cannot understand, and likely never will understand, what my mom went through. Mental illness, especially profound mental illness, can be chronicled but cannot be explained. Every day was a struggle for her. I always sensed that, even when she was at her worst, she understood the implications of how her behavior would affect the lives of other people, especially her own children. Before her illness took hold, she had moved easily in the corporate world and had no trouble functioning in the executive suite of a major company. She had also been a talented singer who had performed with her female barbershop quartet, traveling for competitions throughout the Midwest and even in Canada. Had she been born in 1973 instead of 1933, her life would have been very different.
Fifty years on, the legacy of Ed and Mary Jane's marriage is still unfolding. My siblings and I are all reasonably successful and those of us who are married (four of six) have fine marriages, indeed. My father did not live long enough to meet any of his eight grandchildren and my mother only lived long enough to meet three of the eight, but my siblings and I have tried to make sure that they are a part of our children's lives. You can't sum up a marriage, or a life, in a blog post. But I am thankful for these two people, who loved each other enough to bring me into this world. Marriages are consequential and there is no question that the vows that were exchanged fifty years ago at St. Therese will continue to resonate.