My husband and I are sitting across the table from our daughter, Teal, and her fiancé, Bennett. Around us, the restaurant is bustling, with servers slipping between tables hoisting fragrant pan-Asian dishes while patrons scream delightedly at one another. Noise aside, this will be the last calm moment the four of us have together for a while. Bennett’s family will arrive in Austin the next night, followed by 180 of the couple’s friends for the rehearsal dinner on Friday, wedding Saturday, and brunch Sunday. As the mother of the bride, I should probably be losing my mind right now, but I completely lack any Martha Stewart genes, and my standards are low. Still, we’re all a little jumpy. Profound change is in the air, along with a lot of garlic.
Bennett finishes his helping of brussels sprouts and leans forward. “Is there any advice you can give the two of us about marriage?” he asks.
He and Teal look at my husband and me expectantly. Teal is our firstborn, strong-willed and charming. She and Bennett met and fell in love four years ago while working on Obamacare (not the website, they always point out). They are both 32, smart, and ambitious, and they fit so beautifully together, bantering constantly like a thirties screwball comedy, that it makes me happy just being around them.
But marital advice? My mind freezes.
We were ten years younger than they are now, just a few months out of college, when we stood before a Methodist minister at my parents’ small brick house on the dusty edges of Midland. We were so young we didn’t realize how young we were. We had met in high school, where we’d ignored each other, then been thrown together on a shockingly successful date that lasted till the small hours. I loved his endless curiosity about the world and his sly wit. Halfhearted hippies, we both had big, gauzy dreams we couldn’t quite articulate, and the future stretched before us endless and blank. In the photos, he looks terrified and I look exuberant.
The minister, who counseled us before the service, told us our agnosticism was only a phase. He also suggested we sit down every year and record what we liked and disliked about each other, so we could see how much we’d grown. My husband and I thought that was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. A few years later, we learned the minister had been sent to the penitentiary for embezzling church funds to support his girlfriend; we never found out what happened to his wife.
Now, in the restaurant, looking at my daughter and her husband-to-be, I struggle to think of some pithy wisdom to offer. The truth is, after all these years, marriage strikes me as the craziest institution around. It creaks under towering heaps of cultural and personal expectations. We all complain about it, but we keep going after it. We celebrate it, we revere it when it works, we want it for our children.
My husband, probably recalling just how semi-formed he and I were when we exchanged vows, breaks the silence. “You’re both already better equipped to handle marriage than we were,” he says, which is true. From there, he and I talk in fits and starts. Laugh as often as you can, we counsel them. Be as mannerly toward each other as you are to strangers. We mention children, the slow shift of the years. Our speech isn’t what anyone would call a polished or coherent performance.
Later, after we’ve come home, I see the scattered family photos my husband and I have been looking at as we compile a mosaic of pictures of Teal for the wedding. The photos are dog-eared and chaotic, featuring houses and neighborhoods we used to live in, friends we haven’t seen in years, friends who have died. Teal is an infant, then a toddler dynamo, a brooding adolescent, a grown woman intent on changing the world. Trailing a few years behind, her younger brother, Nick, kicks his spindly baby legs, loses his front teeth, looks rakish at the prom.
In the background, my husband and I lose the fresh, plump faces of youth. We camp, we drive a battered Volkswagen bug, we finish graduate school and law school. His hair, once red and thick, darkens and thins. My dramatic eighties perms surround my face like a thundercloud till I lose my hair to chemotherapy. We are poor and strapped, we sell our wedding silver to pay bills, we steadily do better. We travel to Japan and Albania and Lourdes. We look more tired than we once did.
As the wedding approaches, the tempo quickens and the noise becomes a roar. Teal and Bennett are surrounded by friends and family, everyone giddy about the future. I’m in a festive mood, but I also find myself remembering the past. I see ghosts now and then, of my parents and grandparents and my own past selves—the tentative young woman I was, the driven professional, the mother who feared she wouldn’t live to see her children grow up.
A long marriage, it occurs to me, isn’t a monolith any more than a life is. Instead, it is a series of relationships over the years, and you have to be lucky and stubborn and both want it to work. I see my husband and me in our early married years, before we had children. We worked and studied, drank and hosted parties that lasted till dawn. We were messy and careless and trying to find our way in the world. Those were the years when we fought the loudest and laughed the hardest.
Then our children came along. In those harried years, we never relaxed. We were always in a rush, always cleaning cereal up from the floor, never finishing a sentence or a thought. It was hard but joyous. How do two ambitious people survive parenthood together? You cope and you chafe, and it helps if you still find each other funny and attractive.
And yes, the face of love changes over the years. When you’re diagnosed with cancer and cut open and infused with toxic chemicals, when your own parents begin to sicken and die, when tragedy strikes so randomly and brutally that you’re left breathless—maybe that’s when you finally grow up. In our case, we did grow up together. Today, with our children out of the house, my husband and I lead quieter, less hectic lives. We’ve left our family home in West Austin and moved to a smaller condo downtown. We watch TV more than we used to—but TV is more intellectual than it used to be, isn’t it? Sometimes I look back and feel as if a great storm has passed and left us drifting in contentment. It’s a lovely time, far more pleasurable than I would have ever guessed.
On Saturday evening, two hundred people gather inside the Palm Door, a funky, offbeat event space on Sixth Street. The four of us—Teal in a strapless gown with cowboy boots, her father with tears streaming down his face, Nick, and I—walk down the aisle to Robert Earl Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again.” Bennett waits at the front with Ward, my husband’s brother and the officiating reverend by way of the Internet, who’s in danger of crying himself. The rowdy crowd quiets as Teal and Bennett promise to always make time for each other, to encourage, to comfort, to dance to Willie when they’re low. Their faces are open and lit with happiness.
As they speak, I sit next to the man who’s hovered with me over feverish children and birthday cakes that now collapse in from the weight of the candles. He is the one who has calmed my fears for 41 years, who believed in me before I ever believed in myself, who snores as loudly as I do. And I think, that’s what marriage is: falling in and out of love with the same person, again and again and again. Looking at our beautiful daughter and her new husband, I can’t think of anything better to wish for them.