Monday, March 23, 2009

Forty Five Years of Marraige

                                                                                                                                                                 Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                                                 March 23, 2009

Forty Five Years of Marriage

“What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how
compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.”
                                                                                                                                          Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

April 11th will mark our forty-fifth wedding anniversary. Forty five years may not be fifty, but it is a good long time. Neither of our parents made it this far. Death intervened.

During the past forty five years we have been homeless (for six months we hung out at Caroline’s parents apartment in New York, early in our marriage) and have had seven residences, eight if you include a boarding house that became home for a couple of months in late 1965.

We were married before I finished college, a quaint concept in today’s world of thirty-something marriages and two family incomes, but not uncommon in those pre-historic days. Marriage is viewed differently today. For one, people marry at a later age. The population of the United States has increased 58% since 1964, while weddings are up a mere 23%. On the other side of the ledger, the divorce rate is up 130%. It makes one wonder, does wisdom diminish with age?

Other facts, while irrelevant to the subject of forty-five years of marriage, are of interest. GDP during those years increased twenty-five times, while the DJIA is up about nine times. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and Vietnam was just beginning to heat up. A first class stamp cost a nickel. Civil Rights marchers were murdered in Mississippi. Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby and the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. If it seems like the distant past, it was.

I met Caroline on New Year’s Eve 1961 at a, now defunct, ski area in southern New Hampshire, Temple Mountain; we were introduced by my sister, Mary. We saw each other that evening and within a matter of weeks knew we wanted to marry. I was twenty-one at the time. Two and a half months after meeting, in a ski lodge in North Conway, N.H. I asked Caroline to marry me; she accepted. A few hours later she broke her leg on Wildcat Mountain, during what would prove to be her last trip down hill on skis. (It turned out she had broken an ankle skiing each of the prior two years.)

We grew up very differently, Caroline on Park Avenue in New York and I on a little farm in a small town in New Hampshire. But we were not quite as different as a superficial view might appear. For example, both of our fathers had Harvard in common; Caroline’s father graduated from the law school and mine from the college. Caroline had friends in Boston, where she was then living, whose parents were friends of my parents. Nevertheless, the differences were quite obvious. The sidewalks of New York differ from the rocky fields and pastures of New Hampshire. To enjoy the outdoors meant a trip to the Park for Caroline, while I would saddle a horse and take off over miles of dirt roads. My wife had only to step outside to enjoy the cultural advantages of New York, from Broadway to the Museum of the City of New York, from the Stork Club to the Metropolitan Opera. In Peterborough we had the MacDowell Colony, the Guyette Museum and, during the summer, the Peterborough Players. Caroline’s family always had a dachshund, while mine had several dogs of varying breeds that lived along side of cats and a barn full of horses, goats, chickens and two peacocks. I was one of nine children while Caroline had a brother.

Following college, and before the start of my first ‘real’ job, we took $2000 and went to Europe for eleven weeks. We had rooms booked in Paris for the night we arrived and for the night before we left. The other seventy-five nights we left to chance. Arthur Frommer’s, Europe on Five Dollars a Day, a rented VW bug, a map, sleeping bags, some Travelers Checks (no credit cards) and a couple of small suitcases were our sole companions. It proved to be a great time and making the trip after almost a year of marriage – we celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Vienna – proved fortuitous. The physical attraction of marriage, while still exciting, was no longer all consuming, so we were able to get to know one another far better and become friends, as well as lovers.

In 1974, three years following our move to Greenwich with three small children and seven years after entering the securities business, Wall Street went into a severe bear market. It had been a long time coming. The DJIA had neared 1000 in early 1966. In the intervening eight years, the Averages had fallen, risen, fallen and risen, but in 1974 stocks went to twelve year lows. On May 1, 1975 fixed commissions were abandoned in favor of negotiated rates (a plan that ultimately proved very positive, but at the time was devastating) and the commission business slowed markedly. With two children in private schools and a third in the wings, a mortgage on a house beyond our means, our marriage suffered a strain. There were moments when I – and I’m sure Caroline, too – sympathized with the lines of Neil Lindores’ uncle in Andrew Greib’s The Return of John Macnab,

“How ill advised it was, and rash, to start upon this foolish dash!”

My income virtually disappeared; we were forced to sell the house off Round Hill Road, send to my mother in New Hampshire a couple of horses and goats, and move to another house with less land about two miles away on Lake Avenue. But financial hardship brought determination and reinforced our marriage. The 1974 recession caused a lifestyle change, not only for us, but for others on Wall Street. In the early 1970s I would drop the children at school and catch the 7:40AM to New York, arriving at the office a few minutes before 8:30AM – a leisurely pace. The train was crowded and reflected life on Wall Street in those halcyon days. However, it wasn’t long before the 6:00AM became the train of choice for me and for hundreds of commuters. Being at your desk by 7:00AM became the norm. The children took the bus to school.

The years went by; the children grew and did well. Wall Street recovered and I was fortunate to have found work I enjoyed and which treated me well.

The focus of Caroline’s attention has been, since our eldest was first born, on the children. She has showered them with love, provided practical advice to their inquiries; she has acted as a sounding board to them. The have been her “raison d’ĂȘtre.”

Within a year of one another they all married. Once the three of them set up their own homes our lives re-set to our years before children, giving us time for re-discovery. However, after three years they began producing their own families and now the grandchildren are the fortunate beneficiaries of Caroline’s love and wisdom. I revel in the love they bestow on her. My admiration grows and the foundation of our marriage becomes more deeply embedded.

There is no moral or lesson, in this short essay. It is almost impossible to foretell whether a marriage will work or not. A lot has to do with luck. Certainly, it is something that needs attention. Compassion, respect, understanding and of course love play big roles. One partner may be the counselor on Monday and the counselee on Tuesday. Staying married does not necessarily make one a better person. Two very fine people may find themselves incompatible and the best course may prove to be divorce. I revert to my earlier premise: luck plays a big role. Caroline and I have been fortunate and we know it. There have been times of angst. There have been moments of doubt, but happiness and satisfaction have dominated. The decision to marry involves a bet on the very long term. We both realize the role of coincidence – had we not met when we did our lives may have taken very different paths. Those paths might well have led to happiness, but the question of “what if?” is not one that consumes us. We did meet. We were young and took a chance. It worked.