Friday, April 11, 2014

"A 50th Anniversary"

Sydney M. Williams                                                                                                             April 11, 2014                                 

A 50th Anniversary

“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”

I never dived to the bottom of the ocean, nor have I ever ascended Everest. I never ran a marathon, nor did I (or will I) make a billion bucks. I never sang at the Met, nor did I ever ski the Matterhorn. But together, Caroline and I made it through fifty years of marriage – a feat more daunting than those listed, and certainly one more cherished.

Neither of our parents made it to fifty years of marriage. Death intervened. Of our four sets of grandparents, only one made it to fifty years, my paternal grandparents. Ironically, they were the oldest of that batch to marry, both being in their 30s, something unusual when they were married in 1907. There was a small family party for them in 1957 in Wellesley, which was good fun. But they seemed pretty old to me at the time. Consequently, I do my best to act young and be vigorous as possible when around my own grandchildren!

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was standing at the altar in the chapel of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on New York’s Fifth Avenue. My brother Frank was at my side, as were two cousins and Caroline’s brother. My sister Betsy and the wife of Caroline’s cousin were her attendants. The rector, Floyd Thomas stood behind us. I was 23 and nervous. And then Caroline Elliott appeared coming down the aisle – a vision of beauty – on her reluctant father’s arm. And why wouldn’t he be reluctant? He was 71 years old, a Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate. I was a boy from New Hampshire with a year to go in college – the University of New Hampshire – from which I had dropped out for a couple of years to work and to go into the army. I was not what one would have called a promising prospect. On the other hand, I have been blest with an innate sense of optimism. I am one who prefers “what might be” to “what could have been.”

The first lines of Edward Albert Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t be Done” come to mind:

“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done.
But he, with a chuckle, replied
That maybe it couldn’t, but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so ‘til he tried.”

(It would be a mistake, though, to overplay the country boy-rube bit, as my father, his father and both his grandfathers were Harvard men, while most of the males in my mother’s family had gone to Yale. One exception was my favorite uncle who went to Trinity. I was simply a lad late to mature.)

In many respects, Caroline and I had an ideal start. Being young and in college meant we had low overhead and no expectations about material goods. There was no peer pressure. We grew into our new, married state. We both worked: Caroline typing a manuscript, with me balancing three jobs and my courses. Between classes, I drove a school bus, worked in a sandwich shop and wrote a sports column for Foster’s Daily Democrat. Ten months later, in February, I had completed my degree and had a job lined up with the Recordak division of Eastman Kodak beginning in June. So we took $2000 we had saved (our rent was $85.00 a month and we allocated $10.00 a week for groceries), bought two roundtrip tickets to Paris, booked rooms for the night we arrived and the night before we were to leave, and hired a Volkswagen Beetle. For the next eleven weeks, with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day tucked in our bag, we drove where impulse took us – France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and back to France. It was a time to unwind, a time to really know one another, and an opportunity to prepare for the grown-up world we faced on our return.

In 1971, we ended up in Greenwich, with our third child only a few days old. It was where we would live for the next 24 years. (In the interim, I had left Kodak and joined Merrill Lynch in New Haven). I went to work for the predecessor firm of Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., the firm to which I returned in 1992, after an absence of seventeen years. Greenwich was where our children grew up and where we made many of the friends we still have today. In 1993, we moved into the house in Old Lyme, which we had bought a couple of years earlier, renovated and where we live today.

When asked about the secret of staying married for fifty years (or just surviving that long) my response is there is no secret, other than by marrying young you increase the probabilities. A successful marriage obviously requires love for the other person, but it also combines a willingness to share, to be empathetic, supportive and to have an understanding that things will not always be just as one wants. As much as anything, a successful marriage depends on luck. How well can one know someone after a year or so of dating? How can one tell if one will be a good mother or father? There is much that is left to chance, but like most successful endeavors it also takes work, a willingness to listen and the acceptance that each is an individual. In many respects Caroline and I are very different, yet she is my best friend. There is no one with whom I would rather have dinner or spend the weekend.

We know we have been lucky. In a world marked by uncertainty, I am grateful for the sense of permanence we have been afforded. And my sense is that the permanence of our relationship has been good for our children.

We will be celebrating by renewing our wedding vows this afternoon, something our grandchildren have encouraged. Richard van Wely who for many years was rector at St. Barnabas church in Greenwich will officiate. Caroline will have as her attendants our six granddaughters, ranging in age from 5 to 13. I will be accompanied by our four grandsons, the youngest being 9 and the oldest 13. The congregation will consist of our children and their spouses, along with Richard’s attractive wife, Judy. As I stand at the altar this time, fifty years later, I will not have the same fears that consumed me fifty years ago. I promise not to think of the word “altar,” as described by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary: “The word is now seldom used except with reference to the sacrifice of their liberty by a male and female fool.”

We will adjourn to the Belle Haven Club for a wedding supper, thanks to our son Sydney and his wife, the authoress Beatriz. Next week, all 18 of us will go to the Hillsboro Club in Florida for a few days over Easter weekend, where Caroline and I will prepare for our next fifty years. The last fifty has been like life in a playpen. I expect and hope the next fifty will be more of the same.

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