Date #39 – They Made It Work
The first two years of marriage were a breeze–then we had a baby and sold all our possessions. We asked my grandparents how their marriage survived the hard times
SARAH: Like many longtime couples, my grandparents Judy and Ron Bertoch argue good-naturedly as they tell stories from their 58-year history together.
When we asked if we could interview them for our Marriage Test date, I knew I’d hear pieces of my personal heritage–stories I’ve heard so many times that I feel as if I’ve always known them. There was the time, for instance, that Grandpa showed up at the department store where Grandma worked to scare off another suitor who was visiting her there, and there was the time Grandma almost joined the CIA, and the time that Grandpa heard a voice that told him to pay special attention to that family coming up the sidewalk to the church, for they would be very important to him later on.
I also knew there were stories I’d never heard, ones that don’t come up as easily at Thanksgiving dinners and Saturday afternoon card games. These are the stories I wanted to hear, when for the first time we sat down to ask my grandparents questions about their life together as a couple, and how they made it from their first blind date until now, nearly six decades later.
We read the Marriage Test when we were already five years into marriage and discovering that this phase of our life together was turning out to be completely different than the first few years. Namely, that no matter how compatible you are and how much you love each other, things can get, well, hard.
When our son came along, and at the same time we both switched career and country, we found ourselves fighting constantly. We were bewildered.
The Marriage Test wasn’t a list of fun activities; it was a deliberate lens to apply to a serious relationship with a view toward finding out what makes you tick as a couple. It added perspective to our particular marital stumbling blocks, and offered ways to address some of the bewilderment. One of those ways was to interview a couple who had managed to make it through some extremely rough times with their marriage in tact. My grandparents came to mind immediately.
There are things I’ve always known about my grandparents: I know they married young and had children early and worked hard through their forties to keep bread on the table for their three children. I know the way grandpa’s meticulously organized garage smells and how its clean cement floor feels cool on my bare feet in the summer. I know that if you go into grandma’s Pink Room on a sunny afternoon, her knickknacks will be covered in rainbow speckles from the prisms she hangs in the window.
I didn’t know they’d almost come to a divorce twice, once when finances were so tough that they couldn’t afford to move away from a set of suffocating in-laws and a city they hated, and once because of alcoholism. I didn’t know that grandma had actually refused to go on a date with grandpa at first, because the last guy she met on a blind date had “Roman hands and Russian fingers.” Luckily for me and the rest of their progeny, Grandpa turned out to be a much more proper albeit dogged and determined suitor.
Of their first few months as a couple, Grandma said: Remember now, I’m 15, I’m not ready to settle down! So I’d have these guys come to the house to take me out, and he’d sit there and wait! And sit there and sit there, and finally we’d just go and leave him there! Now, you’d call him a stalker. (Smiles) Eventually though, it became just him.
When I asked grandpa why he was such a single-minded 17-year-old, he said: “I knew I loved her from the moment I saw her. I came home and told my mother I’d met the girl I was going to marry.”
My grandfather is a connoisseur of stories. He relishes the telling of them, all the dramatic flourishes and little details that paint the picture as clearly as if I’d known him as a teenager back in the 1950s. My grandmother will tell you that he likes the details a little too much. When he gets side-tracked on a tangent, Grandma reigns him in with a quick “ANY-way..” and he gets back to the point without a glance her way; it’s just one of the ways they’ve grown to work together.
I could tell as I listened that my grandparents had been two very different people when they married, and still were. We were reminded that a good marriage doesn’t mean gradually becoming more like the other person, but learning how to navigate each other’s differences. My grandmother came from a middle class Lutheran family, while my grandfather’s people were Mormon. While my grandfather worked hard to support the two of them on the blue collar job he got after high school, he also had a drinking problem that drove my grandmother away from him. My grandmother was beautiful and vivacious, while Grandpa tended toward straightforward austerity, unless of course he was telling a fart joke.
One thing they agreed about time and time again was that their faith saved their marriage: both in that they’d married a partner of the same faith, and that only prayer and the reminder of their commitment to God when they married got them through the worst times. This is particularly interesting to me. While I’m a fairly religious person and pray daily, David is an agnostic. He’s always been open to religion, but I’ve deliberately never pressed him on it and we’ve agreed to raise our son in my faith. I wonder then what the implications of my grandparents’ advice is for David and I, and it strikes me that another way to look at it is that my grandparents essentially made a lifelong vow to stay together, and to ask for help when they needed it.
Throughout our conversation, both grandparents referred to good relationships that I’ve heard before, from marriage counselors and relationship experts: once you’re over a fight, let it die. Don’t hold anything over the other person’s head. Or, take space apart during a bad fight because there’s no way to have a rational discussion when you’re both full of rage.
I expected to hear them say that children had been trying on their relationship because it’s been trying for David and I but when we asked them about the best times, almost all of their anecdotes were about their time as a family, while their hard times arose because of tight finances and alcoholism, issues that haven’t been a problem for David and I so far.
I’m not convinced that they were looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. In their cute, finish-each-other’s-sentences way Grandma and Grandpa rehashed the hard times as much as they laughed about the best. Rather, they reminded me that every couple encounters different obstacles. Some may find this discouraging, but for me it was the opposite. The common denominator I see in my grandparents’ relationship and every longterm couple I’ve known is a commitment to never giving up when things are tough, and to ask for help, whether it’s to your God, your support network, or each other. In that way, they reminded me that for all its roller coaster ambiguity, a good marriage is also incredibly simple.
Sarah Beaudette and David Keys were Amazon program managers until 2015, when they resigned and sold their house to launch an online retail business as digital nomads. They now travel the globe with their toddler and blog about nomadic family life at TheLuxPats.com