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For Better or Worse

June 4, 2012


June is a traditional month for weddings. Clare and I will celebrate our forty-sixth anniversary later this month. When we were wedded I followed a longstanding tradition in the Neely family. I improved myself by marriage.

Recently, we talked about our years together.  Since the earliest days in our relationship, we have been best friends. Because we are both strong-willed people, however, we argue with some regularity. Our commitment to each other is unwavering, even when we disagree.  Whether working together on a project, dining out, or spending the day together, Clare and I enjoy each other’s company.

We were married on a hot, humid Saturday at Leesville Methodist Church in the Midlands of South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s only brother, Ben, served as the groomsmen.

The wedding proceeded as rehearsed the previous night. Holding Clare’s hands and looking into her beautiful green eyes, I repeated my vows.  Suddenly, I heard a loud crash behind me. I turned and discovered that Clare’s brother had fainted.

Ben, always a quiet person, had not told anyone that he had been ill with a fever the night before. He did not want to interfere with the wedding. Unable to eat and standing motionless next to a bank of flaming candles in a stuffy sanctuary, Ben passed out. When he fell forward his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood splattered everywhere.

My brothers picked up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet and followed. The pastor simply waited to continue. Finally, the father of the bride and the three stunned groomsmen returned. Then the service resumed and Clare repeated her vows to me.

I have long thought that Clare had an advantage. I had repeated my vows with little understanding of what it meant to promise to love Clare for better or worse. By the time we continued, she, at least, had an inkling.

Few couples understand the gravity of the vows they make. Marriage can be fragile. Few extended families have escaped the pain of separation or divorce. Clare and I have friends and family members who have suffered through the dissolution of their marriages.

Both Clare’s parents and my parents were married until death separated them: my mom and dad for fifty-eight years and Clare’s for forty-two years. They set a good example for us.

Our relationship has gone through numerous changes. For many years we focused on rearing children. We had to make adjustments as parents aged, especially when Clare’s widowed mother suffered from dementia. More changes were required as children became college students and then adults in their own right. Once the nest was empty, Clare and I had more time to focus on our relationship. Then we were blessed with grandchildren and expect two more to arrive soon.

An old couple, married to each other for fifty-one years, was traveling along a country road in their pickup truck.  They drove up behind a late-model car occupied by a young boy and his girlfriend.  The driver had his arm around his girlfriend, who was sitting in the middle of the front seat.  The couple in the truck followed the youngsters for several miles.

After a while, the old woman commented, “Pa, I remember when we used to be like that.”

Pa replied, “I ain’t moved.”

Clare and I realize that our need for intimacy has not diminished, but it has changed. We have so much in common — a long history together, five children, wonderful in-laws, and beautiful grandchildren.  Marriages that endure are characterized by the closeness that comes through shared experiences of joy and sorrow and the adventure of continuing our journey together.

Perhaps the wisdom in Robert Browning’s familiar poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” puts it best.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life,
For which the first was made.

Several years after Mama died, Dad married a lovely lady named Ruth.  As they were celebrating their third anniversary at restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina, the waitress noticed that they were holding hands.

To her question about what occasion they were celebrating, Dad replied, “We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary.”

The waitress said, “How wonderful!  How long have you been married?”

Dad answered, with a twinkle in his eye, “One hundred and twelve years.”

The startled waitress responded, “That’s impossible!”

“No. It’s not,” Dad explained. “I was married to my first wife for fifty-eight years.  Ruth was married to her first husband for fifty-one years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That makes 112.”

A marriage that is an enduring source of joy and love, for better or worse, is reason to celebrate.


Kirk H. Neely
© June 2012








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