A Road Called Marriage

My parents are celebrating a remarkable milestone this week. Thirty years ago, Tuesday, they were married. He was a young intellectual. She was a successful artist. They met in the unlikeliest of ways. Neither of them was looking for love. Russell Kirk, one of the giants of conservative thought in the second half of the twentieth century, knew both of them. He and his wife prodded this young man who’d come to learn from them to write to this young lady they’d come to love. She’d studied under them, babysat for them, and painted their daughter’s portraits. In their minds, it was a perfect match: they were both tall, both Protestant, both conservative intellectuals, and both near thirty.

And so before the days of email and social media, my father sat down to his typewriter and wrote to my mother. At the outset, they were both disinterested at best, but it took less than two months to spill ink over eighty pages and, before the days of GPS and text messages, they met face-to-face on the street outside her parents’ home, Dad driving into her neighborhood one evening after the 250-mile journey from Mecosta to Oakbrook (I looked it up on Google Maps).

Less than a year later they were married, and I couldn’t guess which one of them was the more surprised to be single no longer. The winding road of life takes you to strange places. Dad’s road took him through Southern California, where he went to community college and Calvary chapel, surfed and drove trucks. It wound through rural Arkansas where his journalist parents had bought a little newspaper. It took him deep into the life of the mind until he found himself publishing his undergraduate thesis on the doctrine of the trinity and pursuing an unusual master’s degree under the private tutelage of Dr. Kirk. Mom’s road took her to Hillsdale College to meet said Dr. Kirk, to New York City to study under a famous portrait artist, and back again to her Chicago roots where she was living the life of a single professional woman, painting portraits and working for a publishing house. And then the loveliest thing happened: their roads merged.

I’m not sure what they saw as they imagined what lay ahead on this new road, but if four years of marriage has taught me anything, it’s that the road – it winds, and it has a life of its own so far beyond your imaginings, and only a sovereign and mysterious God sees beyond the next bend. The loveliness of it, though, is that there are no longer two roads. These two became one, and in the oneness there was happiness and satisfaction all along the winding way. And wind it did. Perhaps when they moved to Colorado Springs they thought it would be forever. They lived in a darling yellow bungalow, Dad worked for Discipleship Journal, Mom painted, and Ernest David Ivan was born. There were cats, too. But with a baby not even a year old the road took them to Arkansas to help with the newspaper and Dad’s ailing father. So they set up shop in the tiniest farm house, rented from the owner of a small cattle ranch, set in the rolling hills just spitting distance from Missouri.

Then came the succession of babies, the sold newspaper, and the hand-to-mouth work of free-lance writing. The oil paints got put away, too, as the babies learned to be curious. Susan Elisabeth Ball, born after the world’s hottest summer, Kilby Marilee Anna, named for the subject of the last complete portrait, Rebekah Jean Louise, born at home while the red tulips bloomed, and Elbridge Peter Melvin, the best birthday present I ever had. By this time I’d guess they’d stopped contemplating the road for the energy it took to walk it each day. The kids were bunked into a shared bedroom, everyone shared the tiny bathroom, and my parents learned to pray for food. Mom took lovely photographs of her living portraits and Dad wrote book after book and in the together moments we walked the fields around our little house or drove across the hot summer prairie to magical adventures at the foot of Pikes Peak.

Then Covenant College asked Dad to come for a visit. But at the very moment they were leaving town to reject the job offer for lack of affordable housing, they stumbled upon a wreck of a house in a wreck of a neighborhood. They bought it for barely $40,000 – 2700 square feet of crumbling Victorian charm on half an acre at the foot of Lookout Mountain. It wasn’t much, this new road and with it all the questions of a new home, but I bet the prospect of a salary (no matter how small) and their own house (no matter how decayed) felt like luxury. A vista, this; the beginning of the rest of their life. We loaded up the Mayflower semi truck, kissed Nonnie goodbye, and made the trip to Chattanooga. We met Berta, indispensable friend in those early days. We tore out the orange shag carpet, rebuilt the fire escape, and, finally, moved in. It felt like a palace. A room for the girls, a room for the boys. French doors and tall ceilings and two bathrooms. The neighborhood became home and the house grew ever more lovely at the hand of contractors-become-friends or friends-become-contractors. Our hearts were knitted to a little church on the mountain and Dad learned the ropes at the college.

I am beginning to understand the fatigue of these days in my parents’ lives as I come into them myself. I know now why we went for neighborhood walks in the evenings: It was something to occupy the kids before bedtime so they could steal a few moments together, hand in hand. They couldn’t have felt glamorous amidst all the dust and debris of the house as they kept the renovation going at a pace that protected us from each new threat of a falling ceiling or sinking floor. Arthur John Calvin came along just as their roots began to dig deep into this new place, and then the next adventure began. To say you spent a year living in Scotland as a child while your father pursued his Ph.D. in a historic university town on the North Sea sounds picturesque. To imagine the finances, the suitcases, the sacrifices, the creative thinking, the loneliness involved in carting six children across the Atlantic to live with no car and no friends is staggering. And in the middle of her preparations, she found herself pregnant again. So there in St. Andrews, Grace Andrea Bronwyn broke the tie between girls and boys and by the mercy of her father’s insomnia she had a passport to gain entry into the United States not a day to soon.

They say when you have young kids the days are long and the years are short. The years accrued, barely noticed. There were little hearts to teach: everything from gospel and obedience to folding laundry and riding bikes. There was an endless mountain of homeschooling. There was a church to love and pray for through good times and bad. There were dozens of birthday cakes, hundreds of music lessons and caving adventures and trips to the swimming pool. There were the Happy Hollisters, the Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. There was Rocky & Bullwinkle and anchovies on pizza with Uncle Paul. There was Mong Rong Tong Song and there was a new van and and a bunny named Laurie. There was an endless march of college students around our dinner table and in our hearts. Once in a blue moon Dad and Mom would escape together leaving a babysitter behind, but usually that was to do their duty at a college function. I don’t think they got to enjoy each other nearly enough.

Those years were crazy, and they must have been hard. But they were good, and they were over fast. Tennessee turned into Florida and college students were exchanged for aspiring pastors and their families. For four years they cared for Mom’s dad as his health declined and his mind slipped away. Meanwhile Dad’s mom lived in our house, too. We were eleven each night at dinner, unless we were more. David brought the number to ten when he left for Bryan College, and so it began. Soon we laid Mom’s dad to rest. The next year I went to seek my fortune in Minnesota and Kilby was living in Mississippi as a nanny only months later. Dad’s mom moved to be with her daughter in California, and then like a whirlwind there was a career change for Dad and there was Mike Powell, Paul Austin, and the lovely Leigh. Peter spent a year in Africa and settled in Minnesota upon his return, Rebekah took Kilby’s place in Arizona, and there they were, the average American family: two teenagers and a big house in the suburbs.

But for this average American family there is more than meets the eye, because in Colorado their oldest son and his wife are involved in a retreat center for a Christian organization, and Ethan Nathaniel and Elijah Declin are carrying on the family name. In Indiana their oldest daughter and her husband are knee-deep in church music, graduate study, and the affairs of Jacob Elliot and Meredith Renée. In Chicago, their poet-philosopher daughter and her abundantly-degreed husband are preparing for a life of pastoral ministry in England, and raising Hilary Adele, the loveliest little British child you ever met. Rebekah has made them proud this year, graduating from culinary school that she paid cash for, landing a job at a four-star restaurant, and moving into her own apartment. Peter has become a strong young man, kind and disciplined, tirelessly working, and pursuing Alyssa, a woman beautiful inside and out.

And thus far has their road wound. They worship to the sound of guitars and drums among people who speak more Spanish than English. Ten thousand books line the walls of their home and bunk beds have been replaced with queen-sized guest beds for visiting children. She paints again, looking out the windows of their tiled dining room at palm trees, stucco, her grape vine, and a few lovely roses. Theology has given way to environmental, ethical, scientific, and political concerns and once again he writes, but now he speaks and travels endlessly, too. The two children of that “average American family” have become adults, too. AJ lives at home, plays his guitar, and works hard. His road is just beginning and he is proving himself a man – faithful and diligent, wise, content, kind. Grace flew the nest this summer and landed in Memphis. She, too, is proving herself, emerging from childhood lovely, courageous, wise, and strong.

Thirty years has led them to a pleasant place and now usually when they sit down to a meal it is at a table for two. Their appearance has changed since their first table for two, but they still recognize each other because they were together all along the way. Thirty years ago they wouldn’t have recognized the crumbling Victorian or the suburban stucco, and they wouldn’t have recognized the seven children, the three in-laws, and the five little ones they love now. But in hindsight they recognize it all, and in it, they see each other, and when they look at each other, it is all this they are seeing.

As I have been trying to remember what I saw of my parents’ love as a child, I have been surprised. I don’t remember seeing them within reach of each other very often. When the sun was up, the closest they got on a regular basis was sitting on either end of the long dining room table. I don’t know if there was anything they particularly liked to do for fun in a rare moment unencumbered by kids or other duties. I don’t think this is so much a reflection of a child’s limited perspective as it is a reflection of the way their days and years actually passed. When your lives fill as full as theirs did, there is not much room left for you to be together. But somehow that doesn’t matter, because all the winding of a merged road is winding for both of the travelers. For all the sights and sounds along the way, the two on the one road never diverged and never will.

What I remember of my parents’ love are these: I remember their devotion to each other. My mom was invested in my dad, and my dad was invested in my mom. They were for each other, and all the work they did, they did for the other’s sake; the endless duties that kept them barely within each other’s reach were only proof of their devotion. I remember their confidence in each other. Their love allowed no room for either to doubt the other’s abilities, skills, strength, wisdom, or virtue. They believed in each other completely and they depended on each other entirely. I remember their loyalty to each other. There was never a question of it. He would do anything for her. She would do anything for him. Nothing could change the way they felt about each other and there was never even a hint of betrayal in even the most casual moments. They spoke only well of each other and never had fun at the other’s expense. Nor did anyone else dare speak ill of one of them in the presence of the other. Dad trusted himself to Mom’s safe-keeping, and Mom trusted herself to Dad’s.

This love, with its devotion, its confidence, and its loyalty, more than made up for the endless barrage of life’s petty demands that kept them passing so often like ships in the night. By a long, silent, and un-self-conscious example they showed all their children and all the world what marriage means, and we are the richer, the stronger, and the happier for it.

And now the better part of their life’s work is lining the road behind them like so much beautiful architecture and landscape. And while they are the kind of people for whom retirement seems like an absurdity, their life is a slower, simpler one than it has been in all these thirty years. As I see it, the time has come for reflection and celebration. They have earned it by their long, humble faithfulness to each other, to their children, and to each community they’ve loved and served. Their faithfulness has begun to bear fruit, and the time has come to enjoy it.

Mom and Dad, a toast to you. May your next thirty years see your love stronger than ever, and your lives finally affording you time to pause along the road to notice each other a dozen times a day. And in those moments, may you find that after thirty years there is only more delight in what you see than when you first saw it and set out. May you grow together in new ways—lovely and leisurely ones, enjoying the good things of the creation you are part of. May you sip many a glass of good wine under your grape vine and read many a good book together in the comfort of a quiet home. May your meals be slow and savory with more steak and less stew. May you find many new things to enjoy, and may you enjoy them with abandon. May you acquire four more children to marry the ones you already love, and many more grand-children. And finally, on that good, sad, glorious day when one of you crosses the finish line to be with Christ before the other, may you hold each other, and relinquish each other, satisfied in the road you’ve discovered – the road you’ve made. It has been a beautiful one, already.

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5 thoughts on “A Road Called Marriage

  1. There were almost 600 miles between Pea Ridge, Arkansas and Oak Brook, and that was the first trip made. In later months, we both took turns driving the Mecosta to Wheaton/Oak Brook route to see one another.

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