When I think of happy couples, I think of my grandparents. After Helen met Richard Wormley in 1942, she ditched her incredibly handsome longtime boyfriend for this tall drink of water with big ears. Richard snorted when he laughed, he could fix just about anything, and was the kindest, most gentle man you could imagine. He was a whip-smart college-student-turned-farmer and she was crazy about him. They were married within six months.
Richard and Helen settled down on an Iowa farm just outside of Newton and lived happily ever after. Truly. Lord knows what Grandma did in that house all day while Grandpa was out in the bean and cornfields. She raised their three children, of course, made hot meals, painted pictures of scantily clad ladies, drank lots of coffee, and worked jigsaw puzzles of kittens and wildflowers. Somehow it was enough. In the evenings, Rich and Helen bowled together, sang in various quartets and choirs, and played card games like Oh Hell and Hearts. Oh, but they loved games.
My favorite story about their romance has to do with a game of sorts . . . and a jar. They had some close friends, Beth and Merrill, another married couple who visited often and stayed late, the foursome often noodling around on a couple of ukuleles, harmonizing to “Tumblin’ Tumbleweed” and the like. One evening after a couple of cocktails, they all entered into a racy sort of wager. Every time they “did the deed” with their spouse, they were to put a bean in a mason jar. Over time, the couple that filled their jar the fastest won the contest. I don’t think there was a prize. It was just for fun. Ahhhh, to be young and in love.
Fast forward to Grandpa on his deathbed. Although he hadn’t retired yet from farming, he was a ripe old age of 80, and cancer had come on hard and fast. We spent a few wonderful, but tearful days sitting around his hospital room, dealing cards, monitoring his rapidly worsening condition, and singing family classics like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”—in four-part harmony, of course.
On his final day, at one point Grandma got up from her chair to go talk to him. He had been less and less responsive to what was going on in the room, and his eyes had been closed for some time now. She leaned down close to his ear. We all pretended to be engrossed in our card game, but I remember being curious about what she was going to say. We all knew the end was near. She opened her mouth.
“Wanna put a bean in the jar, Richard?” That was Grandma and Grandpa Wormley for you. A sense of humor right to the end.
The Richards and Helens of the world seem mighty rare these days, but they’re out there. I don’t subscribe to the point of view that an ended relationship is a failed one, but curiosity begs the question, how in Sam Hill do some couples manage to stay together for so long? And not only that, but manage to thrive! I decided to talk to some Iowa folks who have been married for a while to see if they had any sage advice for the rest of us.
Since asking the question “what’s the key to a ‘long-lasting’ marriage” was bound to result in smart-ass answers like “don’t get divorced,” I decided to use more ambiguous qualifiers like “good,” and let the cards fall where they may.
Work Hard, Play Harder, and Say it Out Loud
Mary and Jim are still crazy after all of these years. Way back in their Fairfield High School days, Mary only agreed to go out with him so he’d finally leave her alone. They just celebrated their 45th anniversary with their four kids and ten grandchildren.
“He was a crazy man. He hasn’t changed!” says Mary. From what I can tell, and I mean this in the best of ways, staying a little bit crazy has really worked for them as a couple.
“We’ve had a hell of a lot of fun, I can tell you that,” said Jim immediately. “We did what we wanted to do. We didn’t care what anybody said or thought.” For example, in their mid-thirties they started going south for the winter. “We couldn’t afford it. But we’d go to the beach and we’d have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We’d go the campground and eat hotdogs. You can travel as cheap as you want, and enjoy it. We just got home from Wisconsin. Now we’re planning a trip to Alaska.” A shared spirit of adventure has served them well.
Like any marriage, of course, it hasn’t all been fun and games. But when the stuff hits the fan, Jim and Mary have some unique ways of working things out. Mary says, “We speak our mind pretty much immediately when there’s been a feather ruffled. None of this sulking—you get it done, you get it over with, you move on. And that can make people uncomfortable,” Mary laughed, “because we knock it out right away!”
It sounds terrifying. And refreshing! These folks are tough cookies. “We’re a perfect match,” says Jim.
He also let me in on a little secret. “I had a wise lady tell me one time that marriage is a 60-40 relationship. You give 60 and expect 40 in return. And if both do that, you can’t go wrong. The problem is, people expect everything and don’t wanna give nothin’! It’s worked out for us. If you want it, you gotta work for it. It’s not gonna get handed to you on a platter. Always give. Always give. I think we love each other more than we ever did.”
Patience, Kindness, and Seeing the Big Picture
Since high school, Nancy knew Steve was the one for her. “Apart from being really sweet,” she says, “Steve was a man. A grown-up man the whole time,” unlike his immature classmates. Inside sources tell me she clinched the deal with a purple wrap-around dress. They’ve been married for 46 years now, and live in Ollie.
Nancy is a nurse with a schedule all over the map, so when they do happen to be awake together with time on their hands, they love having “grocery store picnics.” “It’s a spontaneous thing,” says Steve, “where we decide to just go to the grocery store, pick up a few items, and go somewhere. We went down to Keokuk, we’ve been to Burlington, we went up to Le Claire, just different places.” Travel. Adventure. I’m sensing a theme here.
Steve and Nancy take a level-headed view of marriage. “Not every day is going to be a bed of roses,” says Steve, softly. “You just got to kinda pull back and look at the bigger picture of things.” Nancy adds, “It’s unrealistic to expect to live with anybody for 46 years, whether it’s your child or your mother or your best friend, to get along every minute of every day. You’re not going to. So be patient, and be kind. That’s probably the most important thing.”
Acceptance, Encouragement, and Coffee
Debbie is from Ottumwa, and Mike is from the Waterloo area. When they started teaching at Stuart Elementary in Washington, Debbie explained, “We were the only two single teachers in the building.” Mike continued, “And all the older teachers had us paired up and married off right away. And they were right.” “It was right,” agrees Debbie. They’ve been married now for 36 years.
Their conversation with me had a real flow to it. Although Debbie wisely offered, “Communication is key—waiting and listening to the other person’s complete thought,” the pair seemed very much in sync and shared their stories in a collaborative way, a reflection of their lives together, no doubt.
Debbie laughed, “We joke about how we raised such independent children—well, I think they got it from their parents! We have our different ideas, and we don’t agree on everything, but each of us is willing to compromise.” One of the many things they do agree on, however, is the importance of sharing time with others. Friends and family are everything.
“Mike, what do you think makes a marriage work?” I asked, and he said thoughtfully, “Some people think in the back of their mind that they’re going to change or mold the other person. And that just doesn’t happen, not in a happy way, I don’t think. And just to love each other the way you are. It’s about accepting, I think. Sorry, I’m talking too much,” he says. “No, you’re great,” says Debbie, “you’re saying what I would have said.”
An important ritual for them has been “really taking the time to connect over coffee in the morning,” before the craziness of the day sets in. And they make it a practice to never go to bed angry.
“I think the other thing is,” says Mike, “We haven’t stopped dreaming. I’m 62, Debbie’s 60, and we still have things we’d like to do . . .” Debbie continues the thought, “Yes, and encourage each other in whatever your goals are. Time together is important, but you also need time for your own personal goals too.”
Mike sums it up perfectly: “We’re not joined at the hip . . . but we’re joined at the heart.”
Letting the Heart Be in Charge
Alessandro’s wife was in Italy at the time, so while I interviewed him at their restaurant Café Dodici in Washington, Iowa, Lorraine sent her thoughts to me via email. They’ve been married 14 years now, but they calculate their marriage from the time they met, 22 years ago.
How have you made it this long? “I love being in the same room with Alessandro, we have the same passions in life. We have different talents and we give each other the opportunity to lead where we are strongest. I love his mind, and he’s so darn cute, it’s hard to stay mad at him.”
What do you think makes your relationship work? “We give each other space and are not jealous of each other. It helps that I understand his language and culture and now he is getting a better look at mine!” (Lorraine was born in Washington, but spent close to 30 years living in Italy, which is where the couple met.)
Got any advice for a good marriage? “Let go of wanting to be right.” (Oh, now that’s a concept I’m pretty sure would not only save a marriage, but would save the world.) “Also, always [say] thank [you], even for things that seem like they are normal or expected, like driving you home safely or mowing the yard.” A little appreciation goes a long way. She concluded, “I will be so curious what Alessandro answers!”
Well, his answers went deep, and added a much-appreciated dimension to the collective conversation.
Alessandro describes Lorraine like a pearl in a pile of oysters. “I realized very quickly, this woman, she’s . . . just amazing, really. I was totally unprepared.” Alessandro had been a student of meditation, yoga, and spiritual texts for years, “looking, looking . . . and learning to cut off all this kind of crap I have in my head—and follow my heart. Meditation helped me to just bypass my mind . . . and go with her.”
In his marriage, as in everything, Alessandro stays vigilant to the pitfalls of the human brain, whose nature is to form habits and think itself into ruts and reasons. The mind says things like, “It’s the same woman after ten years, nothing new under the sky, what you wanna do?” he explains. He chooses very consciously not to entertain that stuff. “Love is not part of mind. It’s part of heart. And heart needs to be chief in command. Every day, when you wake up . . . you need to renew something in your heart. Are you going to go to love today in your life? Oh, yes.”
It must be working. “Every night I think, wow, what a lucky person am I to meet Lorraine. To have this kind of soul with me. I learn a lot from my wife. She doesn’t judge. She just follows the love of love. She’s always been this way. I don’t want to say I’m at the same level, but I can see my goal!”
It inspires me to hear from people who are finding their way through together, and I wholly admire the conviction it takes to say, “I do”—and not just on the first day.
It may be slow going for the human race, but I think, in fits and starts, we are learning to love each other unconditionally. And, it would appear, marriage is the perfect training ground.