Turning 30 was, so far, the most traumatic birthday of my life. My thirties were the hardest decade to enter, even worse than my forties or fifties, which really makes little sense. Thirty seemed like the end of possibilities. Once a person is 30, it seemed to me, the path of life is irrevocably chosen. When I turned 30, I was a wife of seven years. I was the mother of two little girls (with another two yet to be conceived). The fact that I was never going to dance with the New York City Ballet made me really sad, even though that was quite obvious at age eighteen. My sister threw me a large and lovely surprise thirtieth birthday party, but even that did not dissolve my gloom. Thirty truly felt like the end of something huge, and I don’t know why subsequent decade birthdays have not affected me nearly as strongly or strangely.
This week, however, our marriage has turned thirty, and I am reminded of my despair over my body turning thirty. It really is a forbidding number. People who have been in the same marriage for thirty years are . . . really old. Over-the-hill. Geriatric. Dangling one foot over the open grave. When my parents were married for thirty years, they seemed ancient.
So why do I feel like my husband and I are still in our prime?
In a marriage, as in a life, it seems like every five years is a good time to take inventory. Five years ago, I wrote a column about our twenty-fifth anniversary, our silver celebration, and lamented the silver in our hair. “This is the life and the marriage we have built together, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” I wrote. “The foundation seems pretty solid. The walls shelter us. The view is not bad. This is where, for twenty-five years and counting, we are so very blessed to live.” A little schmaltzy, but true.
Now, astonishingly, five more years have passed. In that time, some things have changed, and some have not. We lost my beloved dad, and we gained a beloved daughter-in-law. Two skinny stray dogs have joined the family, and have fattened up a bit. All four children are of legal age, grown up and living lives they are themselves creating. Slowly and steadily, my husband and I are paying off the mortgage and other debt. Our working lives are leading toward retirement on the still distant horizon: we aren’t there yet, but we can picture it. We are at the particular crossroad of marriage where some couples look at each other across the empty kitchen table or the wide, wide bed and say, ”But who are you?” Sometimes, when the structure of children and schedules is pulled away, a marriage can crumble. A couple can find that after years of tending to other, more important things, when it comes to their marriage, to quote Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.”
But in some ways I suspect that we are cheating the passage of time. I find that my heart still beats a little faster when my husband comes home. I am still attracted to the way he moves his hands, and the sound of his voice. I still think his jokes are funny. I still even get a small, secret thrill when I call him “my husband”. Against the odds, we are still in love.
We have seen our share of friends and family go through divorces, and have witnessed the heartbreak of something that was once full of light and promise disintegrated into ashes. We have had our own times of sadness and rough seas. We have so far weathered the storms.
But we know we can’t take credit for a decent marriage: we can only thank God for the sacrament to which we have been called. A marriage is a contract, a collection of vows and intentions, but at heart it is also a living, organic wholeness that is greater than the sum of its two parts. We have always tried to be conscious of the spiritual aspect of our marriage, of God in the details, of the presence of the holy in the ordinary, everyday business of living. We haven’t always been successful. But I think we have almost always trusted the guidance of God and of our better selves to be kind and respectful to each other. We have tried always to be a haven for each other. We have taken seriously the challenge to be led by love. In so doing, we have nurtured a marriage. At age 30, our marriage’s possibilities may indeed be limited. Our blessings are not.
Still a little schmaltzy, I know. Anniversaries make me wallow in schmaltz! And I imagine that when young people see us, they don’t see the vibrant lovers, the delirious newlyweds, whom we still picture ourselves to be. They see a middle-aged couple holding hands, incongruously starry-eyed, a little wrinkled, a little silly. Our outsides don’t match our insides. But our insides treasure our precious, 30-year-old gift.