Anna Maria Island is a long sand bar nestling on the west coast of Florida. It is a paradise of white beaches, shell-selling shops, quirky restaurants and coffee houses. Endless sun and endless coffee. Apart from one spectacular electric storm with fabulous rain we have had two blissful weeks of rest and relaxation in the sweltering heat.
We deserve it. We have put up with each other for 35 years. On 19 July we celebrated our anniversary with a free trolley bus ride to the northern end of the island and a quiet meal at the Waterfront restaurant. The speciality there is fried green tomatoes, pronounced with a southern drawl on the second syllable. Yum! The server was English but he avoids words like potato and tomato because they betray him as a blow-in. Cool air circulated around us, so much so that I had to go outside to warm up between courses.
The man had the fillet or the filet, of course. His starter was a work of art – a stacked Caprese salad. The Americans go in for stacking, especially pancakes. How can one person eat a whole pile of pancakes? This was a vine-ripe tomato, sliced and layered with huge basil leaves, incredible Mozzarella di Bufala made in Sarasota with imported Italian curd, no less, topped with capers, homemade balsamic vinaigrette and extra virgin olive oil. For effect it was skewered to the plate with a robust length of rosemary. The scent was delicious and there was enough to share.
I suppose that’s what we have been doing for 35 years. Sharing. Did we know what we were getting into when we were 22? Of course not! We were young and once we had finished university getting married was the next thing. We have always been thankful that we waited for marriage. We belong to each other, exclusively. Body and soul.
In our early years of parenting there was one rule that our children remember well. Mum and dad’s bed was for mum and dad – only mum and dad. We decided this before we were married – advice given to us by a sage counsellor. Our children knew that even when they were ailing, a sojourn in the marital bed would be brief and that they would be returned to their own bed before daylight. We enjoyed the Christmas morning family romp in our bed as well as anybody, but the children recognised that there was always a special place between the man and me where they could not go.
In recent years our nest has emptied and filled briefly and then emptied again. With three daughters married in four years the fledglings have definitely flown. Still they return with alarming regularity, spouses and now grandchildren in tow. There is no question of downsizing just yet – where would everyone sleep at Christmas? In between high days and holidays, however, a silence has descended. Sometimes we pause to listen to the space. It is the calm after the storm of raising a family.
A neighbour told me recently that the man and I would have to learn how to talk to each other again. It is not an easy transition back to just the two of us. We have grown familiar with each other’s ways. What once seemed endearing can now be irritating. For instance, in spite of the fact that he is left-handed he insists on setting his glass to the right of his plate and then draging his sleeve through his dinner. Annoying or what?
Soon people like us will be exhibits in fun parks or zoos. Here sits an old married couple – a species that is almost extinct. So why then am I still married? Because there is no one in this world who makes me feel safer and more loved than the man who shares my bed. 35 years ago he pledged to love me no matter what and he has been faithful to that promise. It has not been easy to love me – I can be morose and unpredictable, but he has been steady as a rock and is one of the most generous and romantic people I know. I love you.
Together we have weathered life’s challenges: the deaths of four wonderful parents and three unborn babies; loss of employment; change of careers; building a house; moving continents; raising four children; studying for post graduate degrees; several horrible burglaries, two of which took place when we were in the house. On and on it goes. Life’s vagaries with lots of love and laughter thrown in.
Our family is our greatest joy. The love we have for our daughters and son has expanded to include three sons-in law and two delicious grandchildren. Two more are on the way and we are delighted and excited.
This weekend we will separate for four weeks. The man will don his bass guitar and go on tour here in the States with Robin Mark and I will return to NI briefly, before flying south to Port Elizabeth to be with my daughter at the birth of her first baby. Joy upon joy.
But first a pause. None of this would have been possible if a skinny boy had not gently pulled my hair before I got out of the car and kissed me passionately when I was just 17. It’s strange to think that no one else has kissed me since. Have I missed out? No. His kisses still thrill.
So a heartfelt thank you to the man for meaning it when he promised to love and cherish to the end. This week we toasted to 30 more years – with champagne, his favourite. I feel that I have earned the right to pass on some words of wisdom to my children, and anyone else's children, in the early years of marriage:
· It’s much harder to connect, really connect, with another human being than it should be.
· Selfishness gets in the way.
· Learn to listen.
· Love well.
Love is not for the faint-hearted. There is only ONE way to love well: Decide to be patient and kind. Don’t be jealous, boastful or rude. Get over yourself and choose not to take offence easily. Forgive quickly and do not keep a mental list of past mistakes. Do not be pleased when something goes wrong, but get excited about what is good and true. If you have someone to love always protect him, trust him, hope for the best and never, never give up. (1 Cor 13)
On our wedding day my father read a verse from Psalm 16. It has been our watchword ever since:
‘The boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places, surely we have a delightful inheritance. We have set the Lord always before us; because he is at our right hand, we shall not be shaken.’ Amen to that!
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