They got married in a different time. A time before cameras were always as close as one’s cell phone, a time when hard drives crammed with digital images weren’t even part of science fiction.
They got married at a time when no one could imagine that it was fine and proper to bring cameras into Mass, and the only shots taken of the bride and groom would be when they were standing on the church steps, or formally posed at the reception. I’ve seen a few photos like that of this couple, along with a short, partly scorched 8 mm film of them emerging from the church and then catching their honeymoon train to Boston.
That’s why I was so happy, recently, to receive a photo I had never seen before. It’s small and a bit out of focus, but there they are, Ruth and Dan, my mom and dad, posing with their bridal party outside their reception — 60 years ago this Thursday.
Neither my mom nor dad is looking at the camera. My mom is looking straight ahead, probably at someone else taking a photo. My dad, with the little flower girl in front of him, has his head turned to the right, probably saying something to his best man, his brother John, or to his mother, in the dark dress.
And like every other married couple on their wedding day, they had little idea of what life would have in store.
They didn’t know that within a year the search for employment would take them to the relative isolation of southern Connecticut, a long way from both their families. They didn’t know of the little apartment where it would get so cold in the winter that ice would form on the insides of the windows, or the house they would buy later, and the years they would spend covered in plaster, sawdust, paint chips, and wallpaper paste, making it into the home they wished it to be.
Children were probably not uppermost in their minds as they posed for that photo, but they couldn’t know that my sister, Kathi, would come along in a year, and me, and then my brother, Mike, after that. They probably weren’t thinking of raising three kids on the almost poverty-level salary that teachers were paid back then, or the various paths their children’s and grandchildren’s lives would take, the serious illnesses they would support each other through, the death of their parents and some of their siblings, and all the joys and sorrows, all the celebrations and squabbles — major and minor — that would mark their marriage. And how could they know that a month before their 60th anniversary, my mom’s sister, Paula (far right in the picture), would come across that photo and email it to them, a reminder of how it all started.
It’s a precious photo, as all photos of beginnings are, but such images can only hint at what is to come. Sixty years later, as my parents celebrate quietly on Thursday (“no party, please,” they told us, “and no gifts”), they’ll probably spend a bit of time thinking back at all they’ve seen, done, and experienced. And while they wouldn’t put it this way — only I, their overly churchy middle child, would use this language — they will be looking back on sixty years of schooling in being a disciple of Jesus.
That’s what all of life is, for those of us who have been changed by baptism. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and grow more and more into who we are: followers of our Lord.
Single people attend this school, as do vowed religious, priests, and married folk, and no path is better for learning these lessons than any other. The classroom can differ depending on our state of life, but the goal of the lessons is always the same: to enter into Christ’s paschal mystery through the sacraments, and to live that mystery ever more deeply in all we do. That means learning to break out of the self-centered, egotistical way of life that often seems to be the default position in human beings, and learning to live with and for others.
There are always joyful and painful, happy and sad sides to this lesson, no matter what state of life we are in. Life naturally gives us plenty of opportunities to learn patience and practice forgiveness (both asking for it and giving it), to express love and caring, all the while learning to follow God’s will instead of our own.
And for almost 57 years I’ve had the privilege of watching my parents slowly learn these lessons through their marriage, practicing patience and forgiveness with one another, sacrificing in love for each other and for their children, and learning through these experiences to extend outward and to give of themselves to others as well.
They still have a way to go, of course, as do I, and as do you. Of Jesus’ disciples through the ages, Catholics seem to believe that only Mary learned the lessons of discipleship perfectly. For as long as we live, the paschal mystery calls us deeper and deeper into the life of God.
Sixty years! It’s a milestone! But mom and dad don’t seem convinced that it’s that big a deal. “It just means we’re old,” my mom said recently. And in a sense they’re right: they married young, lived their most vulnerable years of marriage (the time researchers say couple are most likely to divorce) at a time when Catholics still saw divorce as pretty unthinkable, and have had the great good fortune to grow old together in relatively good health, a gift many couples do not get.
But to leave it at that misses the point. In the end, it’s not that they’ve been married sixty years, as if they’re in some sort of marathon where the oldest couple wins. And it’s not to make any judgment about marriages that fail — who can know what stresses and disasters other couples have faced? The point I think, is that they’ve had sixty years of growing together in Christ, slowly being changed into an (albeit imperfect) image of the Son. And when they look back Thursday, that’s what they’ll be seeing, whether they call it that or not. Our own path of discipleship, with all its successes and failures, is what we all are looking back at, no matter what milestone we’ve reached.
I hope I have learned some things from watching my mom and dad in their school of discipleship, just as I hope my son, Michael, will learn from watching his mom and me. But each path is unique, and we do not know where life will take us. So whether our time on this earth is short or long, we can only trust that God will walk with us no matter what we face, that we will slowly grow into the image of the Son, no matter how hard and long the lesson might be, and that God’s love is stronger than death and can always raise us up, no matter how far we fall.
Happy 60th, Mom and Dad!