I have a cardboard box of pictures. It’s huge and the corners have been taped and it’s always on the verge of falling apart completely. In it is a history of my life as a mom and wife. And, of course, my husband is in most of the pictures. The picture of me pregnant in front of my grandma’s house? He’s there. We have our arms wrapped around each other and are standing in front of his old truck. Our daughter’s graduation from kindergarten– with her white blonde hair and bright red cheeks? There he is smiling like a goofball with his arm wrapped around her little shoulders. Our son’s 16th birthday–the one with the enormous chocolate chip cookie and all of his friends? My husband is in that picture too–wearing an old blue plaid shirt I loved. Christmas pictures. Easter pictures with new grass and kids carrying heavy baskets full of eggs and chocolate. There’s even one of him with the top of his head spray painted like a pumpkin. He has a huge smile in that one because he thought it was so funny to embarrass the kids. I can pull those pictures down from the top of the closet and we can look at them together and he will understand my smiles and my tears. He, more than anyone, understands why there are no pictures of my dad after 2005. Why that year includes a lot of pictures of my mom at our house. For Christmas, for her birthday, for whenever she needed to be. He understands the picture of the sapling planted in front of a school with a small plaque you can’t read in the picture. If something ever happens to me he’ll know to keep it and to talk about it. He also knows why there are no pictures of my mom at our daughter’s wedding ten years later. With all of the other pictures of her in the box being a grandma to our kids you would expect her to be there between our tall boy and beautiful girl, but she isn’t. It’s a hole he understands. Just like I understand the smile on his face in the picture of the day he got his first Harley. It was about way more than a motorcycle. I also understand who the little lady is in the picture with both of our kids against the backdrop of Palm trees. She looks ornery but happy. Feisty and opinionated and crazy about us all. I shook her hand that day and I have laid in bed with him many nights talking about how much he misses her. That picture means as much to me as it does to him. We are each other’s context clue. The keepers of our mutual history. I can’t imagine not being an us.
But lately, the couples in our life have been going their separate ways at an alarming rate. One minute we are exchanging Walgreens printed Christmas cards of our kids, who are far too old for the tradition, and the next there’s a change of address card in the mail. Our friends aren’t an “us” anymore. One of them–or both of them–has decided to look for something…..better? Different? New? I don’t know. All I know is I can’t stop thinking about all of those pictures. All of that family history. All of those inside jokes that nobody will get anymore. And, it makes me really sad. Sad for the one leaving and the one being left. I’m thinking of an old box of pictures held together with tape, but I’m sure they are thinking of a million things. Where will their kids go for holidays? Will their weddings be awkward? Who takes them to college? If they get sick who will be the first call from the hospital? And how about the un-coupled couple? It took a long time to build the level of trust I have with my husband. I get up on a Saturday morning and make-up is the last thing on my mind. If, God forbid, something should happen to me he will take care of my family the best he can. He will make sure our daughter and son get the things he knows they should have. How would a new person do that? New people don’t know those things. They’re new. I also can’t imagine a new person being willing to sit across a doctor’s desk with you while you get the news that is coming at all of us as we get older. I know this because I already got some of that news. So has my husband. And, if someone had taken a picture, we would have both been in it. Hands clasped, shoulders together and ready to face it as a team.
The older I get the more I realize that the things God tell us not to do are things we really don’t want to do anyway. Maybe we think we do for a minute. Maybe because we feel the clock ticking or years rushing by and we want to reach out and claim a little youth. Stick a flag in the sand that says it’s not over yet. Instead of being Bob and June–we decide we want to be Bob and Mary. We want to learn new names and new addresses and to not miss June’s dressing at Thanksgiving. The question is, do we really want to? What do we gain? Soon Mary will be the old, new person and then what? Who gets the pictures? Who do the kids call? Who stops to put flowers on your mom’s grave when you aren’t in the car? Will Bob’s new Mary or even June’s new Bill be willing to nurse a new relationship through illness and sorrow and the mundane passing of days? It’s certainly a bigger risk to assume that of a new partner than of the one who has been by your side for decades. The one who wrapped their arm through yours and shoved cake in your mouth while you both made a statement to friends and families, dressed up in their Sunday best, that you two were in it to win it. A couple. The beginning of a family. A future card board box full of snapshots of love and commitment and fun.
Maybe that box holds the answer. If you are the one leaving take a minute to sit with those pictures. Notice that your son has your wife’s eyes and remember the moment you first realized that. Maybe that first time you held him in the hospital? Or, if you are a wife leaving, maybe take a minute to concentrate on the picture of that cabinet your husband built you to hold your Grandma’s china. Remember that? How cute he looked with the pencil stuck behind his ear and so serious? Let the pictures talk to you. You’ll hear the echoes of a hundred holidays and a million trips to the grocery store. You’ll hear baby cries and toddler squeals. A teenager’s door slamming and phones ringing in the middle of the night. You’ll hear your history. The time you spent to built a family. And, gradually, a choice will present itself. A moment of excitement and something new–or a solid foundation. A promise kept or a promise broken? A legacy transferred or one broken?
Trust me–you are not the only one to ever feel like this. We all have. All of us who have been married decades anyway. It’s hard. Life is yelling at us that we better do it now. Grab that brass ring. Choose different. Get out. But, what if we don’t listen? What if, instead of pulling up stakes, we try again? Go out for pancakes, on a trip, to a counselor. What if we fight for what we have worked so hard for? What if we dig our heels in and refuse to let it go? What if we fight for a box of pictures that is only priceless to the two people who, through the years, created the moments that were worth photographing? Who made children together? Who learned how the other liked their coffee? Who ordered funeral sprays together and ugly-cried on the way home together too. What if we choose this and not that?
I can’t help but think it would end up being ok. To keep your marriage vows. To get to know your spouse again. That goofy girl you fell in love with is still there or the first guy that made you feel safe–he’s there too. And, a year from now, when I get your Christmas card in the mail I will be so happy. I will rip it open to see if you have aged more than me. To see if you’re grandparents yet. I will love seeing that you’ve been on a cruise or that you’re still holding hands or that you took dance lessons. You will confirm what I believe about my own decades old marriage–that it is worth it. All of it. It is sweet and familiar and wonderful to have spent thousands of days with someone that I chose and that chose me back. I can’t think of anything better than that. No way is new Mary or semi-exciting Bill better than that. Choose your partner. Choose your person. Choose your history. Choose your box of pictures.
It will be hard work, but there are people to help. Other couples. Show up at their house on a Saturday morning. They will be there. Teeth unbrushed, wearing sweats, probably arguing over what to do that day, but so ready to help.
We all have to fight for each other. Our 50th wedding anniversary parties are at stake. I don’t know about anyone else, but I want my glass dish of butter mints and my grandkids circling around. I want that picture of me and my husband in the church basement–both of us old and wearing glasses and holding hands. I want my kids there middle-aged and deep into their own promises to their own people. With their own boxes of pictures.
I know we can do this. We all deserve a slide show of the best pictures from the last fifty years. Moments where ungrateful children say dumb things like, “Mom, you were so pretty.” or “Wow Dad, you were a hottie.” Moments whee we look back on the landscape of our marriages and know that we chose this. We chose to get up every morning and to fall in love all over again with a person who sometimes wasn’t even likable. But, they were our person and that meant something. Actually, it meant everything.
So, if I’m on your Christmas card list and you’re thinking of an address change card call me first. Show up at my house. Text me. DM me. I don’t care. Just let me be there for you. I’m pulling for you. I want you to stay married. I was probably at your powder blue wedding with the plastic champagne glasses. Chances are, I still have your matchbook in my hope chest. I’m invested.
And, if you are the person who got left through no choice of your own, you should call me too. I’m a good listener and I can procure large amounts of chocolate or a paper shredder or just a spot by the pool to figure out what to do next. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling and I promise not to say anything dumb– like I never liked your ex anyway. Because, honestly, I did. I loved him or her and I probably always will. But, for the next little bit, I’m going to be really, really pissed at them. And that’s not a choice. It’s just the way I feel right now.