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Now That’s The Marriage I Want!

My favorite movie growing up was Walt Disney’s animated Robin Hood — I watched it about a zillion times. Why? Because only a hero as cunning and courageous and charming as Robin Hood could get a girl like Maid Marian.

Oh, Maid Marian. (I understand that she’s a cartoon fox, but she’s a smokin’ cartoon fox.) She had a sweet, contagious laugh that made me melt. She played badminton (extra points for being athletic). My heart literally pounded when Robin Hood and Maid Marian took a midnight stroll behind a waterfall.

Robin may have had to win his archery competition against the sheriff to get a kiss, but love conquers all, right? At age ten, that’s what I believed. Never for a moment did I doubt the existence of everlasting love or my ability to obtain it. Happily ever after — isn’t that what everyone wants?

Cut to several years later. I was studying for my ninth-grade biology test when my mom’s voice broke the silence. Family meeting, she announced. This meant one of two things: Someone had either done something really right or really wrong. My family is full of overachievers, so I was more accustomed to celebrations than bad news. The second I stepped into the living room, however, I knew we wouldn’t be celebrating anytime soon.

My sister sat on one end of our couch, my parents on the other. Mom was crying. She wiped away her tears and looked at me with eyes that said, No matter what, you’ll be okay. This only worried me more. Dad, the consummate clown and entertainer, was expressionless. My parents did not touch.

My mom said, “Your dad and I have something to tell you — we’re getting a divorce.”

My stomach went into zero gravity and my sister burst into tears. Several of my friends had gone through this, but their parents were completely different from mine. Their parents screamed and threw plates at one another. Divorce was a godsend to those friends, not a tragedy. My parents’ split came with no warning as far as I was concerned. They’d been married twentyseven years and seemed like the happiest couple in the world. “I love you,” they’d tell each other, and I believed them.

My mother’s words obliterated everything I believed about love. Both my parents had betrayed me.

Lying in bed that night, my thoughts swirled so violently I became dizzy. Memories of my parents kissing and hugging, laughing, telling me over and over again, “We are soul mates, Mat,” seemed like a mirage. How could this happen? How could they have lied to me?

Like most children of divorce, I was soon forced to make a decision: live out of a suitcase or pick a parent. I chose the suitcase. Every other weekend brought the bitter reminder that my home had been ripped in half. I felt turned inside out. Nothing felt familiar. The future loomed like a thick fog. What will happen to Christmas? Birthdays? Thanksgiving?

The divorce consumed all of our lives. I hated my mom for leaving my dad and I let her know it. I hated my dad for not being able to make my mom happy and I let him know it. I wanted my parents to love each other again. I wanted my family back, but it was hopeless. Apparently a commitment to forever lasted only until you changed your mind.

Thirteen years later, I was finishing my master’s degree in education. My girlfriend and I were going through a nasty breakup. This relationship had lasted almost a year, a record for me.

My mom called from Portland to let me know my grandfather had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Grandpa Jack dying? It didn’t seem possible. I’d loved that warm, generous man for as long as I could remember and somehow thought he’d be around forever.

“You’ll be home soon,” my mom said. “You need to spend some time with your grandparents, maybe arrange a date each week.” Hang out with the grandparents? Of course I would. It’s just that my schedule…I’ve got a lot on my plate…Don’t get me wrong. When I was little, I idolized Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Jack. They lived in a world of Mickey Mouse pancakes, a garden with candy hidden in it, and endless supplies of homemade cookies. They told funny stories about the olden days and thought everything I said was clever and important. They treated me like a little prince, and there was no place better than Gram and Gramps’s house to find a warm hug.

My grandparents had always seemed old to me, but in a good, twinkly kind of way. In recent years, however, I’d found myself restlessly tapping my foot as I waited for them to put on their coats. They moved slowly, and I was in a perpetual hurry. I found it hard to sit through a two-hour lunch while Grandpa chewed each mouthful forty-four times and talked about the childhood friend who just died, especially when I had a ten-page term paper due.

Grandpa and Grandma were quaint and sweet and I loved them, but somewhere along the way my adoration had turned to tolerance. They listened politely but blankly when I talked about buying a laptop. And I could hardly share my girlfriend troubles with Gram and Gramps. They were the product of a bygone era. It had been, what, nearly sixty years since they had fallen in love? They probably didn’t even remember what it felt like. In their day, people married for life because they didn’t have a choice. Husbands worked, wives stayed home, and divorce was taboo. Even if a wife wanted out, how could she support herself? Now that couples can split up, they do — in droves. For my grandparents’ generation, it seemed to me that marriage had become a habit that just took too much effort to break. But despite the fact that we lived on two different planets, they were still my grandparents.

“Of course, I’ll spend time with them,” I assured my mom. “Looking forward to it.”

Guilt and obligation can sap the joy out of any activity, but I did come up with what sounded like a decent plan. Each Thursday morning I’d roll up to their house for the day’s excursion. Grandma would spend the prior week combing the newspaper for that week’s latest and greatest lunch spot. With newspaper clippings in hand, we’d hit the road, Grandma riding shotgun and Gramps sitting in the back, with the calm of someone who has made his peace with life. We would drive two or three hours in search of special treats in out-of-the-way spots, like Mike’s pumpkin milk shakes, Dooger’s clam chowder, and Serendipity’s rich chocolate brownie cake.

To my great surprise, I had a blast on these visits. The long drives provided ample opportunity to learn things I never knew about my grandparents. Conversations that would have normally been cut off by typical interruptions — a phone call, an appointment, the football game — continued on into uncharted territory. I heard the story of their first date, how Grandma’s dress popped open while they were dancing and how my brave grandfather nearly lost his fingers to hopping heels as he scurried around the dance floor on hands and knees, collecting all of the buttons. Gramps told me how nervous he felt meeting Grandma’s parents for the first time — seeing their cat licking its back and hoping for a conversation starter, he commented, “I wish I could do that.” But when her parents looked down, the cat was licking its crotch!

One crisp fall day, we went antiquing, Gram’s favorite pastime. Dusty old furnishings and knickknacks hold zero interest for me, and it was our ninth trinket shop stop that day. I wearily pulled Gramps’s Buick over and helped them out of the car. My grandparents went ahead as I locked up. I watched their slow, uneven shuffle toward the store. This was a standard sight by then, but something in that day, something in that moment, gave me pause. I noticed how their frail fingers were intertwined.

“Funny,” I thought, “all these years, and they’re still holding hands.”

Suddenly, I stood there almost paralyzed, my eyes fixated on their hands. I know this sounds strange but the energy between them became visible. Like a movie effect, everything around them dissolved. I could see the energy of their love swirling and encircling them. It took me a second, but I got it. I remembered the longing for my true love, my Maid Marian, and my belief that our love would last forever. I hadn’t had that feeling in years. I had long since abandoned the idea of everlasting love as a stupid fairy tale cartoon. Yet here it was in the flesh.

My chest began to tingle. In that moment, the couple before me became more than just my grandparents. I saw them as partners who had journeyed through a lifetime of challenge and struggle. Now at the end of their journey together, they were still crazy about each other. All these years…how had I not seen it? Grandpa beaming at Grandma, telling everyone in earshot, “Just look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” Grandma still laughing at jokes I’d heard Grandpa tell countless times. How his face lit up whenever she walked into a room! Through tear-filled eyes, I stared at the blurry image before me. How simple they made it seem! But to me it represented what I wanted most in the world. More than anything, I wanted to find the love they were living. My grandparents had been married sixty-three years, but it was not convention or habit that kept them together. Jack and Dorothy Manin were two people very much in love.

“Now, that’s the marriage I want,” I whispered to myself.

The Inspiration of Project Everlasting

My grandfather passed away just a few months after that. Later, when she could talk about it, my grandma said it felt as if half of her had died with him.

After his death, I felt an overwhelming need to preserve the precious something that the two of them had shared. Hundreds of questions ran through my head: Were my grandparents an anomaly, the lone couple that just happened to remain happily married through the decades? Or could it be that other couples married forty, fifty, or sixty years were still in love, too? If so, how did they create and maintain that powerful connection? Way back when, how did they know they’d found “the One”? Didn’t they worry about falling out of love one day? Or becoming bored? Was their longevity the result of dumb luck? Or could it be they had built something in their relationship that eluded most of the recent generations? If so, I wanted to know what that something was. I wanted to be madly in love with my wife on our golden anniversary. I wanted to look at her timeworn face and still see the most beautiful woman in the world. Thanks to my grandparents, I once more believed in lifelong love and I decided I would willingly crisscross the nation in search of what I’d started calling “Marriage Masters” — couples who’d been happily married for forty years or more, human treasure chests full of incredible wisdom, just waiting for someone to ask: What is the secret to everlasting love?

The adventure was about to begin.

Contributed by Mat Boggs, author of Project Everlasting

Learn all about Mat Boggs’ and Jason Miller’s inspirational journey as batchelors  to discover the secrets for lifelong love and a more meaningful marriage in the Project Everlasting book and documentary film

 

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