Saturday, November 12, 2011

Favorite Images of Marriage: In Book, Film, and Real Life

(Dedicated to Dr. Theodore and Kathryn Savides)

How young were you, when you first got a notion of what a marriage should be like? Maybe you were about five, if (like me) you were weaned on the Babar picture books, created by Jean de Brunhoff. Then you know that Babar was a little elephant who bravely met every challenge that an orphan suffered in a harsh world. He was helped by his friend Celeste. We, his peewee readers, went through a lot with Babar and Celeste, and so it was a huge satisfaction to see them finally in their place in the sun, complete with red royal robes and crowns with huge jewels.

Now that Babar was King, he could marry adorable Celeste. Finally! We readers (at least the girls) had been willing them to bring on the wedding for years. The ceremony was gorgeous, but my favorite image happened after the crowds had left and the trumpets were silent.

It's nighttime, and Babar and Celeste are standing together in the sweet darkness. They're side by side, and we see only their silhouettes, Babar in his great big noble robe, Celeste in her snowy wedding dress. They're looking up, silently and happily, into a vast starry sky.

For me, the picture illustrates a saying from Antoine St.-Exupery: "Good partners don't have to be always looking into each other's eyes. But they have to be looking in the same direction."

My favorite marriage image from film comes from the Japanese movie MADADAYO, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The action takes place in Tokyo, during World War II. A very old, respected teacher and his gentle wife have been bombed out of their home. They have only a rickety, three-walled gardener's shack to live in. In the next fifteen seconds, we see their next year unfold in the wheeling of the seasons. Throughout, the old couple are sitting together in the open side of the hut, peacefully looking out, in every weather: first springtime blossoming, then scorching summer, torrential rains and falling leaves and then deep snowscape. The sequence is silent, but profoundly moving. What we see is that, although this couple has lost what most people would call "everything," they are content. They have each other, and an interesting world to look at, and so they have everything.

The feeling of that scene, the closeness, was present in my parents' long marriage. They were married for 61 years. Images flash up: the two of them, young then, with three little girls, standing at dusk in the yard of the worn-out, isolated old farm they'd just bought. Before them were the blue Baraboo bluffs, and behind them the gorgeous green snake of the Wisconsin river. "Did you ever see a more beautiful place?" Dad says, and our Mother (with us clinging to her skirts, and having just seen the incredibly decrepit, ancient farmhouse with its icy drafts that would have chilled a corpse) answers bravely, "I never did."

Ove the years, as all children do, we look to our parents' faces to see what they feel. I know my mother is anxious, early mornings when our father leaves for his job teaching high school in DeForest, because he drives over the frozen Wisconsin River to save time. He leaves the car door open so he can leap to safety if the car goes through. "Dad has good reflexes," she reassures us. I can tell they're happy and content together, many Fall Sundays, washing vegetables from their garden to take to church.

They work so hard. Because they're from the city, they earnestly study government pamphlets to learn how to care for livestock. They carefully prepare a model farrowing bed in the barn for their 600-lb pregnant red sow, Dulcie. It's in a warm, clean corner with soft fresh straw, water, great feed, the works. Dad has done everything possible for that sow except knit her a pink bed jacket. Dulcie should be in hog heaven. And we see their speechless astonishment as huge Dulcie staggers over to the cold, miry, cement corner SHE had earmarked for herself. On another day a furious neighbor comes over with a shotgun, determined to shoot our dog, who'd growled at him. I know some neighbors are afraid of this man, and so am I. I want to run for the hills. But my parents go out together to talk with him. They end up drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Mother sends banana bread home to his wife. Another day a tornado hits our farm. They clean it up, our tiny mother hefting beams until Dad makes her stop. Another year Dad builds a beautiful new home, Mother helping him, learning as they go, because they can't afford builders. Sometimes the glossy new basement is flooded. They clean it up.

The time finally comes when Dad, after many years of night classes and summer school, gets his doctorate in education. It's a fiercely-pursued dream which she always encouraged. We have seen Mother typing his dissertation on the old Remington, six carbons, no mistakes allowed, incredible patience required. Dad becomes a University of Wisconsin dean. I hear a friend say to him, "Now you and Kay have everything."

Dad replied quietly, with a smile, "We have always had everything." And they did.