Our hair turns white with our ripening as though to fly away in some coming wind, bearing the seed of what we know… Having come the bitter way to better prayer, we have the sweetness of ripening. ~Wendell Berry in “Ripening”
My husband and I walk our country road together on a warm late summer evening, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows, much like the walks we took together thirty six years ago when we were newly married. Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first owned having left the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings. The seedling trees we planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured. The fences need work after 30 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, chickens and cows lived, the house needs painting, nevertheless there is such sweetness recalling the first home we owned together.
On this road, our children were conceived and raised, strolling these same steps with us many times, but now they are flown far away for their life’s work. My husband and I are back to walking together again, just the two of us, wondering how each child is doing at this very moment, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair is turning white and we are going to seed when only yesterday we were so young.
We ripen before we’re ready.
It is bitter sweetness relinquishing what we know, to face what we can never know.
It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells. But we are not the same as we were, having finally come to the fruitfulness intended all along.
Seventy two years ago this week, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t a typical wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.
Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.
My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so it must have been love.
They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.
As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death six years ago, their letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together, reside now in a box in my bedroom. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological. It did not seem possible that beyond those realities, things could go sour after reuniting.
The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver. After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality. When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.
And so too there must have been expectations of happiness in the barn on that first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. Those challenges mounted up quickly: there was to be no room for them, there was a baby to deliver without assistance from anyone, and the threat of Herod’s murder of innocents eventually drove them from their home country.
When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon, to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world. He prays to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash the reality to come. It would have been easy to do so– simply mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as the rejection, anguish and suffering that He would experience. Not only that, but the pain is not His alone but will be His parents’ to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.
Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces our living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.
My parents, such young idealistic adults 72 years ago, now servants dismissed from this life in peace. As I peer at their faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes, then unaware of what was to come, now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.
Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.
I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.
I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.
I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.
I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
(vows written during a lunch break on the roof of Group Health on Capitol Hill, Seattle Washington in July 1981 before our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church)
*the last line is adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”
”How joyful to be together, alone as when we first were joined in our little house by the river long ago, except that now we know each other, as we did not then; and now instead of two stories fumbling to meet, we belong to one story that the two, joining, made. And now we touch each other with the tenderness of mortals, who know themselves…” Wendell Berry
Thirty two years ago today we became one story, a story still being told. What joy it is to know you and be known by you!
May our story have many more chapters celebrating the poetry of life together, with a minimum of plot twists and cliffhangers.
We’ll trust the Author who touches us with Words as tenderly as we touch each other. It is bliss to love and be loved from the first page to the last.