My parents, John and Esther, quietly observed their 66th wedding anniversary this past Wednesday. I wasn't sure what to get them. So, I thought I'd check the internet to see what gift goes with number 66. There wasn't much there. But one website did offer this factoid: "There are no traditional symbols associated with the sixty-sixth anniversary, but congratulations." Back to the drawing board.
I figured their oldest offspring should come up with something. After all, 66 years of marriage is a whole lot of "richer and poorer, sickness and health better and worse."
So, I thought I'd interview them and write this letter about what happened 66 years ago. Almost everything you read below is stuff I just found out this past week...apparently because I'd never asked before.
The rowdiest moment of their wedding came while a soloist warbled the "Lord's Prayer." My parents were kneeling at the altar, whispering and giggling during the whole song. It wasn't the soloist who amused them; it was something my mom mumbled to my dad at that moment.
It turns out that my mom's mother (my Grandma Haworth) was resolute that kissing was inappropriate in a church wedding. And since Grandpa Haworth was performing the ceremony (my mom's dad was a pastor) and since he pretty much had to do what Grandma told him to do, it looked like the young couple would be denied this delightful ritual at their own wedding, an 8 o'clock Friday night affair in the Argenta Evangelical United Brethren Church.
Grandma asserted herself too early, however, giving my mom several weeks to lobby for a reversal. And at the last second, with no time left to get the breaking news to the groom, Grandma relented. The first my mom was able to convey the good news to him was while the two of them were kneeling during the Lord's Prayer. They would get to kiss in front of everyone after all!
Grandma might have relented regarding the "kiss decision," but she did prevail when it came to picking out my mom's honeymoon nightgown: a pink strappy affair with long puffy bloomers. No wonder my dad made sure they moved at least 5 hours away from his in-laws less than a year after he married my mom.
Their engagement occurred seven months before the wedding, on Christmas Day 1952. Both families had gathered at my dad's parents' home in Hartford, Illinois. After a big meal of southern comfort food (fixed by my Grandma Smith) Grandpa Haworth made the formal announcement.
There was a wax "star candle" at the center of the table that day, a treasured relic my parents have kept all these years, filling the middle of it with new wax when needed. For the occasion, my mom's parents gave her a nice conservative blue dress and my dad's parents gave her a necklace. I guess nobody thought my dad needed any extra gifts since he was getting the girl. needed anything else. Formal engagement announcements appeared in several local newspapers in the days that followed.
The one thing I did know before my interview with them was that my parents were pen pals before they met. The bishop sent Grandpa Haworth to serve the church where my Smith grandparents were members. My dad was in the army at the time, serving in occupied Japan. So, his girl cousins, also in the church, talked the new preacher's daughter into writing him some letters. When he got back to the states, my parents met up.. .and Grandma Haworth, henceforth, never could get control over the situation.
She tried. Even though Grandma never gave my mom "the talk," she compensated by ambushing my parents with a doctor's appointment a few days before their wedding. Grandma solemnly informed them that the doctor wanted to see them both. And when they showed up, they were surprised to discover that the doctor had been tasked by Grandma to explain "s-e-x" to them.
Grandma Haworth wasn't all trouble though. She handmade the genuinely lovely wedding dress my mom wore. And she organized a happy cake and punch reception in the church basement after the wedding. (There were no meals or dances or bands or other reception festivities among Protestants in those days.)
Many of my parents' wedding gifts included handmade embroideries. Among other items, they got a pink ceramic deep dish bowl that my mother still uses to make her Jell-O. They also got a toaster, an iron, and a hand mixer. The presents also included a table radio, wool blankets, sheets and linens, numerous Pyrex baking dishes, an iron skillet, and tableware. A pastor (who would influence my dad to enter the ministry) gave them a large painting of Sallman's "Head of Christ" (one of more than half a billion that were produced since it was painted in 1940). They also raked in four cash gifts, none more than ten dollars.
My mom kept a diary of their honeymoon. After the reception and a trip back to the Argenta parsonage to change and get their belongings, my mom records that "we told everyone good night at 11 p.m. and headed off for our first night at the Parkview Motel in Decatur." (Many years later, my parents were surprised to see that the chambers of their wedding night rendezvous had been remodeled into a nursing home.)
Wisconsin was the destination of their honeymoon, and Grandpa Haworth insisted they take his 1945 Packard, a car long past its prime at that time. My mom reports that they almost ran out of gas on their way to the motel that first night. (I would have thought that Grandpa would have given them a full tank of gas along with the car, but maybe that was one more trick Grandma had up her sleeve...to keep her daughter pristine as long as possible. Although: the Packard was a pretty big car, and I suppose that more than a few Americans were conceived in its back seats after the driver had announced that they had 'run out of gas.')
Mom reports that they got to sleep about 1:30 that next morning. Her diary doesn't mention anything that happened on the second day, except that they spent the night at the Marlu Motel north of Rockford, three miles from the Wisconsin border. On Sunday morning they drove to Madison, Wisconsin, where they attended worship at the First Evangelical United Brethren Church on Wisconsin Avenue. Sunday night they headed up to Wisconsin Dells, where they rented a cabin for a couple nights.
On Monday, my mom records, "Mrs. Smith made breakfast for Mr. Smith for the very first time." They toured the Dells that day and returned to their cabin for supper where she fixed them "sandwiches and beans." They only stayed at Wisconsin Dells for a couple days, my mom noting in her diary that it was "too commercial."
On Tuesday morning, the new bride turned 19. She recorded that day that "Old Mrs. Smith is moving rather slowly this morning due to advanced age." She also recorded that my dad woke up at 5 a.m. and sang "Happy Birthday" to her. In the afternoon they had fun petting the animals at "Deer Park" and drove through several of Wisconsin's small towns. That night they went to their first movie as a married couple, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," starring Doris Day and Gordan McRae. It was a double feature that night, and the second movie was "Bright Road."
On Wednesday, they went swimming in Lake Geneva and headed back to Illinois, where they found a church that had a Wednesday night "Prayer Meeting" which they attended. A day later they returned home from their honeymoon, several days earlier than expected, due to running out of money. And they took up residence in their first home, 926 Whitelaw Avenue, Wood River, Illinois.
One year after their wedding, they were living in Naperville, Illinois, in an apartment over a garage, my dad a freshman at North Central College. For their first anniversary, due to being almost broke, they had to choose between a restaurant or a play. My mom decided to fix fried chicken at their apartment and they would blow their money on the play.
By the way, I was there for that anniversary, but only 24 days old. They left me for the first time with a babysitter, and for the play my mom wore her first nice outfit since the pregnancy: a stylish blue dress just purchased. My nursing time rolled around about halfway through the play. And her body was right on schedule...minus me. That was the moment she realized that "style" might have to be redefined. Anniversaries since their first one have been more elaborate and expensive, but none left better memories.
The years went by and they renewed their marriage vows at church services on their 25th anniversary and their 50th. I preached the sermon at both of those ceremonies, two of my happiest moments in nearly half a century of preaching sermons.
It was important to my parents to mark each of their important anniversaries, because, as my mom says, "We never know when one of us may not be here for the next big one." Perhaps their 66th anniversary is extra special to me because of the severe stroke that my dad had a few months ago. It's the first anniversary they've had that I haven't taken for granted.
Most of the people my mom and dad know now were not even born when they were married. And we think only seven (including my mom and dad) are still alive, and a couple of those have severe memory loss. And most of their wedding gifts are long broken, beyond repair, or buried in some landfill.
But they still have that jello dish in the cupboard and that Sallman "Head of Christ" on one of their walls.
Funny thing though. We all picture Christ in different ways. While Sallman imagined Jesus to be a singular well-tanned European gentleman, my picture Christ is radically different.
Writing this, I have come to realize that for me, the picture that most captures the spirit and love of Jesus is that photo of my mom and dad on their wedding day: their irrepressible smiles, fresh from giggling at the altar, the future before them, walking into the world to bless it in ways that would give not only me life...but bless many others with their joy and sacrifice. It is a divine photo.
I'm thinking it takes more than one person in the picture to convey the living Jesus. He said he would be present where
two or three are gathered together. This is so we can sense the love...and the power and creativity of Christ that only two (or three) can generate. My parents pulled it off with the two of them. I've never had a Sallman in my house...but there has always been a picture of my mom and dad, and always will be.