Old Growth Loving: Story #1

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not lying awake imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we found that we were one tree and not two.

~from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

One of the reasons why I like to go visit one of my favorite parks, Joyce Kilmer forest, near Robbinsville, NC is the presence of immense old growth poplar trees. There are two trees in particular that have caught my attention. They stand side-by-side, and their roots have long been entwined together. In their presence, I feel great strength and wisdom. I imagine the hundreds of years of people and animals that have passed their ways and how, if they could talk, I could learn so much about the history of that one place where they have stoods. We cannot know everything in the world but could we not, at least, come to know the life we are given? In the presence of these trees, I feel a peace. The canopy of shade they have created, with their branches interlaced, gives me a place to pause and reflect on my own life. When I am with them, I find a clear example of what I think it must feel like to be in the presence of two old lovers.

These two trees are the origin of this particular section of the Hidden River Blog. In this section of “Love Stories,” I will regularly feature interviews with couples who have been married for over 50 years: Old Growth Loving. In the shade of couples such as these, may we all come to find rest; from their stories may we find wisdom; by their having been planted together, side-by-side, in this place called marriage, may each of us come to understand more clearly what it means to wander freely within the confines of this place of marriage, called home. For it seems that, in the presence of another person who has seen us fully, trusted us completely, over a long period of time, we find more freedom than we might have found, were to have remained on our own.

Thank you to the couples that gave their consent to these interviews.

Old Growth Loving: Story #1, June 24, 2014

I met Joe and Jody Olliff on a June afternoon when I visited their home in west Asheville. I was there to meet their granddaughter, Meg, and her fiancé, Mark, to discuss their upcoming wedding. As is typical in such meetings, I have a series of questions to ask the couple. Joe and Jody sat in on their granddaughter’s meeting with me, under the shade of an old tulip poplar, until the rains came and Joe announced that he thought he’d “heard enough.” But I didn’t let them leave before asking them if I could interview them as well, later that afternoon, about their relationship. It was clear, from just the few minutes I had spent with them, that theirs was a love that lasts and I wanted to know some of their story and maybe a few of their secrets.

We sat underneath their deck on the back porch and I began with my usual questions about how and when they met and why they were attracted to each other. Then I added the questions that seem important both to me and to the couples for whom I officiate it:

  • What prompted you to date?
  • Why do you think you’ve been able to make it together as husband and wife for 55 years?
  • What were your toughest challenges?
  • Did you/do you ever get on each other’s nerves?
  • What are the two ingredients you think are necessary for a lasting relationship?
  • Is there anything you wouldn’t tell your partner?
  • Have you ever been jealous or have you had trust issues?
  • Did you ever have an “escape clause”?
  • What do you wish for your granddaughter?
  • Do you think what you have is typical of others who’ve been married this long or are you just lucky?

Here’s what I learned on a June day where the conversations were punctuated by intermittent sunshine and rain and by continuous bouts of laughter.

Joe and Jody “ran away and got married” when they were 19 and 20 years old, both students at Furman in Greenville, SC. They had met each other when they both piled in a car, with about seven other students, to go to a Furman football game. They were, pre-seat belts, piled in on top of each other and they both thought the other was the “silliest thing.” I came quickly to realize that this was not a compliment. Nothing transpired after that initial meeting. Jody, however, piled into another car the following summer to travel to Camp Rockmont, in Black Mountain, where the Furman football team had a summer camp. Joe was on the team. A journalist from the Asheville Citizen Times was there at the camp, and he pulled Jody and one other girl aside, along with two football players, and photographed them for the paper. Joe saw the photo published in the paper and decided to call Jody and ask her for a date. She remembers when he came to her dormitory and she received the call to come downstairs where he was waiting. He was wearing khaki pants, an oxford shirt, a tweed jacket and saddle shoes, and was leaning against the wall reading the paper as he waited. Why was he there? What had prompted him to ask her out, upon seeing that photograph? He claims that it was simply because he was “just tired of running from her.” We all laughed at his continued insistence that she was chasing him. Both would not admit, during our interview, that the other was interested in the other from the beginning, but it was clear that there was some sort of pretty immediate connection that was felt between these two, still handsome and still beautiful, souls.

A year later, they were married and, within the next three years, three children were born and Jody managed to finish school on time in three years, despite Furman’s decision to discipline her (not Joe) for “running off and getting married,” as they like to put it.   They both went onto careers in education, pursuing advanced degrees in library science for Jody and education administration for Joe. They devoted their lives to their work, their children, and to each other, saying that the toughest challenges they faced were financial ones, as it was difficult to raise three children, that close in age, on teachers’ salaries, and to put them all through good schools, once time for college came around, and all at the same time. But they managed.

How did they make it all these years? Surely, they’d get on each other’s nerves. When I asked this question, they both shook their heads “No.”

I said, “So, you didn’t get on each other’s nerves.”

“No,” they responded, still shaking their heads

“No, really?” I continued, still finding it difficult to believe that they didn’t irritate each other at least a little bit. But, suddenly, I realized that I was completely misunderstanding and they were actually saying “yes” to my question, shaking their heads perhaps more in disbelief of just how much two people could test each other’s nerves. Absolutely, they DO irritate each other, to this very day! Jody, for instance, wants to get her own car to drive, because she can’t stand how Joe drives. Joe tells me that, next to her father, she’s the most stubborn person in the world. She replies, “I prefer to call it ‘perseverance’.” They both tell me that part of the secret of their longevity is that they take time for themselves, their own separate interests, their own friends, all while still considering each other to be the other’s best friend. “We grew up together,” they told me. We were young when we had our children, “so we took our children with us to do things WE wanted to do” such as to the Olympics. They had fun together. They have fun together.

When I asked them what two ingredients are key for a long lasting marriage they unhesitatingly replied and agreed: respect for each other and having fun together. “Is there anything you do not tell each other?” I asked. For instance, “If you saw a beautiful woman and were kind of, let’s say interested,” I asked, “would you tell the other?” Jody was obviously thinking about the question and Joe was shaking his head as if to say “No,” once again, but then he blurted out:   “Hey, you’re a beautiful woman and I noticed!” We all fell in the floor laughing at that point. Jody went onto say, “We’ve been attractive people. People are attracted to us. They still are. To this day, I can go to a bar and sit down and a man will inevitably come and buy me a drink. The manager at the grocery store carried my groceries out to the car for me the other day.”

“Well, I obviously need to start hanging out in bars to figure out your secret,” I replied.

What struck me as they talked to us that day is that part of what they’ve done in their 55 years of marriage is to, let’s say: normalize their demons. The very thing that most of us think will be the death knell of a relationship, if we even begin to let certain feelings slip in, were feelings that they seem to have normalized. Instead of being surprised when each other irritate them or instead of being thrown off course by jealousy when another person shows interest in the other, they just expected that these things could happen. But it was obvious to me that two things were equally true:

  1. They really loved and respected each other and delighted in each other so the good things, the parts of the relationship that just felt easy and natural, far outweighed the more challenging pieces that often require work.
  2. They didn’t expect everything to be easy and they didn’t go into their marriage with an escape clause, should the other person prove to be not to their liking. They were in it for the long haul and they married at a time and in a culture when their families (also married for many, many years) and their religions expected that when one committed, one really committed, through good times and in tough times. They grew up within a culture that when something was broken, you didn’t throw it away. You fixed it.

So here they are, nearly 55 years later, sitting on their back porch with a granddaughter, the fourth generation to enjoy this back porch, and with a legacy to inherit: an ethic of care that lasts, that thrives, not because the other person meets one’s needs but because one truly delight in the others’ very being. And that delight seems to make everything worthwhile. Well, that, and just enough time apart to make the coming together again worthwhile.

What do they wish for their granddaughter? Happiness, that they’ll be each other’s best friend.

I left this meeting touched by the laughter, and by the honesty and more aware than ever of the importance of real friendship in a relationship. I left thinking that when we begin a relationship with unrealistic expectations of what it means to join our lives to another person, different in temperament from our own (thankfully), that we set ourselves up for disappointment and that, instead, we should build into our ongoing love affair, the time it takes to take care of our own needs and to give each other space to continue becoming. Life is about growth and 55 years of growth together will take a couple through many ordeals. There’s no guarantee as to the final form of the creatures that grow within the womb of this thing called marriage. But hopefully, we’re willing to grow and learn, and what a gift it is to be able to do this thing called LIFE with someone who loves you and respects you and cares for your heart as if it is your very own.

1-Joe and Jody Olliff 55 years