Twenty years ago today, I was waiting in a hallway right next to the baptistery where I was immersed a decade before. Within a few moments, I stood in front of my home church to greet my bride, Maria Hanna, and to pledge to her before God and those witnesses my love and my life. Today, I look back and wonder what all we’ve learned in these 20 years together. The main thing is that I’m glad we didn’t wait until we were ready to get married.
I knew on our first date that I loved her and wanted to spend my life with her. But many told us, “Wait until you can afford it before you get married.” It’s true. We had nothing. I was a 22-year-old first-year seminary student; she not much out of high school. I worked and reworked budget scenarios, and never could find one that would suggest that we could pay our bills. That’s why I kept delaying asking her to marry me, even after I knew she was “the one.” I thought I needed stability and a put-together life before I could ask her into it.
My grandmother wisely asked one night when I was finally going to ask “that girl from Ocean Springs” to marry me. I answered, “When I can afford it.” She laughed. “Honey, I married your grandpa in the middle of a Great Depression,” she said. “We made it work. Nobody can afford to get married. You just marry, and make it work.”
Apart from the gospel, those were, and remain, the most liberating words I ever heard. I bought a ring that wouldn’t impress anyone, then or now, but we were headed for the altar. My only regret is that we aren’t today celebrating our 21st anniversary instead of our 20th.
My grandmother’s wisdom is akin to what sociologist Charles Murray talks about in his book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead as the difference between a “start-up” marriage and a “merger” marriage. A merger marriage is the sort one sees every Sunday in the weddings pages of the New York Times, with a groom who’s a hedge-fund manager with a master’s degree behind him and a bride who’s a film professor with a Ph.D. and tenure. They each have their lives, and they merge them. A “start-up” is where the marriage isn’t the capstone of the life, but the foundation. It’s where the husband and the wife start their grown-up lives together, often with nothing but each other.
We weren’t ready to get married. That’s true. But our finances were the least of our worries.
I wasn’t ready, at 22, to know how to console a sobbing wife when she learned that her parents were divorcing. I wasn’t ready to collapse into her arms when I heard that my grandfather had died.
I wasn’t ready to pack up and move all our hand-me-down furniture into a moving van for years of doctoral work in Louisville. I wasn’t ready for miscarriages. I wasn’t ready to hear that we’d never have children. And then I wasn’t ready for an adoption process that took us to the former Soviet Union and back with two very special-needs babies. I wasn’t ready for the doctors to be proven wrong, and kind of suddenly be the parents of five sons. I wasn’t ready to be celebrating our 20th anniversary with a two year-old toddler in the house. And I could go on and on.