Six months before my wedding day an older man tapped my shoulder in the post office and offered some free advice. "Ramona's a lovely girl," he said, licking a stamp. "She deserves a good husband. Marry her before she finds one."
And that's what I decided to do. But before Ramona agreed, she sat me down one Sunday after church, placed my hands on a Bible and asked me the usual questions:
"You are pretty good at basketball, Phil, but have you ever in your life been able to hit a laundry hamper?
"Will you refrain from using phrases like 'I told you so,' 'I never had to chew my mother's tomato soup,' or 'is there anything to eat around here?'
"Will you agree to take me shopping once a year just for fun? Will you pace the floors while I am in the changing room or will you relax a little?"
I didn't feel comfortable lying to her right there in the sanctuary, so we retreated to the parking lot where I kissed her deeply and agreed to work on these things.
Six months later we stood at an altar as a preacher peppered me with more questions: "Wilt thou take this woman to be thy lawfully wedded wife, Phil? Will you rinse the sink when you shave and make the bed when you're the last one out of it? Will you forget baseball statistics and remember her birthday? Will you affirm, admire, and accept her—and quit eating chicken wings with a fork, so long as you both shall live?"
I agreed to work on these things, then I kissed her deeply.
Minutes later, as I stood in the receiving line watching people I'd never met kiss my bride, the same man who approached me in the post office whispered some more advice: "She looks mighty fine today," he said, "but she'll drive you nuts sometimes. I've been married fifty-six years. I should know." Leaning closer, he tapped my shoulder with his cane. "You want a happy marriage?" he said. "When the things that attracted you to her start to drive you apart, find a way to reverse the process."
I've been thinking about the old man's advice for 18 years now, and it's finally starting to make sense. Allow me to explain.
When Ramona and I were dating I was attracted to her many attributes, including the way she took life slowly. I was constantly running. She taught me to stop and taste the strawberries. Three weeks after our honeymoon, the lack of speed with which she approached life made my adrenaline race. I found myself sitting in the car Sunday mornings tapping the dashboard resisting the urge to honk. By the time we got to church, worship was the farthest thing from either of our minds.
Eighteen years have brought me full circle. In a world that's on permanent fast forward, my wife is a living illustration that slowing down is not only enviable, it is possible. Perhaps it's also possible, as the old man discovered, for the things that drive us nuts to drive us together.
That doesn't mean I've come to peace with everything she does. During our first year of marriage, I wanted to follow Martin Luther's example and nail a list of irritations to the bathroom door. I couldn't quite come up with ninety-five theses, but ten came to mind:
1 Your sense of humor is warped. The funniest thing I did this week was hit my head on a cupboard door. You laughed as if I were Peter Sellers. This was not funny to me at the time. It still isn't. Please do not laugh when you read this.
2 A vow of silence is fine for a monk. Our late-night "fights" are as one-sided as a Chicago Cubs game. You grow quiet during arguments. Silence can be a virtue, but it can also be maddening.
3 You are kind to phone salesmen. On our first anniversary a phone call interrupted a candlelight dinner I had prepared. You walked away from a perfectly good (albeit rather burnt) pizza to talk for upwards of two minutes to a complete stranger because you were too polite to hang up.
4 Generosity isn't always a virtue. Last week you made four pies and gave away three. Our tithe to the church now exceeds the ten percent solution Jacob recommended in Genesis 28. You gave ten dollars to the Girl Scouts and the cookies weren't that great.
5 What's next, pickled ice cream? On Wednesday you made banana meatloaf. Meatloaf is bad enough without the fruit. What other recipes do you have? Can we go through them together?
6 Morning is broken. I am a night owl; you rise with the sun. You delight in greeting me early and releasing the shade loudly. Unfortunately, I do not wake up until noon. Please do not sing to me before 8 a.m.—even on my birthday.
7 You are a cheapskate. I wanted to buy a new car and you said, "Sure, or shall we just light 3,000 dollar bills on fire?" You believe we shouldn't spend more than we make. If this were true, why did they invent credit cards?
8 You throw things away. Last week my wool sweater went missing. The one I got for my seventh birthday. If I don't glue things down, they walk away. When we have children will you package them up and send them to the Salvation Army?
9 Necking won't fit on the calendar. I love to do things we haven't planned. Like quick trips to the city, surprise purchases, or necking on a back road to nowhere. You like the necking, but you like to plan for it.
10 I am from Switzerland; you are from Zimbabwe. I love to be on time. You do not. Is this a cultural difference? Meet me in the living room at 8 p.m. sharp and we'll talk about it.
After some thought, I decided not nail the list to our bathroom door and it is a good thing. Through the years we have had numerous discussions on each point and eighteen years in the University of Diversity have taught me that if we were the same we'd be in trouble. If we were both spenders, we'd be bankrupt. If we were both spontaneous, we'd never get anything done. If we kept all my wool sweaters we'd rent thirteen U-Hauls each time we moved.
The Bible describes marriage as two becoming one. Ideally it is a partnership of two distinctly different individuals who are stronger together than apart. But this won't happen until we swallow our pride, praise each other's uniqueness, and encourage each other's strengths. And a little humor helps too.
Martha Bolton, Bob Hope's joke writer and the author of I Love You … Still (Revell) agrees. Just like Ramona, her husband, Russ, likes to throws things away. "It wouldn't be so bad," Martha told me, "if he would stop with his things. But he throws my things away, too. I've had to dig through the trash to find that bank deposit slip on which I had written my next book idea. I've tried paying him back and letting him 'discover' a few of his things (favorite books, day planner, chess set) in the trash, too, but he just laughs and doesn't get the connection. This has been a habit with him for so long, I don't know if he'll ever completely give up his compulsion."
Martha's secret? "Just keep loving him and check the trash." Better still, she has come to see the benefits of his clutter-free personality. "He doesn't like clutter in our relationship either," says Martha. "He doesn't hold grudges or bring up past issues. If something keeps getting in our way, he'd rather toss it out than continue to hang on to it. It's turned into one of the things I love about him. Of course, I still check the trash every week before the garbage man takes it away. I've still got deadlines to meet."
Joanne Robideau, a thirty-four-year-old mother and high school teacher says, "I used to hate the way my husband, Gord, went into things without planning ahead and just did things off the cuff. Now I've learned to appreciate his spontaneous approach to life and how quickly he adapts to situations. I used to get anxious when we would walk into something we hadn't planned for, now I rely on his ability to take over. What I thought was a curse has turned into a blessing."
I agree. Though Ramona's silence caused me grief at first, I'm learning to wait until she's ready to talk and to remind myself that those who say the most do not always have the most to say. When book sales brought in unexpected abundance, it was her generosity that helped us respond as Christ would, giving away what we didn't need. Her kindness to phone salesmen was the same kindness that first drew me to her. Thankfully it has tempered with time. She now offers a polite "No thanks," followed by a click.
Perhaps best of all, it is her warped sense of humor that allowed me just last week to hang a small blackboard beside the phone. Now each time a telemarketer calls, she says, "Why don't you talk to my husband?" and she holds the phone by the blackboard, grinning while she runs her fingernails over it.
Phil Callaway is a popular speaker and the author of six bestsellers including To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie. You can visit him at www.philcallaway.ab.ca
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