(Previously published in The Washington Post.)
Marriage: A Living, Breathing Thing
By Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery
June is the month we romanticize marriage, right? Reception halls and churches are booked for elaborate ceremonies and receptions full of laughter and fun. We look at the wedding cake, a mountain of confection, and privately hope marriage will be as sweet. I joined my grandparents for their 73 wedding anniversary earlier this month, and finally made peace with the fact that love ain’t always romantic – and every year in a marriage won’t be sweet. Unconditional, unwavering love can take a lifetime to achieve.
“Deac! You two have been married longer than most people in this room have been alive!” said their Pastor A.C. Durant, of Tenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest, as we celebrated the marriage of my grandfather, Deacon Clifford Thomas, 92, and his bride Deaconess Irene C. Thomas, 92.
Their church’s marriage ministry treated them to a feast at home. Their home smelled of southern cuisine – macaroni and cheese, cabbage, fried fish, fried chicken, meatballs, and more – prepared by the marriage ministry. The table looked like Thanksgiving. We ate and laughed for hours. I snapped photos for the family album.
One young woman in the church ministry joked with me privately, “when I saw those two couples on TV celebrating their 70th anniversary, I was in their yelling at the TV.” Unlike two couples celebrated in local news earlier this month when they reached their 70th anniversary, my grandparents have been married 73 years. They also are celebrated for their fierce independence. They live alone, taking care of each other. At their anniversary celebration, I more fully appreciated the wealth of their strength and endurance.
I have long valued their grit and determination. Granddad likes to say, ‘If you see me fighting a bear, help the bear!” Grandma’s peaceful, patient –and prayerful – tolerance of granddad’s fussing spoke volumes.
I recorded video of the pastor and others reveling in the history of my grandparents’ marriage: when did you meet? How did you know she was the one? My Grandparents told stories of some of their newly wed escapades. They eloped when they were 21. The year was 1940. They told of migrating to the District from Georgia. In the comfort of their home, they shared stories they had not shared last year when the marriage ministry hosted a grand anniversary celebration at church.
“Grandma you told me you pulled Granddad’s name out of a hat!” I said, seated with a small group in their living room. I had not realized that was privileged information, but Granddad laughed it off.
“You keep telling everything, and this marriage won’t make it to tomorrow,” the pastor laughed.
I delighted with everyone as a four-year-old girl recited Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” from heart. It was a fitting tribute to my grandmother, whose memory remains sharp even as her day-to-day recall becomes more challenged. My grandmother recited a poem she had learned in 11th grade, ending with . “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Bowling trophies around their living room reminded me of how they built a life together. They had joined a bowling league together. When Granddad took up golf, Grandma took up golf. They went fishing together. When Granddad joined the Masons, Grandma became an Eastern Star. When Grandma joined church, Granddad soon followed. They both joined the choirs. When Grandma took up gardening, Granddad joined her, and they gardened religiously for decades.
“Deac, let me ask you this. When you were standing there  years ago, did you have any idea…” before the pastor completed his question, Granddad was shaking his head and smiling.
“One day at a time,” I said. I had learned that much from them over the years.
They could not have predicted they would even live to be 73, but they had planned – and determined over and over and over again – to love each other as best they could for a lifetime. They have told me that in marriage you have bad days, bad months, bad years, but you hang on to the commitment you made to God.
I snapped more pictures of couples delighting in my grandparents’ milestone moment. I took a photo of my grandparents with the youngest couple in their church ministry, a couple married barely a year. I reflected on the pastor’s comment and considered that marriage, itself, must be loved, nurtured, protected, and raised like a child. I considered that each marriage, also, may be as unique as an individual.
“You two have been married longer than most of us have been alive.”
With the pastor’s comment, my judgments of my grandparents’ marriage – and marriage in generally, suddenly shifted. Expectations of my own marriage shifted, too. It can take a lifetime to achieve mutual understanding, trust, communication, and shared beliefs.
Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a contributing writer for The D.C. Root. She is also author of “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam” and “Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam.” Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/Sonsyrea.