Friday, March 30, 2012

On the Institution of Marriage

Dear Mackenzie,

“If love is blind and marriage is an institution, then marriage is an institution for the blind.”

“Every time I find Mr. Right my husband scares him off.”

Henny Youngman’s famous “Take my wife...please”.

Why are there so many dumb jokes about marriage?  What’s the institution of marriage really like?

Shortly before your mom and I got married, I asked your aunt Viv for a straight answer to that very question. She had been married a number of years by that time. She also knew that like many males in Los Angeles, I had a tendency to run away from commitment. "Marriage is not always fun” she said, “and it's not always easy. But it’s always worthwhile."

My grandpa Goldberg (your great-grandfather) was born in Austria--or maybe Poland, I’m not sure, in 1894, and my granny Goldberg was born in Poland in 1900. At that time in many parts of Europe, marriages were still arranged. No one in our immediate family remembers with certainty, but I believe their marriage was indeed an arranged one. I do know they married very young.

My grandfather had grandiose dreams, and sometime around 1920 he tried to immigrate to America. The quota system at the time kept him out of the United States so he decided to move to South America instead. As was the custom in those days my grandfather went ahead alone, promising my grandmother that once he settled and found a job she would join him.

The story I’ve heard over the years is that when my grandfather got to Uruguay, he met another woman and fell in love. Torn between duty and love, my grandfather chose duty.  He brought my grandmother to Montevideo, where they had a long and apparently unhappy marriage. 

Not long after my grandfather died, my paternal grandparents told me a heartbreaking story. After the funeral, a number of people were sharing memories of your great-grandfather.  Everyone was recounting how he had loved his daughter (your grandma), how he had loved your aunt Viv and me, and so on.  And finally Granny Goldberg started to weep and said, “Yes, he loved everyone in the world except me”. 

What a terrible, terrible weight with which to be burdened after a lifetime of marriage. I can’t begin to imagine how my grandmother must have felt; a young woman filled with life and hope, leaving her friends and family behind to follow her husband to a distant new world, only to find or suspect once she got there that her husband loved someone else.

Remember that this was almost a hundred years ago.  Today both would have had more choices available to them and quite probably it would all have gone down very differently.  Yet marriage remains as challenging as ever.  In an age where divorce is not the social stain it once was, it’s even more unusual for two people to be willing to grow together while giving each other the room to find individual fulfillment.

Marriage isn’t perfect. Sometimes I jump up and down begging for attention from your mom but she’s too exhausted by the challenges of her day. It drives me nuts.  Sometimes your mom needs me to be there for her and simply listen, and I don’t answer the bell. It drives her nuts. Sometimes we get angry at each other. Sometimes we pout (well, I pout).

These days temptation threatens to derail marriages more than ever, and there are more opportunities than ever to act on those temptations. When times are tough, pulling the ripcord can feel a lot easier than staying to fight for the relationship.

Studies have shown that half of all first marriages end in divorce, that two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce, and that three-quarters of third marriages end in divorce.  Fourth marriages? Fuggedaboutit. So why stay?

Well, my sweet daughter, everyone who stays married does so for different reasons. You’ll no doubt have your own. For me, I stay because your mom is my best friend.  I stay because your mom is the one person in the world I trust with my very life.  I stay because I miss her when we’re apart.  I stay because I feel whole when we’re together. I stay because whether we’re swinging from the chandeliers or changing a light bulb in a chandelier, there’s no one with whom I’d rather do either.

Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher hold the Guinness world record for the longest marriage in history.  Before Mr. Fisher died recently, he and his wife were married for 86 years. Asked the secret to the longevity of their marriage, Mrs. Fisher replied modestly that sometimes “God ties great knots”.

Not too long ago your aunt Viv was very, very sick.  She spent almost two months in the hospital, which in this day and age is unusual and dangerous. Things got lots worse before they got better.  When she was finally out of the woods I spoke to her about her experience. Among other things, Viv told me she didn’t think she would have made it through without your uncle Ron. 

She said Ron stood like a rock for her throughout the entire ordeal.  He took care of the kids and the house. He worked a full time job. He navigated the doctors, managed the family dynamics, and still found the time and energy to spend hours at the hospital looking after her. 

Viv said that during the past few months she has come to understand in a very profound way what marriage is really about. She said that if for the rest of their lives together Ron never again held her hand, or bought her flowers, or even told her that he loved her, Ron's love for her and for the sanctity of their marriage would nonetheless be forever engrained in her memory.

For your aunt Viv that's the good news. The even better news for Viv is that a spouse who stands anchored like that during a terribly low point in your life is also likely to keep holding your hand, and to keep buying you flowers, and to keep telling you he loves you. 

In the end that's the kind of marriage we all want and deserve, and the kind of marriage your mom and I wish for you.

All my everlasting love,



  1. amazing, sent it to my siblings

  2. Thank you. I'm glass you enjoyed it. Please re-post if you'd like.

  3. Someone pass the tissue!
    Thanks Norm

  4. Norm, I'm catching up tonight on some of your posts. I very much enjoyed this one and I want to tell you in my opinion showing your daughter a daily example of a loving marriage (not always a perfect one...) is one of the greatest gifts you can give to her. I had such an example and it has colored my life daily in a positive way. I consider myself lucky and very blessed. Thank you for writing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Jane. Keep reading and I'll keep writing. xoxo