What Does Happily Ever After Really Mean?

This week my parents celebrated 42 years of marriage. In a Facebook, my mother pondered if anyone truly understands the promises they are making when they get married. Her conclusion was that they don’t. Anyone who’s been married a decent length of time would probably agree—I know I do.

I’m glad my parents didn’t have a clue when they said their vows because they may not have followed through. My childhood wasn’t exactly spent basking in the warmth of their happy marriage. My parents wed at ages 19 and 21. They had me a year later. Within seven years, they had three children and a mortgage and were struggling to pay the bills in the decimated economy of the ’70s.

 Do I even need to mention that they fought a lot? Do I need to say how many times their marriage nearly hit the skids?

Growing up in a rocky household you learn pretty quickly that fairy tale endings aren’t reality. As a child I didn’t really believe in happily ever. I believed marriage was hard and you sucked it up and made it through because you promised you would.

Still, the romantic in me often prevailed. My life’s goal was to still be holding hands with the man I married when I reached a ripe old age. Of course, I assumed there would be plenty of yelling in between the hand holding because marriage was hard work.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first decade of my marriage was mostly smooth sailing. It didn’t involve roses and doves every day, but it was pretty damn good. Then more challenging times arrived, and I had to pull out everything I had learned from my parents about sticking it out.

We made it through stronger than ever, but I often worried about our daughter. I wonder if some days, she feels like I did as a child. How did all that fighting affect her? I felt terrible when she would tell us in her sweet voice to stop fighting, to stop getting frustrated with each other.

My mom’s post about the challenges and beauty of long-term marriage reminded me of a story my daughter wove a couple of years ago at the tender age of 4½, when the tension in our house was sometimes thick.

One day while we were driving to school, she began to tell a “love story” about her stuffed tiger and stuffed giraffe. My ears perked up and not just because this pair seemed so poorly matched. One, she’s always been a great storyteller. Two, the tall, calm giraffe oddly resembled my husband while the fiery, temperamental tiger felt a bit familiar to me. And three, I wondered what her opinions of marriage would be at this young age.

It was a glorious story with a good dose of Disney and a fair number of unique twists, including the tiger riding on the giraffe’s head at the wedding. I waited to see how the story would end. Would they live happily ever after?

It ended like this: “And they fell in love for 100 years—until the giraffe died.”

Then my daughter asked me, “Isn’t it nice to still be in love when you die?”

Powerful stuff comes from the mouths of babes. It was a lovely fairy tale that didn’t end at the altar. It wasn’t even any more far-fetched than some of the ridiculous chic flicks I’ve seen. As far as I could tell, my young offspring understood the ins and outs of marriage pretty damn well.

As our marriages grow, we realize the fairy tale is nothing like it’s portrayed in books and movies. It doesn’t end at the altar and the real tale is full of twists and turns, events and emotions we never see coming.

My mom wrote yesterday: “We have been on an amazing journey. It hasn’t always been an easy one, but we have faced our trials and our joys together. After all these years I can’ believe our love still grows.”

I don’t worry so much about my daughter any more. She still lives in a house with a bit of bickering and she will until she moves out. Why? Because she lives with two people who are married—and that is sometimes what married people do.

After 42 years, my parents still argue (though not nearly as much or as severely), but they also still hold hands. Despite, or more likely because of, all they’ve been through, they are a shining example of what happily ever after really means.

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