Wedding anniversaries are a time to look back to remember the good times and be thankful that you made it through the not so good times. As years mount upon years, a happy couple can feel quietly proud of their union and completely sure of his/her spouse. Often, the “big” anniversaries–those whose years end in 5 or 0–are celebrated by friends and family, as if somehow it is a greater accomplishment to have made it to one of those years when they only amount to 20% of the anniversaries. And I guess, somehow, it is a bigger deal. As humans, we love to measure time, and decade and century marks–not to mention millennial marks–are somehow celebrated more earnestly than others. Maybe those round numbers make us more aware of our mortality; maybe celebrating those milestones makes us less fearful of the passage of time and more in control. I’m not sure what the answer is.
Today is Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray’s 65th wedding anniversary. Ev and Ray have been family of my heart, if not my blood, since before I was born. Auntie Ev and her two sisters, Eileen (‘Leenie) and Madeline babysat my father when he was a child. Ray met Evelyn through her younger brother, Colin, when the two were roommates during basic training for the roles they played in World War II. Through Evelyn and her sisters, Ray came into my father’s family’s life. And a new family was born. I wish I could describe to you how amazing the pair of them are. The stories that we all share. The common memories. The laughter. The time the unattached gravy boat flew off of the saucer and into the floral centerpiece. The Christmas in which everyone broke something–at 7 or 8, I broke the hide-a-bed. My dad broke a Cadillac. Janet broke a coffee urn by overlooking a Do Not Immerse label. The time my brother and I got lost in the woods behind their house; how we were “rescued,” scared and bleeding from a bramble attack. The stories from before I was born of my dad’s father spending his last few months with Ev and Ray. The names of other members of our family of the heart–Uncle Ben, Uncle Alex, Auntie Margaret, Bessie, Spennie–some of whom I never met; some of whom I barely remember, but all of whom are special, marked by their status as Family.
Today, Auntie Ev is slipping away. Not in body–she still looks wonderful, and if you ask her, she’ll say that she’s just fine. But this amazingly strong woman is being pulled down and away from us by the dark whirlpool that is Alzheimer’s. Rather than lament this fact, let me celebrate her as the force that she was, and continues to be, in our family. In 1948, she agreed to move to Jackson, MS with Ray and their infant son, Ken. Her family all thought they were crazy to go. Not to take anything away from Mississippi in the 21st century, but in those days, leaving New York City to live in the South was literally like going to live in another country. Deep down inside, she perhaps thought it a little crazy, too, but she supported Ray and his career, and so they went.
Every year for Christmas, Auntie Ev used to make plum puddings and about 15 kinds of cookies. I can remember making the perilous trek down into their dark basement in Plainfield, New Jersey. I was terrified of what Lurked down there–it was just anyone’s guess–but the lure of cookies was strong, and I let myself be led by the hum of the deep freeze, which promised nothing but delight. Ev and Ray spearheaded Good Friday concerts at their church, and Ev made dozens of lemon pound cakes to be sold as part of the fundraiser for the local hospital. By the time they moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, the Good Friday concert was raising tens of thousands of dollars for the hospital. That hospital is now closed. I’m not sure that there is a connection there; I am just mentioning it.
Evelyn raised Ken, an amazing son (who, after all, didn’t suffer any adverse effects from his stint in MS), and has kept both him and (more importantly) Ray in line, the household in order and the family together. When Ken was away at college, Ev and Ray decided to foster a young blind man, Michael. See how they just adopt people? Without Ev and Ray, I doubt that Michael would have had a guide dog or gone to a great college or gotten a great job that normally would have gone to a sighted person, especially back in the seventies. But Auntie Ev didn’t care about normal. She cared about what was right. We all may call her Auntie Ev, but I know that my parents consider her a mother figure, and I certainly have always felt much closer to her and Ray then I ever did to my biological grandparents. Relatives of the heart, the ones who find us, by chance or by design, are the truest kind of family.
As our godparents, Uncle Ray delivered the eulogy when my brother died in 1998. He was uncertain that he could get through it, and before he went up in front of the congregation, Auntie Ev whispered to him “Be strong for our Greg,” and Uncle Ray was. Our family is stronger today because Auntie Ev modeled strength and encouraged strength in all of us.
Five years ago, for their 60th wedding anniversary celebration in Pinehurst, NC, we all gathered–new friends and old–to pay tribute to a long and lasting union. Auntie Ev was completely with us and present in the moment, and I had the distinct honor of making their celebration cake. Speeches were made; jokes were told. We laughed and remembered and planned for their next milestone: the 75th anniversary. All four Lainson “kids” attended the 60th. “How amazing!” we all thought. All four Lainson kids are still around for 65th, but I doubt that at this point Auntie Ev distinguishes today from any other day. I will call later today. Auntie Ev will say that she is fine, and she will thank me for the anniversary wishes, but I doubt she’ll know who I am. In a strange way, that will be okay, because it is what it is, and we try to enjoy every moment. I know who she is, who she was, and what she has meant–and continues to mean–to Uncle Ray, to her brother and sisters, to my parents, and to The Beloved and me.
So, today, I celebrate Ev and Ray’s enduring love. Theirs is truly the model for our marriage. And, it’s a damn fine model.