Lately my kids (and grandkids) have been sending me and the wife quirky birthday and Father's/Mother's Day cards – the kind that sing or play a tune when you open them. A recent one played the famous "Figaro, Figaro" passage, but the words were: "You were born long ago – long ago, long ago, long a-go..." We have replayed it many times as we laughed about growing old.
I don't write many personal things in this space, except as they touch upon or illustrate some of the political, social and cultural issues that I write about. I'm making an exception this time because a personal event is coming up that is a little out of the ordinary. That event is our 50th wedding anniversary. Carol Wells and I were married in Ithaca, NY, on August 10, 1962. In the blink of an eye, a half-century has slipped by almost without our noticing it. I beg my readers' indulgence as I reminisce a little and recall how young and fearless (and poor) we were back then.
I tell my kids that we had silver money in our pockets back in '62 – but not very much of it. That was particularly true for us. We got married with a little over $300 to our name. I was still a college student, so my pop co-signed a $500 bank note for me to pay for a semester of school. I hoped to get part-time work to pay for the 2nd semester. My wife had a teaching job all set up. Her salary was $4,950 a year. (Per year, not per month!) We lived on her take-home pay of $320 a month.
We had the clothes we brought with us, seventeen sets of sheets and pillow-cases that were wedding presents (folks must have thought we would spend a lot of time in bed), a toaster, several nylon comforters, a radio, a set of stainless steel dinnerware, a set of Melmac dishes, and an ancient bookcase Carol's dad had made. My pop's wedding present was a 9-year-old Cadillac that ran intermittently after we burned the valves pulling a trailer from New York to Chicago.
We were as poor as church-mice, but we didn't really know it. There was literally nowhere to go but up, and there was no "safety net." We set to work full of determination and good cheer, and we never once looked back and wondered why we had gone against my mother's advice. I thought then that getting married at 19 was a good move, and I still do. We were very confident about the future. We had our first child after a year of marriage, when I was a senior in college.
Moving far from home and settling in as a married couple was full of surprises – some funny and some less so. Carol's school principal had arranged for our first apartment, but it wasn't ready for occupancy on the exact day of our arrival. So he also arranged for us to stay at the home of an elderly lady who kept students during the school year. These were students' rooms, and the beds were narrow cots – not even the size of a single bed. For several nights we slept together in one of those cots, but we rumpled the covers in the other cot to avoid scandalizing our Victorian hostess. (Obviously we were much smaller people in those halcyon days of our lusty youth.)
Signing the lease for the apartment was a little shocking. Our "furnished" efficiency apartment cost $100 a month – pretty steep in those days, but it was a college town. We had to pay a month's rent in advance, plus an extra month as a deposit. That was $200 to us. As we had only $300 in cash, we were left with $100 to live on for the first month, until Carol got her first paycheck. Somehow we managed without touching the $500 reserved for school. We had no credit cards in those days – only cash or checks.
I still have the budget-book from that first year of our marriage. A few things really stand out. Our food budget was $15 a week, and our gasoline budget was $10 a week. But our health insurance premium was $85 a month – more than 1/4 of our monthly income. No insurance was provided through my wife's teaching job. We had no clothing budget during that first year. Both of us had to make do with what we brought. (I do recall buying my wife a red nightgown for St. Valentine's Day, however. I think it cost $4. Even during hard times it's important to keep priorities straight.)
I quickly found work as a part-time janitor for an elementary school. Every day I swept classroom floors and mopped lavatories from 3-5 PM. The pay was $1.25 an hour, and I was very glad to get it. During the winter our car wouldn't run during a two-week stretch of sub-zero weather, when the temperature sometimes dropped to -20 degrees. To get to my janitor's job, I walked from Wheaton to Glen Ellyn – about 4 miles – in the cold and snow. The image of entering our bright, cheery apartment, with stew cooking on the stove, is permanently stamped in my memory. My wife was such a trouper in those days – always has been, for that matter.
I don't mean to imply that we never worried or argued about money. We certainly did – especially later, after the children came along and a zero clothing budget would not do. But we always came to an agreement and fashioned an accommodation that solved the problem. Gradually, things loosened up as my career advanced. We were able to breathe easier, financially. We also initiated ideas that included personal and clothing allowances for all of the children, as well as personal allowances for Carol and me. "Personal money" (as we called it) was accountable to no one else and could be spent in any way. These allowances are still in our budget, although they are far larger than the weekly $15 of the 1970s.
My brother Fred often repeats a phrase that might have come from either Sophie Tucker or Mae West: "I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better..." I'll certainly second that motion, although I haven't ever been truly "rich." A lot of anxiety is erased when there's enough money to cover a family's needs. There is no question though that starting out poor helped us in many ways – including giving us the confidence to weather hard times later. In the early '90s I had to go on half-pay due to certain policies of my employer. We were able to live on half-pay for six months until I got restored to full pay. We couldn't have done that except for knowing how to be poor.
It also goes without saying that it's a lot easier when everybody in the family is on the same page with respect to finances, needs and wants. Attitude (as they say) is everything. In this area I owe my wife and my children a debt of gratitude for their help and support of our family's finances over the years.
I often say that you get only a few really lucky days in your life. Two of mine were April 1, 1961, when I met the splendid woman I eventually married, and August 10, 1962, when we officially tied the knot.
At the end of the day, however – literally as well as figuratively – the bottom line is love. Just to clarify that a long marriage isn't just about dollars and cents, I want to close these reflections on our half-century with a passage found in the oft-neglected Biblical book, Song of Solomon:
"Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away..."
You can't say it any better than that, and I wouldn't dream of trying. Besides, I have it on the best authority that the first 50 years are the toughest, and it's all downhill from here...