Fly Me to the Moon

To a house divided and a marriage that keeps going bump in the night

The best love story I know started in the Irish-Catholic ghetto of south Minneapolis on August 28, 1948, and rounds the bend this weekend at a resort in Deerwood, Minnesota, where its makers will somewhat reluctantly celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The guests of honor don't want any fuss, but they don't have a choice, because what their friends and family and six kids and their spouses have come to know is that marriage is a song that goes bump in the night, and that all sorts of good people with good dreams die and/or change. So if you get the chance to step back and wonder at something this durable, this thriving, you seize it with champagne and wisecracks and everything you've got. And if you can, you write it down for anyone who might happen upon it, because it's a love story worth telling--about soul mates/opposites attracting and drifting and staying together--and because it pretty much explains why I am the way I am and why I still think love is the answer to most any question you've got.

My parents met at the now-demolished Prom Ballroom on University Avenue in St. Paul. She was 17, he was 19. They were with different dates that night, listening to Gene Krupa's big band, and they hit it off immediately. She liked his blue eyes and easy smile and his love of music and the fact that he didn't drink. He liked her blue eyes and easy smile and her quick wit and the fact that she didn't drink. "We got along famously," he said many years later, but at the time a friend told him, "Hey bubby, she's hot for you but you'll never get to first base with her."

James O'Brien

They dated for three years, then he went off to fight for his country in Korea. For two years, they carried pictures of each other and wrote love letters. When he came home, they got married and he got a job and they started a family: Four kids in three-and-a-half years, then two more for good measure. "Those were some really tough times, but as somebody said, I'd go back and do it all over again," she said. "When you have a bunch of little kids, it's intense. But never in our minds was there a question that there was any different way to live or any choice to be made, because we'd made our choice. It wasn't as if you couldn't do anything differently, but it was a commitment. A commitment of love."

They were good Catholics. They went to church every Sunday with the kids in tow, filling up one pew in the big neighborhood church that his parents and all their friends and their kids' schoolmates went to. They did the stations of the cross and the angelus and the rosary and the one that goes "remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return." But something nagged at him. The answers he was getting were too easy, and his questions were getting more complicated. During his lunch breaks from work, he started going to the bookstore, and began devouring what decades later would be known as alternative spirituality--Buddhism, mysticism, Vernon Howard, J. Krishnamurti, Edgar Cayce. He stopped going to church, and, one by one, their kids followed.

She kept going. By herself. She too soon tired of the stuffy neighborhood church and found another family, in the old and young and black and white community at St. Leonard's of Port Maurice, a tiny church in the heart of Minneapolis. She still goes. Every Sunday. She does readings and sings songs and prays and feels the love of God and humanity. She has been known to walk out of the service if something the pastor says riles her. She is unwavering in her belief that there is a God, a creator of all things beautiful. She is a lioness of faith.

"I don't believe in God," he said. "I go back to the quote, 'A hundred monks, a hundred different ideas of what or who God is.' I don't believe there's a creator. It's very hard to explain, but I believe that we are the creators of ourselves. We are it. It's an ongoing process--never started, and it will never end. We are the creators, and we have to figure out ourselves what that is."

"Dad's a spiritual person," she said. "He's seeking God in his way, and I am in my way. We respect each other."

"We've both come to realize that it's very personal," he said. "Every individual goes on their own search. And when you're lowered in that box into the ground, you're alone, and you'd better have it figured out for yourself."

They live in a modest house in west Bloomington, surrounded by books and baubles of long-term love and pictures of their children and grandchildren. But it is, as they laugh, "a house divided." He is a staunch Republican. She is a bleeding-heart liberal. He is a bullheaded conservative. She is a fierce feminist. He monitors the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh and Eckhart Tolle and the Belfast Cowboys and margaritas. She monitors public radio and Tommy Mischke and Jeopardy! and the Belfast Cowboys and white wine. Her glass is half full, his is half empty. She loves big groups of people, he loves solitude. She likes to travel, he likes the Travel Channel. She golfs, he runs. They read everything that comes into the house, and argue about it--columnists, news stories, facts, figures, minutiae. Nothing is taboo; nothing gets swept under the carpet.

"It's a very flavorful part of our marriage," he said. "I often think of guys who go home to their wives who go, 'Yes, dear' and they agree on everything. I don't know. It's so strange. We argue. And we argue. Not about religion, mostly about politics. And we swear we're not going to do it, but then the next day's paper comes."

On New Year's Day, I set up a video camera and sat them down at their dining room table to ask them about their lives. She wore a Pioneer Press sweatshirt, he wore a blue sweater. She sat with her hands folded in front of her and laughed at everything he said. He played with a Hershey's Kiss that was sitting on the table and joked that I wanted to get them on tape because I think they're going to die soon.

He's a smart son of a gun. Years from now I will look at that tape, as I did the other night, and I'll cue it up to the part where he tears up talking about his definition of love ("Coming in that driveway and seeing her in the kitchen window"), and I will remember the night a couple of months ago, when I went over to their house to watch Punch Drunk Love with him, and, just as I was going into the kitchen to get something to drink, I saw him kiss her goodnight, turned away because it felt sacred, and it will give me a shot in the arm and something to shoot for.

"I can remember times being very sad that that newness is gone, because it's so precious," she said. "Now there's such a peacefulness. It doesn't compare with the newness. They're both wonderful. The middle times were much harder, because we were so busy and there were so many people to care for. And to have this at the end of the road--to be alone together..."

"...It's fun," he said, twirling the Hershey's Kiss like a top.

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