Milo and Wanda always sat in the same pew of our little Lutheran church, on the north side. And they were always touching, holding hands. His arm was often draped around her, along the back of the pew. Her hand rested on his leg.
He dragged around an oxygen tank. She needed knee surgery. They’d been married for nearly 65 years.
And they still had stars in their eyes.
One Sunday a couple years back, Wanda scooted over to my pew before church, and she held out her hand. “Look!” she beamed. She wanted me to see what Milo had bought for her — a new Black Hills Gold ring.
I looked over Wanda’s shoulder to see that ol’ lovebird beaming. He told me he’d seen the ring in a catalog that arrived at their farm. He thought she needed it — just because. He bought the ring for no other reason than love.
After church, we drank coffee together in the fellowship hall. I asked them the secret to their happy marriage. He asserted that it was mostly due to the fact that he was “always right.” He winked; we all laughed.
Then Milo got a little teary-eyed. I had asked him about their first years of love, the years filled with hope and that starry-eyed belief that deep happiness is possible. Milo and Wanda got married right there on the family farm, on April 28, 1950. And for years, they kept meeting in their fields. During planting season, she would run across the rows of newly planted crops to bring him lunch. And his heart would swell up with love when she came running.
When he told me that story over coffee, Milo reached across the table to find Wanda’s hand.
I guess you could say that Wanda kept running toward Milo for nearly 65 years, even when they couldn’t really run anymore. And Milo kept running toward Wanda.
In my own marriage, I have learned that a happy marriage doesn’t just “happen.” It is the act of two hearts running toward each other, even when you want to run away.
Milo and Wanda had hard years. There was heartache in their decades together. That’s their story to tell, not mine. But I can tell you that most couples who lives to see their 60th wedding anniversary understand how you feel when you say you lost your happily ever after. Almost every couple I know has, at one time or another, wondered where the happiness went after the magical music of the wedding dance faded.
Milo and Wanda came from a long line of Lutherans, and maybe they had heard that Martin Luther quote, the one about marriage: “Marriage does not always run smoothly, it is a chancy thing. One has to commit oneself to it.”
And one does have to commit oneself, yes? Because real life happens. The needle scratches across the record. It doesn’t happen in a day, but in a series of months that turn to years. Marriage slips into a bland malaise. Suddenly, you wake up and realize that someone short-circuited the electricity in your marriage, and both spouses blame the other for faulty wiring. Couples slide from happy to humdrum — or worse.
We wonder: how did we get there? Is it possible to rescue what seems irretrievably gone?
Milo and Wanda would tell you that it is possible. They’d tell you not to give up. We had a lot of talks about that, and we had plans to have more of those talks.
Our family visited Wanda and Milo in the hospital, shortly after Wanda had gone in for that knee surgery. The nurses had brought an extra bed to Wanda’s hospital room, so Milo could stay with his wife, instead of out on the farm alone.
That afternoon, we prayed together, and we laughed together. We talked a little about what makes marriage work.
Milo did what he always did: He laughed at his own jokes. And the two held hands the whole time — in sickness, and in health.
That was the last time we saw Milo. He passed away March 2, 2015, at age 91. They buried him across the road from our country church — Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.
We’ll never forget the lessons that Milo taught us. He and Wanda shared such a rich vision of marriage, at a time when cynics will tell you that holy matrimony is outdated, outmoded and utterly unfixable.
But they had managed to reclaim the joy of their own wedding day, and then multiply it across the years.
They had found the secret to happiness, right in the gritty-real of their everyday life.
Here are a few quick lessons on how to make a marriage last — courtesy of Milo and Wanda — as well Katharina and Martin Luther! (When it comes to marriage, some tips are timeless.)
The Keys to Your Happily-Ever-After
1- Look for Happiness Right Where You Are.
Milo and Wanda remind us that happiness can happen under your own four feet. You don’t have to plan a dream trip to a faraway island, or find yourself on the winning side of a lottery ticket. Happiness can happen by intentionally embracing a lifestyle where we wake up to the life we have, rather than the life we wish for. It begins with taking a long look at what – and who – is standing in front of you, sleeping next to you, sharing your towel rack and your toothpaste holder. It is determining that you already have the seed of something that can produce happiness, and letting God water that seed.
2 – Practice the Art of “Going First.”
The happiest couples we know teach us what to means to “go first,” to be the first to offer a kind word, a surprise note, an apology, a gentle touch at the bathroom sink. These couples don’t give, based on what they’ve gotten. They give, based on their desire to give and love as Jesus taught. “We love because he first loved us.”
3 – Find the Humor.
Author Michelle DeRusha recently published a fascinating book on the marriage between the Reformer Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, and she says that the Luthers have a lot to teach us about how to make a marriage work. One way? To continue to make each other laugh.
Michelle spent months researching the Luthers’ writings. She tells me that she was surprised by the lighthearted repartee that the Luthers seemed to enjoy. “I figured, given Luther’s theological background and Katharina’s history as a nun, that they they’d be stodgy and uptight, but that wasn’t the case. We don’t have her letters to him, so we are missing a crucial half of their story, but his letters to her are full of good-natured teasing and sweet banter. It’s obvious that they enjoyed each other’s company and really just simply liked each other.”
4 – Appreciate the Average Things.
A happy marriage happens over the bumps and twists of years spent under the same roof. We say “I do” to the marriage, and to the mystery. There are so many BIG things that can break you as a married couple. But happiness grows from a million LITTLE things: meals at the supper table, the making up after the door gets slammed. It happens when you share a bathroom and a closet and a counseling session and a queen-size bed and a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine. It happens during those late-night dates when you’re quietly watching Netflix, and you reach in the dark, to find the hand of your favorite person.
Michelle, the author of the Luther book, tells us that the Luthers lived this way as well. For instance, Luther’s last letter to Katharina was written on Valentine’s Day, while he was away on business. It wasn’t a gushy, sappy love letter. It was a casual, comfortable letter. “It’s kind of average, but it speaks to their comfort with each other.” In the letter, Martin informs his wife that he’s bringing her home a present: a trout. Yep, a common, ordinary, average fish — but one that Katharina (as the keeper of the house) would have deeply appreciated.
So there you have it.
Happy marriages happen when, after the falling apart, you work together to put it all back together again.
Marriage is for better and for worse, and knowing that sometimes? The better comes after the worst.
And marriage is waking up tomorrow to do it all over again. It’s bliss and it’s chaos.
Milo, Wanda, Martin, and Katharina would be the first to tell you: it can be truly, deeply happy. Because you were two hearts that just kept on running toward each other, even when you didn’t know if you could take another step.
Michelle is giving away a copy of her latest book, Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk. To enter, simply let us know in the comments that you’d like me to put your name in the drawing. As always, any shares on social media earn you EXTRA entries. We operate on the honor system, so simply let me know in the comments where you’ve shared.
ABOUT THE BOOK: When Michelle’s editor asked her which of the 50 women from her first book she would pick for a full-length biography, she didn’t hesitate to answer: Katharina Luther. Their marriage was radically revolutionary and arguably one of the most scandalous and intriguing in history, yet five centuries after they said, “I do,” we still know little about Katharina and Martin Luther’s life together as husband and wife. Until now. Martin and Katharina Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk brings the private lives and the love story of this legendary couple into the spotlight and offers powerful insights into our own 21st-century understanding of marriage.