Milo and Wanda have always sat in the same pew of our 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 while 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, and we all laughed.
And then Milo got a little teary-eyed. Because I 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. A happy marriage is what happens when two people dare to wake up every morning to say "I do" again and again.
A happy marriage is what happens when two hearts keep 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.
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. And we wonder: how did we get there? And 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 a few weeks ago, shortly after Wanda had gone in for that knee surgery. We saw how the nurses had brought an extra bed and an extra overstuffed chair 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. And 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, at age 91, and they buried him across the road from our country 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 every day life.
Here's what Milo and Wanda taught us about how to make a happy marriage last.
How to Make a Happy Marriage Last
1- Look for Happiness Right Where You Are.
Milo and Wanda remind us all 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 "Making Happy."
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.” Maybe it's like Wendell Berry said: "The most misleading thing a love story can do is end 'happily' with a marriage, not because there is no such thing as a happy marriage, but because marriage cannot be happy except by being made happy."
3 - Find Joy in The Gritty.
Happiness happens over the bumps and twists of years spent under the same roof. We say "I do" to the marriage, and to the mystery. Happiness happens amidst the unexpected moves, job changes, surprise babies -- and yes, even the slammed doors. Happpiness happens in the middle of your bored nights, your begging prayers and in the moments when God miraculously redeems your irrational decisions. It happens in the breaking and the mending. Happiness grows from seeds planted over a thousand meals at the supper table, and in 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.
Happy happens 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.
Happiness comes in knowing that even if it wasn't pretty, you made it. Together.
And marriage is waking up tomorrow to do it all over again. It’s bliss and it’s chaos. And Milo and Wanda 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.
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