I come from a great big crazy Slovakian family on my mother’s side. She was one of eight siblings who were the first born in the USA. They grew up in a Catholic home that was often chaotic and lacking amenities but they always had a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their parents taught them to work hard and be responsible. When they went out into the world all but two of them found mates and built families resulting in dozens of cousins. We grew up as close as any extended family might be with gatherings almost every Friday night at our grandmother’s house and all day picnics at Clear Lake or Sylvan Beach. Most of our elders are either gone now or becoming increasingly incapacitated as they move through their nineties. It falls to the eldest among the cousins, Leonard, to be our wise and inspirational family leader. Luckily there is no better man to serve as the consummate role model for how to live a very good life.
My mother used to admonish me to watch and learn. From Leonard I have collected much knowledge about how to have a loving marriage, how to be a truly good parent and how to build a strong relationship with God. While he is a remarkable man I suspect that he would not be nearly as amazing without an equal partner by his side, his wife Jeannie. Sixty years ago the two of them stood before God and man to exchange vows to love, honor and cherish one another till death and they have honored that pledge through both good times and bad. They were impossibly young when they became man and wife. They did not launch their life together with an expensive ceremony. In fact, Jeannie jokes that the whole shebang, including her dress and the reception, cost only fifty dollars. They had a church ceremony and a party at Jeannie’s mother’s home with a cake, some homemade sandwiches, punch and coffee. They began life together on a wing and a prayer but more importantly with a profound love and respect for one another.
Leonard worked steadily to support his family which grew to four children, two girls and two boys. Their life centered around their kids and their God. Jeannie eventually held down various jobs to supplement the family income and even earned a college degree. They developed traditions of laughter and fun that cost little but enriched them all. Each summer they went to Garner State Park where they spent a week swimming in the river during the day and dancing under the Texas stars at night. They went to football games to watch their children perform with the band and raised livestock when their kids joined the FFA. They kept close and always operated as mutual partners.
Their children soon enough ventured out into the world to find their own adventures. Now Leonard and Jeannie’s family gatherings are thirty four souls strong and growing. When they get together the laughter and the unconditional love is palatable. They joke and tease and hug and tell stories. It feels good to be with them in a world that sees less and less of the kind of stability that they have maintained for six decades. I have watched them and I have learned.
I often have young people asking me to help them to understand what makes a strong marriage. It is a complicated question to answer because no two situations are ever alike but from observing those who have been successful like Leonard and Jeannie I have noticed a few characteristics that seem to form much of the glue that binds them. Perhaps the most important aspect is to begin with a mutual respect for one another.
We have all experienced that tingly feeling of being in love. While that is certainly part of the experience it is not the most important. What really matters is having a total acceptance of another person exactly as they are, not as we might wish to remake them. It is the ability to see that individual as our very best friend, the person with whom we may confidently share our deepest desires and secrets without worry of being judged. It is having a comfort level and a trust that nobody, not our parents, our children nor our friends will put asunder. Building this kind of relationship is not easy. It requires a concerted effort for all time. It means communicating and understanding and supporting and loving.
For Leonard and Jeannie life has unfolded together. They face problems as a team. They enjoy happy times hand in hand. They work hard and play hard. They share themselves with friends who enhance their marriage and avoid those who would break them apart. They talk to one another and decide together how to overcome the difficulties that are a part of existence. Their focus is on family but they also have a deep faith in God and turn to Him again and again. They have found solace and even fun at church. Mostly though they try to walk the walk of good and faithful servants in everything that they do. When they or their loved ones make a mess they know how to forgive and move ever forward rather than holding on to grievances.
It is comforting to be around Leonard and Jeannie. They are very human and yet they have somehow managed to overcome every single impediment that might have broken the ironclad ties that encircled them sixty years ago. They have grown old together and only strengthened in their love with the passing years. They truly only have eyes for each other and seeing them dance together or just hold hands is a beautiful thing.
Leonard and Jeannie would be the first to tell you that they didn’t get where they are today without a concerted effort. They made their marriage great because they both put their hearts and their minds and their very souls into keeping their love as alive from day to day, week to week, year to year as it was on that September morn of long ago. It was honesty, trust, compassion that made their union great. It was always remembering the commitment that they made in that simple ceremony and renewing it again and again. Now they share their glorious union with the thirty two individuals who sprang from the values that they shared and with the rest of us who so admire them.
Our world needs more people like Leonard and Jeannie, especially our children. We must be able to see the proof of what unyielding commitment to promises looks like. We live in a society where far too many throw away their relationships as easily as they put out their trash. Too many children are living in broken homes simply because one or both of their parents have been unwilling to go the extra mile to uphold a strong and faithful union. Too many are putting things and whims before the pledges to love, honor and cherish. Leonard and Jeannie show us how its done and that it can be done. Watch and learn from them.