My best friend’s parents will have been married for 50 years this month. Fifty years. Living side by side while they jockeyed through careers, children, parents, finances. Fifty years of tolerating, compromising, communicating, sighing, partnering, and in their case, laughing. “Aren’t they lucky?” you might think, but luck has nothing to do with it.
I first met them when they were about 20 years into their journey, having moved from Ohio to Tennessee. By that time, they already had three girls and a boy, ranging from high school to kindergarten. Their home was full of noise, laundry, chore divisions, and chaos. I loved it.
I’m from a big family too—I’m the fourth of five—but by the time I met the Bettler’s, my older siblings had already left home and we were down to just my younger brother and me. Our house by comparison was very, very quiet. We had easy dinners for four each evening after school, while they had Kitchen Productions—each family member playing a role in the cast of some hilarious unscripted play that unfolded nightly, with multiple “exit stage lefts” as one left to go to some sports practice, another had to finish an assignment, and the others argued over who was supposed to cook the side dish and who was supposed to load the dishwasher. Glorious.
He was a chemist and she was going back to teaching now that her nestlings were all school aged. The way they complemented each other was obvious. She organized. He guided and coached. She planned and nurtured. He listened and offered comic relief. A well-oiled machine. I thought of them as my second parents since their oldest daughter and I were best friends, and we were at their house so often that I’m surprised I didn’t find my name on the duty roster.
After I left for college and they moved up north, I didn’t see much of the Bettler’s anymore, but they were always in the back of my mind as I kept up through my best friend. I got the annual informative Christmas card like everyone else, followed the multiple marathons that Bud ran—still runs!—and always looked forward to seeing pictures of him in whatever goofy hat he decided to don for the latest race. Barb was proud of her students and the Odyssey of the Mind competitions she headed on their behalf. And the grandchildren! They multiplied quickly over the years and were scattered all over the place, necessitating frequent trips to spoil them all just right.
When I lost my own mother too early—she was 55 and my parents had been married 33 years—I immediately thought of Barb as “mom.” Whether she knew it or not, when I had my own children and started juggling life, I often thought of her and her family and asked myself what Barb would do in a given situation. I was at the end of my rope at one point, wrestling with worry over my teenaged daughter, and I wrote asking her advice. She didn’t get ruffled or act appalled at the ruin I’d apparently made of my child. In her calm, sweet way she made me feel like I was “doing ok” and that it would all work out, which it did. When I found her note in the mailbox that day, I cried all the way through it, feeling as though my own mom had been able to give me a reassuring hug and listening ear.
A few years back, our family was on a quest of visiting all 50 of the United States. We were able to stop in at their house in Delaware and spend a warm, hospitable evening as we checked off another state. Being the Steve Martin of Granddad’s, Bud knew just what to do to engage my son, Ben. He treated my children like interesting, intelligent people in their own right, and Ben, now almost 15, still refers to that visit and the cool joke book that Mr. Bettler gave him.
Only 5% of couples make it to their 50th anniversary. For some, like my parents, the C-word dashes their chances. For others, they get married at a later age and time just doesn’t allow them to make it that long. But in the majority of cases, most people just give up. They let the tedium of everyday life and the stress of children, money, jobs, and car trouble make them forget that once upon a time they actually liked each other.
What’s so readily apparent when you meet the Bettler’s, whether today or over 30 years ago, is that they actually DO like each other. They always took time to work on their marriage in spite of life’s busyness, treating their union like one of their children, needing to be fed, cared for, and nurtured. They are true spiritual partners, helping each other grow to be better, serving together in their church and community with the Stephen Ministry and other avenues. Mentally, they are equal and active, always learning new skills or developing new talents like photography. They share books. Physically, they stay active together, running or ball room dancing or traveling. Emotionally, they support one another, whether through retirement, the death of a parent or the birth of a grandchild. They’re social butterflies, meeting new people and finding other people interesting. It’s no wonder that they have been able to reach the fifty-year mark, really. They have been the perfect fit for each other in every area that matters. Because they’ve been solid, they’ve been able to raise four successful, independent, thoughtful children who are decent and good.
My husband and I are not quite to the quarter-century point in our marriage. We often look to the Bettler’s as an example of where we’d love to be in another 25+ years—still enjoying each other, still active and happy, and still working on tolerating, communicating, and appreciating each other, able to laugh often, especially at ourselves. We have a sign above our bed that bears a line by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” Bud and Barb have lived that out in their life together, and it’s been beautiful to watch. I look forward to the Christmas cards and their tales of family and joy for many more years!