Later that day I heard that Mary Parr, the oldest woman in the United States, had died at the age of 113. Someone said Ms. Parr had “loved her life and working for the Red Cross.” When asked about her longevity, Ms. Parr would say it was because she never married and “never had to worry about the headache of men.”
I thought about these two lives that seemed so different. Ms. Parr was outspoken about crediting her long life to living as a single woman. I suspect a positive attitude tilted the scales in her favor, too.
Ms. Parr’s life had been less stressful than Mrs. Smith’s, I imagined, because she didn’t have “the headache” of men; in fact, she lived more than twice the number of years Mary Smith did. I was fairly certain that the conjugal, maternal, and virtuous aspects of Mrs. Smith’s life probably took a toll, possibly contributing to her early demise. Then I realized I was making a foolish assumption. Hers wasn’t a remarkably “early” end at all, not for that time in history. Mary Smith died at 55 in 1795!
Why would I speculate on the quality of Mrs. Smith’s life when it’s difficult to assess that--even with living people I know well. And of course I know nothing about Mary Smith’s inner life--her secrets, what gave her joy or touched her heart. So much for my personal analytical efforts.
According to the Rand Center for the Study of Aging, numerous studies covering 140 years have been devoted to determining the effects of marriage on longevity. The Rand conclusion says, in part, “The relationship between marriage and longevity is more complex than generally believed.” (Was that a surprise?)
I also looked at an online abstract from the Terman Life-Cycle Study initiated in 1921. Those results indicated that consistently married persons live longer than those who have experienced marital breakup. Individuals who had not married by midlife were not at higher mortality risk compared with consistently married individuals.
Despite all the research, I don’t think we know for sure exactly how or how much a married or single lifestyle contributes to living a longer or “better” life. My common sense is shouting that quality of life is not measurable. And, as one who believes quality is more important than quantity, I’ve seen all the research I need to see. Nevertheless, I remain curious about whether married or single women, in general, are more fulfilled. You know, happier.
At times I wondered whether my own life might be “better” if I had married again. The only conclusion I reached was that my life would be very different. Whether marriage or a committed relationship will expand or contract one’s life experience isn’t something that can be known with certainty, I suppose, unless and until we’re in it.
Savoring my she-crab soup at lunch the other day, I overheard a man at the next table insulting his wife. I felt like decking him; instead, I took an antacid and bit my tongue.
That same day a friend whose mother recently died told me she saves her tears for the shower rather than expressing her emotions openly. She said her husband has a “sensibility deficiency.” By sundown I was feeling a little jaded about marriage and, truth be told, men in general. The next morning I was saved from cynicism by the grace of Bob and Nella.
I met them in connection with a one-day volunteer project: Bob and I were packing boxes. These two have been married long enough to be grandparents. On her iPad Nella showed me a photo of a cherubic seven-month old, their youngest grandson. I wanted to understand everything Nella was communicating, but it was difficult. As she struggled to be understood, I could feel goodness radiating from this woman whose body had been worked over ruthlessly by a stroke. If there is mercy here, it is that her cognitive abilities were not affected. She seems to be relating to life from her beautiful spirit rather than a now-limited body.
Nella and Bob have walkie talkies for when they’re not in the same room; he understood everything she said. His devotion and their love for one another were beautiful to see.
I thought about Nella and Bob for days. Something about being with them took me back to last Thanksgiving and a moment of sweet intimacy between a young cousin and her husband: Stirring a pot he was tending, he called her by a pet name I’d never heard, “Hey, Po, how ‘bout tasting this soup?” The love in his voice had given me goosebumps.
SIDEBAR: From time to time I’ve wondered whether relationships involving women years older than their men will ever be commonplace as the reverse has been for...ever. While I was obsessing on the subject, the Universe--great teacher and tease that she is--arranged a party celebrating the marriage of a friend. I went alone, knowing only the bride, who was stunning in a sapphire dress, being gracious to their hundred-something guests between dances. I was at a table with several couples, and the talk turned to age differences in relationships. I declared, tongue-in-cheek, that I was instituting a new policy that very night: I would no longer rule out a younger man, provided he was at least five years older than my adult son.
Across the table my new pals, Rick and Reba Ann, were laughing. “If I’d had that rule, we wouldn’t be together,” she said. I had noticed how comfortable they were with each other, how thoughtful and mutually attentive. They’d been married almost eight years; he was twenty-one years younger. Yes, indeed!
Married: To Be or Not to Be?
The best things about being married are having someone
*to co-op the contempt of your teenagers.
*to roll the garbage cart to the curb.
*to be your surrogate car-shopper; he won’t automatically be seen as “another sucker.”
*to sound like an idiot describing to the mechanic exactly what noise the car was making.
*who will let you know, when you’re out in public, there’s spinach between your front teeth--if he notices next time.
*to father your children--someone they can meet once they’re born.
*whose name will be your thankless child’s first word...after you carry him 9 months, go from sick as a dog to a blimp with legs, then twelve hours of labor.
*who’s frozen with fear, just like you, when there’s a strange noise late in the night...who’s as scared as you are of the big, ugly spider, but his pride is stronger than his fear, so he takes it out. No, he doesn’t kill it. He takes it outside because you insist.
*to drive you home from a party. Unless, of course, he needs a ride home.
*to take care of things when you’re loopy after the colonoscopy. He’d better come through on this one.
*to haul the Christmas tree home from the lot, banishing most of your fear that it will fall out of the trunk and kill an old lady and the good Scout walking her across the street.
*who doesn’t need batteries for handy sex.
*who will de-ice the sidewalk on outrageously cold mornings.
*who can reach the top shelf or stand on the tall ladder that gives you vertigo.
*who will say you look “fine” even if an outfit makes you look fat.
*who can find the itch between your shoulders in a split second.
*who validates your starting sentences with “My husband...”
*who gives you reason to buy the big pork roast instead of one chop.
*who calls you a pet name in public.
*who takes on some of life’s burdens and a little of the blame.
*who sometimes gives you incentive to make dinners that involve more than three ingredients.
*who can do the heavy lifting and schlep around the luggage.
*The very best thing about being married is having a wonderful guy who loves you. And sometimes, as my friend Bev says, you just need someone around to open a jar.
When we’re young, we are blissful in the belief that love really is all we need. Love and the intertwining of our life with the object of our love-lust. For youthful unions, courage isn’t always an ingredient in the prenuptial mix.
But later in life, especially in second or subsequent marriages, emotional courage is what we need most. With each passing year, life grows more complex. It’s layered with questions to consider before we enter into an emotional and legal commitment to another.
By mid-life we’re driven more by who we are and what we want in life than by hormones and love songs. By now there often are children, careers, financial complications, pets, stronger lifestyle preferences, passionate opinions and commitments, more solidified values. In other words, we are no longer quite so malleable. Although we continue to grow, at a certain point in life our compass is pretty much set; we’ve identified our North Star. As more mature, self-actualized beings, we aren’t as likely to be seduced into taking a different direction. So, I think it takes commendable courage to risk losing one’s compass, to risk the possibility of deferring significant goals or watering down one’s own passions in favor of supporting a partner’s.
My friend Ursula said something that bears repeating:
The bottom line for me on relationships and marriage is that both people should be better in them than they are alone—not just happier but better. Being in partnership should help you explore different aspects of your self in a safe place; a partner should give you peace, comfort, support, confidence to do and be more than you would without that partner.
- End of Excerpt -
Note: January 9, 2012: Publisher's edits began last week!
VISIT lucindashirleydancingonmars.blogspot.com for more excerpts and publishing updates!