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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 23, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Weddings and Hometown Memories

Marriage is a good thing. A woman and a man, joining together to create a new family.

Oh, I've heard all the reasons why marriage is unnecessary. As Joni Mitchell once sang, "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tried and true."

And that's correct, as far as it goes. To make a promise between two people, all you need is the two people. I mean, duh. How hard is that?

But marriage isn't a promise between two people. Even before churches or governments got involved (indeed, before there were churches or governments as we understand them today), marriage wasn't marriage just because two people found each other irresistible.

It became marriage only when it took place in the eyes of the community -- with the recognition by the neighbors that this marriage was worthy to take place as an equal among the other households.

Marriage is a promise, not just to each other, but to everybody else, that:

1. You are now out of circulation. You are no longer "shopping" among the marriageable.

2. You will be faithful to your spouse, which means you will not pose a danger to bthe marital fidelity of other couples. This is a vital protection for the stability of society -- especially for men, so they don't have to fear raising your child by stealth.

3. You and your spouse have proper respect for the opinions and judgments of those among whom you live. They expect you to obey certain social forms, and you have followed them, thus affirming your membership in the community.

4. You will take care of your spouse even if the original attraction fades, or one of you gets sick or crippled.

5. You will provide for any children that are born to you, and endeavor to raise them to have at least as much respect for the expectations of the community as you showed by getting properly married. Thus you are promising to help the community to continue to exist across the generations.

In exchange, the community promises:

1. Others will not try to break up your marriage or have an affair with your spouse, and if someone does try (or succeed), they will be condemned by all decent people.

2. You will be treated as an adult, a full participant in the life of the community, even if you're still quite young. You will be regarded by all others as the most important person in each other's lives.

3. You will be given great leeway in how you decide to care for your children, but if you prove incapable -- neglectful or dangerous -- your children will be protected from you, so that even if you don't deserve it, your attempt to reproduce still has a chance at being successful.

4. If your children are orphaned, or your spouse widowed, the community will step in to help take care of them, and respect their inheritance rights -- and, again, the community will help your attempts at reproduction to succeed.

These promises vary in their specifics from culture to culture, but among civilized people, cultures that make and keep these promises concerning marriage are far more likely to survive than those that don't.

This is because the loyal family that has the recognition and support of the surrounding community is vital to the ability of the community to survive across time, and of the married couple to have some assurance of letting their genes continue.

In other words, people who marry within a society that values marriage are more likely to have offspring that survive to reproduce themselves. And societies that value marriage are more likely to thrive and continue generation after generation.

That's why famous people who make a big deal about not being married are, in fact, damaging everybody else's marriage.

That's why the adulteries of somebody like, say, Bill Clinton are not just a matter between him and Hillary. Clinton, and all who reacted as if his infidelities were nobody else's business, were seriously weakening the idea of marriage -- on which society absolutely depends.

What provoked this diatribe on the obvious? (Obvious, that is, to civilized people, and yes, I understand and mean the implications of that.)

My firstborn son was married this past weekend, in Seattle, to a wonderful young woman from North Carolina. They've entered into the family business. Or, rather, the business of family.

Naturally, like every other couple getting married, they have no idea what they're getting into.

And like all the married couples I know of who are actually trying to make it work, they'll find that sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's hard.

Bad things happen no matter how careful you are. Feelings get hurt. Dreams go unfulfilled. There's never enough of this, always too much of that. Children cause grief and dread; their suffering makes you suffer. People you love are inconsiderate enough to die when you don't want them to. You sometimes wonder what you're doing married to this person.

But there are good things, too, when both partners want to make the marriage work. Children cause far more joy than grief. At least, when loved ones die, you had someone worth loving in your life. If you learn to dream of better things, then your dreams come true after all. Forgiveness and repentance heal wounds.

And at the end of it all, you'll know what joy is, and what life means, that great circle of needing and giving, making and sharing.

At my son's wedding reception, the song he and his bride chose to dance to was "The Luckiest," from Ben Folds's Rockin' the Suburbs cd. I'd heard the album several times before, but never listened to the words, not till I saw them dancing on the first night of that public promise to each other. Beautiful song. Full of truth.

And I thought, No, I'm the luckiest. You two are too darn young to know what lucky is.

*

My parents wanted to come to the wedding, but flying is a pain these days, and since they live in Utah, it's not that big a deal to drive to Seattle.

However, they're not young anymore, and that much sitting and driving can be a strain. So I flew to Utah (I had business there anyway with the game company Glyphx) and drove up to Seattle with them.

On the way, we stayed a night in Richland, one of the tri-cities of southeastern Washington -- which also happened to be the town where I was born.

My family moved away from Richland before I was two months old. But my Uncle Sherm and Aunt Delpha had bought a farm in nearby Benton City, and we visited them many summers during my growing up years. So I knew the area.

What I didn't really know was what my family's life had been like there. As we approached, and during our stay there, my parents told stories. All of them were fascinating to me, but I can hardly expect them to be remotely interesting to you, so no, I'm not going to take you through the newspaper columnist's equivalent of slides of the family vacation.

But in their time in Richland, these Depression-raised, World-War-II veteran people were struggling to find work to support their growing family, sometimes doing outrageous things -- like moving into a cabin with no indoor toilet or tub!

And in the midst of all this struggling, my young mother suddenly found herself yearning to get other people to hear some of the songs her mother had written, with music arranged by my talented Uncle Gordon.

So Mom wrote a script that linked the songs together (and then got Grandma Parkee and Uncle Gordon to write a few new ones), and a woman in the church group directed the play.

My dad built and painted the scenery, and he still takes pride in the fact that it got applause. You see, in the first act, the set was a dilapidated house with a weedgrown yard and shabby fence. Then the curtain went down, and when, thirty seconds later, it came back up, the house and yard were completely transformed -- freshly painted, flowers instead of weeds.

This was a stage with no fly system or turntable. That thirty-second set change was done by making double-sided set pieces -- everything was simply picked up and turned around.

My first, utterly selfish thought was, Oh, so I wasn't the first in my family to write a hit musical. But despite my XXL ego, I didn't mind that a bit. It made me kind of proud to be following in the family tradition. And proud also that my mom loved her mother enough to go to all that trouble to get her songs before an audience, at least once.

Now, my grandmother was a published poet and columnist in her day, so it's not that she was lacking for public attention. But I know now, as a parent, what it meant to her that her daughter showed her such respect and went to such trouble. And what it meant to be part of an audience that enjoyed what she created.

When we left Richland, we stopped to see my aunt in Benton City, and those of my cousins who were at home, living in one of the other houses in the "family compound."

The active orchards and vineyards have long since been sold; my uncle, who moved his family to a farm, never made money at it -- but he raised wonderful sons and daughters who knew what it meant to work hard and feel the sun on their backs. Now they're all college-educated and many of them live in big cities, but they have small-town hearts, farmers' hearts, and that's a good thing in a country that barely knows what it's like to have the same neighbors for forty or fifty years.

That's what my son and his wife have just entered into: that great web of life, where parents make decisions that shape their children's lives. My wife and I decided to raise our children, not in the West, but in North Carolina. They would have been great kids wherever they grew up, but I think North Carolina was as good a place as any, and far better than some, and they've been happy here, and made good friends, and found love and joy along with sorrows, and now they're dispersing, one in Seattle, one in L.A., two in a little graveyard overlooking a lake in Utah, and one still at home with us, but all of them a part of every bit of joy in our lives.

And I realize that there is nothing in my life that would mean anything without my family.

That's why you get married. To forge those links, to earn that place of trust, to take those risks, to find that joy.


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