Last Saturday my husband and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. I was 20 years old on November 2, 1968; Wayne was 23. He had graduated from Princeton the spring before and was an Ensign in the Navy. I dropped out of college after my sophomore year.
This was the Vietnam era, and we carried with us some of the choices made by our parents during World War II. I spent most of the first year of our marriage completely alone in Japan and Guam, while Wayne floated around the Pacific. No communication was allowed between shore and ship.
It all seemed a good idea at the time, and we have been fortunate, growing in the same direction over time, blessed with two lovely daughters and careers that have been fulfilling.
It was not until we had those daughters that I was able to grasp the position into which we had placed our parents when we announced our engagement midway through my second year of college. I remain somewhat horrified that we didn’t ask. I’m not sure why, as we were both quite conservative and traditional.
I can only imagine my parents’ reaction when they received our letters. They were in California; I was in upstate New York. What they did was call me immediately to extend their blessing. I sometimes wonder what conversations took place between the two of them, confidentially.
Mom and Dad asked only two questions: Would we promise that I would finish college? Given that Wayne was Catholic and we were not, would they be able to take their grandchildren to church with them. The answers to both were affirmative. I graduated from the University of Arizona seven years later with a three-year old and an infant in tow.
Most of their lives we were members of a wonderful Methodist church in Washington, D.C., and everyone was welcome there. I suspect the “With Highest Distinction” designation on my college diploma was, partly, a result of the Life experiences I was able to bring to every classroom.
And yet, when our oldest daughter turned 20, I couldn’t imagine that she might be ready for marriage. I have wondered what my reaction would have been had they come to us with the same announcement we made to our parents 45 years ago. The three greatest lessons that I learned from my parents during that time and the years following were these:
First, to have fought our decision would only have distanced us and created a tension between parents and children. To have evidenced any disrespect for Wayne or his abilities as a future husband to care for me would have made me choose between them and him. Instead,they accepted him graciously into the family. They asked questions in ways that were thoughtful. When my answers indicated that I had considered the topics and had reasonable opinions, they moved on.
Second, while I was young, my character was pretty set and evident. I had never demonstrated poor judgment in terms of friends or my responsibilities. They knew Wayne to be equally committed to the values we shared in our family. My own education, both formal and informal, was peopled with teachers and mentors who made very sure I knew right from wrong. From a surprisingly young age, it appears I stood up for what was right and apparently did no let myself be influenced by much that was negative.
Finally, throughout our lives, our parents made very sure that my brothers and I learned how to take care of ourselves. From chore responsibilities within our home to various and extending ventures without, the message they always gave us was that they had faith in our ability to think critically and make responsible decisions. They were not inclined to bail us out when we made mistakes. They continued to support us, and they helped us learn from our occasional live-and-learn moments, but they did not swoop down and rescue us.
Would I recommend dropping out of college at the age of 20 to get married? Absolutely not. Sometimes I wonder why we didn’t wait a few years. But the choice wasn’t a bad one. It’s not the choice my parents made for themselves. It’s not one our daughters have made.
The fact is, however, that each of us must make our own decisions. The way I see it, our job, as parents, is to provide our children with all the tools necessary to think for themselves as they are children so that they make the right decisions and to remember that, just as we made decisions independent from our parents, so will they.
Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at www.laketahoeschool.org.