Sure, it's easy enough to say, but keeping that vow can be a challenge. Find out how these couples made it work.
Dr. Barry and Marjorie Gerald
August 6, 1955
They were taking an astronomy class at Ole Miss, when Marjorie Gerald first noticed Barry as he worked a crossword puzzle behind his textbook. She whispered to a friend to find out his name, and was mortified when the friend asked him point-blank. Barry responded, "Who wants to know?" When the friend said, "She does," Marjorie wanted to crawl under the desk.
Dr. Barry Gerald tells the story with quiet relish and clear fondness for his wife, who adds that a year passed before they got together. "Barry was very shy and wasn't dating," says Marjorie. "I went to a party at his frat house and I guess I just dragged him out!" >>>
More than five decades and three children after their marriage — at a Methodist church in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her father officiated — the Geralds cherish each other's good qualities, accept the not-so-good, and still enjoy a surprise now and then. "Sometimes I don't know when to believe him," says Marjorie. "But, after 53 years, I'm finally learning when he's funning me."
During the early days, when Barry was in medical school and then starting his career — he's professor and chairman of radiology at UT Health Science Center — the couple moved from coast to coast, landing in Memphis in 1969. "Barry was gone so much. I often tell people the children were mine till they were 14," says Marjorie. "I wasn't good with adolescents, and he was able to be home more then." She recalls how he'd wisecrack with friends that he and his wife had an agreement: Whoever filed for divorce got the kids. "Neither of us dared to file," he laughs.
Indeed they laugh a lot, seldom argue, and each says the other's a good listener. "He has to be," quips Marjorie, "because I talk all the time." Her strong point, he says, is "being emotional, loving, and involved with me and the children." His strong point, says Marjorie, "is wisdom. If our kids want practical advice, they go to their father. But he won't give it unsolicited."[image-2]
They recall a time when one of their offspring got involved with someone they didn't trust. "Barry had the good sense to keep his mouth shut," says Marjorie. "I finally took the advice of a psychiatrist: If you leave them alone, it will go away. And it did."
She appreciates her husband's tenderness when she endures bouts of depression. "I've been hospitalized briefly twice," she says, "and I know that was hard on Barry. He told me, 'When you're not around I just crumble.' He says very sweet things. And he's funny and fun."
They both smile about her tendency to clutter, his to organize. When they redid their kitchen, Barry insisted on one thing: a small ledge where he could keep his keys and wallet. "He also wanted an end of the island, where he could have his coffee in the morning," says Marjorie. "Unfortunately he has to clear my clutter off of it."
One thing his wife does that "annoys the hell out of me," is point out food on his mouth or spots on his shirt while he's eating. "I don't do that much anymore," says Marjorie. "If he wants to go around like that, I just let him."
That humorous give-and-take is a bright, sturdy thread in the fabric of their marriage. "We like each other, we love each other, and we respect the other's wishes. And he's always encouraged my pursuits in the volunteer sector," says Marjorie, who directs Elmwood Cemetery's speakers' bureau and runs her own as well.
Although the Geralds believe common interests — in their case food, art, books, and travel — can help ground a relationship, they're no guarantee for happiness. Before a daughter was to be married, she asked her dad, "How do I know I'm doing the right thing?" Barry told her, "You don't. You just go from one day to the next and say, I believe I'll stay married today."
Looking back, Marjorie declares, "I don't think it ever occurred to me that Barry and I wouldn't last," and her husband interjects, "That's because someone — I think it was Ann Landers — said, 'Murder, yes. Divorce, never.'" He may joke, but on their 50th anniversary, he gave his wife something he couldn't afford before their wedding: an engagement ring presented on a martini pick.
"I figured by then," he says with a straight face, "we'd stay together."
— Marilyn Sadler[image-3]
Allen and Mary Portner
December 28, 1963
Allen Portner has an elementary — yet, somehow, profound — explanation for his 45 happy years of marriage to his wife, Mary. "We were friends before we were married," he says. "Your significant other has to be someone you want to hang around with."
Allen and Mary fell in love during their days as lab technicians at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. But a happy union was hardly a foregone conclusion, as Allen is Jewish, while Mary was raised in a Catholic family. Their commitment to one another, though, served to unite the in-laws, even when the newlyweds moved to Lawrence, Kansas, for the first five years of their marriage. To this day, Allen says a "healthy distance" from family can actually strengthen a marriage. "I couldn't go running home to Mom," adds Mary, "and he couldn't lean on his old friends."
In 1968 Allen accepted a job with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where he is now head of the virology division and the department of infectious disease, and the Portners moved to Memphis. Mary stayed home to help raise their two children before working several years in a physician's office, then becoming a travel agent in 1988. They lived more than 30 years in Bartlett before moving to East Memphis in 2007.
The Portners avoid conflict for the most part, a key to happiness in any partnership. And they've come to appreciate the harmony of their marriage as it contrasts with those of other couples, some of them dear friends. "We have friends that, when we go over to their house, we see them start to go at one another," says Allen. "It gets you tense. We disagree on things, but it never becomes personal."[image-4]
"You really have to be on the same page," emphasizes Mary. "How are you going to spend your money? How are you going to raise your children? You have to be basically heading in the right direction."
Mary pays tribute to their son and daughter for playing integral roles in this strong union. "We know how lucky we are, to have had such good kids," she says. "Children can put an extraordinary strain on a marriage. [Ours] made it easy."
No marital tribulation comes close to the agony the Portners were forced to endure when their 30-year-old daughter, Cynthia, died of cancer in 2000. They learned a critical lesson, having survived the greatest tragedy a parent can know: the problems couples deal with on a daily basis really aren't that big a deal. "You never really get over the loss of a child," explains Allen. "You simply adjust your life. Things get softer, but it never goes away. You can sink into huge lapses of depression, or you can get up and go on with your life."
"We really never had any of our family here [in Memphis]," adds Mary. "So all we had was each other."
"It was a strain," recalls Allen, "but never the kind that you thought might bust us up. We were an incredibly close-knit family with our children, and are to this day. We visit our son-in-law in San Antonio."
Working as long as he has at St. Jude, Allen has seen the loss of a child disrupt marriages. "Marriages that break up after tragedies," he says, "tend to have underlying problems, and the tragedy just tips the scale. We didn't have those kinds of problems."
The Portners share a healthy mix of faith, with Mary attending a Catholic church regularly, while Allen attends a synagogue (not quite as regularly, he admits). Allen chuckles in explaining how he'll attend church with Mary for the "big days." ("I like to tell people I'm there to save her," he says.) Mary has overcome much of the anger she felt toward God after Cynthia's death, but emphasizes it was the strength of her marriage that kept her upright, not a higher power.
Over the course of 45 years, there has to be a surprise or two between two human beings, no matter how close they grow, no matter how their values and ambitions may converge. When pressed, Allen acknowledges he couldn't have foreseen "how easy she is to live with." If Allen is a classic "Type A" personality, Mary describes herself as a balancing "Type Z."
"She's my check and balance," confesses Allen. "I've often said, 'I couldn't survive without my wife.' She really makes my life work."
Percy and Mikii Hooper
August 18, 1956
He met her in high school and knew she was the one. But the petite heartbreaker was already engaged. Pretty and popular, she'd tell her many friends, "I'm not all that interested in getting married, but it keeps the other boys off my back."
Percy Hooper persevered, writing young Mikii letters after he joined the Air Force. "I'd get one nearly every mail call," he boasts.
"But see," she's quick to add, "he'd write a letter every day, and I'd sit down on Sunday and write four or five. Then I'd mail them one at a time." Was she in love with this smitten suitor? "I was in love with me," she says.
Still, it was hard not to care for such a devoted guy. "He was the only man I ever heard of who started a hope chest," she smiles, as Percy displays pieces of bone china he collected while stationed in England. "He was really serious and so protective." That meant a lot to a girl who had been abused as a child. The real clincher, she says, was when he told her that if she married someone who didn't treat her right, he'd be back to get her. Two years after he first tried to court her, they had a church wedding in their hometown of Detroit. Mikii was late getting to the altar, as she drove around the neighborhood, waving to friends.[image-6]
The first bumps in the road were family conflicts. "I was an only child and a ghetto princess," explains Mikii, whose relatives didn't think Percy was good enough for her. An aunt who raised her after her mother died made a snide comment about a coat Percy had given Mikii. She tried to insist on buying the girl another one. Mikii nixed that notion: "I'm going to wear what we can afford."
Percy's folks made it hard on the couple too. "They'd call the house and when she'd answer, they'd just ask for me," he recalls. "So I told them, 'Hey, when you call this house, you want to show my wife respect, you want to ask how she feels, or you will not get to talk to me."
Despite those tensions and tight money times — Percy worked in his father's body shop and Mikii for Michigan Bell phone company — the Hoopers had plenty of fun. "She'd forget she was married," Percy laughs. "She'd be primping and I'd say, where you going?" She'd tell him, "Silly question, to a party." And he wound up chauffeuring her and her girlfriends. "I loved to dance and he couldn't," says Mikii. "Well, he could do the cha-cha and the bump — knocking people all over the floor."
The ensuing years brought them a daughter, now 50, a grandchild, a move from Detroit to Arkansas — they've lived in West Memphis since 1986 — and greater depths of love. "I was happier on our 25th wedding anniversary than on the day we got married," says Mikii. "That's when I found out it was so solid."
Time also brought cancer, which Percy has whipped four times, as well as chronic pain and illness they've both learned to deal with. When they shop, says Mikii, "he always rides a little cart and sometimes I need one too, and we'll be racing down those aisles."
Now and then they argue about minor things, but they know what jewels they have in each other. Retired from the West Memphis Police Department, Percy recalls how she'd never go to sleep till he was home. Mikii, retired from AT&T, credits him for "never being frightened" by her interest in writing poetry and fiction. They both love all kinds of music, and are currently helping a young woman market a movie she made in Memphis. "It's always an adventure," says Mikii. "I have a lot of wild ideas and I'll say, 'We ought to try this.' He's supportive."
His tip for a happy marriage? "Don't bring your troubles home." Hers? "Marry someone who adores you."
As they grow older, Mikii appreciates her husband more. "As much as I write, there are no words to adequately describe the glue that holds us together." Part of it, she thinks, is a bit of mystery. "He's always been sure of who he is," she explains. "But any day he wakes up, he doesn't know which woman I'm going to be. And I can't even imagine my life without him." M
— Marilyn Sadler