[This article recently appeared in The New Paltz Times, The Woodstock Times, and The Poughkeepsie Times. Courtesy of Ulster Publishing.]
It’s 1962. My brother, Bill, is 19 and his new girlfriend, Cheryl, is just 17. They decided to go for a drive in his new yellow Opel with the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. They headed north from New York City towards New Paltz to take a hike in the Mohonk Preserve in the Shawngunk Mountains, a glacial ridge of sacred beauty filled with trails, wildlife and rock scrambles. Nestled in one corner of the mountains is a dirt path that leads up to the Mountain House, a historic hotel overlooking the Catskill Mountains. Behind it is a quarry lake so deep, the water so black, I imagine it as a nesting place for wishes, a portal to possibility, destiny, even magic, a holding space for lovers’ memories.
It was their first summer together and she can recall parking the car in a small lot and heading up a winding path toward the hotel. Sometimes they walked tandem over a narrow precipice, sometimes together holding hands.
At one point along the trail, Bill took out a pocket knife and carefully etched a heart with his and her initials into a tree.
Did he know then? Did she? That he wasn’t just another boyfriend, that she wasn’t another girlfriend? That it was a life-long love and could be engraved into an oak trunk that would bear witness to that walk and to those feelings for a hundred years?
It’s 1965, the year Cheryl and Bill were engaged. Right before he proposed, he sat down with our mother, who looked at him with uncharacteristic seriousness and asked him, “Are you sure?” And he said with uncharacteristic certitude, “Yes.”
It’s 2012 and Bill died three years ago. This week I went to find that tree and the hand-carved note he wrote into his future.
He and Cheryl were together for 47 years.
On The Trail of a Tree
Initials. How many initials carved into trees are a testament to too little judgment and too much moonshine? How many are a testament to loves lost and hearts still aching? How many are able to draw us a picture of two people on a trail, walking a little slower, perhaps, but still holding hands?
We used to see more of those hearts and letters years back. They used to be on trees or on park benches, occasionally you could see one on a bus, carved into a seat or scrawled onto an ad. Over time, instead of carvings, we saw spray paint splattered onto rocks and concrete bridges: “CS and CJ,” “I love Lane,” “Joey loves Marcy.”
Now, we see them rarely in any form. Instead of initials, you see graffiti celebrating the self or splattering rage. But it seems that fewer and fewer people are willing to make even the temporary commitment to paint. Carving initials into a tree that can last longer than we’d live? Never.
I asked Cheryl if she knew he was the one when she met him. “It wasn’t for me, but it was for him,” she laughed. “He talked about marriage from the beginning. He was open, honest. He poured out his whole life on our first date.”
And that communication proved to be the bedrock for the duration. “I could talk to him about anything. And there was nothing he wouldn’t do for me. I remember one time, it was snowing and he couldn’t drive to see me. But he was determined. So he started walking from Yonkers. He called when he reached the Whitestone Bridge to Queens. He walked miles in the snow. My mother had to tell him to go home, not to dare cross the bridge in a storm.”
Is that sort of love predictable? Chemical? Repeatable? Is it even noticeable? Can we tell the difference between lasting love and young lust? Is it a choice, a learned capacity, or a gift?
Schipani interviewed dozens of couples for an online article in The Ladies’ Home Journal (http://www.lhj.com/relationships/marriage/basics/long-lasting-love/). They were all married more than 20 years and reported themselves to be happy.
How did they do that? Each one had a different story. For Margaret C. it was about being satisfied with what was offered. For Russell S. a happy marriage was acceptance.
Cheryl thinks it may be generational. “A lot of the couples we grew up with are still married, but sometimes that meant keeping their heads in the sand. Our generation overlooked more than yours does. Yours says, ‘I’m outa here.’ And the women now, they have the jobs, the means to leave. It’s easier today. When it’s not that easy, you find ways to work it out. You make a conscious choice to not let a moment, a resentment, a fear take over the whole marriage.”
From Ladies’ Home Journal:
“If he helps around the house — washes the dishes, cooks, vacuums — and it’s not quite up to your standards, don’t complain. Be happy he is making an effort to help.” –Margaret C., married 45 years
“Accept that you can’t change someone. You have to learn to live with whatever annoys you, and remember that you have as many faults as your spouse does.”–Russell S., married 40 years
“When she gets mad, I just shut up, and she gets tired of talking. After a while, it’s over. In all our years being together, we have never had an argument!” –James P., married 56 years
But all of these comments, while making good sense, are retrospections not prescriptions. They are simple observations on what they have done over the years, not recipes. And they certainly don’t tell us how to know beforehand, if in fact there is a way to know. Although Bill showed little hesitation when he picked up his knife and started carving.
Love Lost in the USA: Can Science Find It?
Currently the divorce rate is one in two, maybe higher in some regions of the country. It is so common, our culture so saturated with scandal and heartbreak, the statistic barely raises an eyebrow—even in more traditional and conservative circles.
One friend told us that he’d thought about getting married again but then he rethought it because he found out there was a fifty-fifty chance it might last. He is far from alone. Americans seem to have an issue with intimacy.
What raises eyebrows is longevity, love that does last, initials carved into a tree fifty years ago that could still be carved into a tree today.
While married couples tell only of their own experience, the “experts” talk about marriage and love as if either one were in fact a science, as if there were some way to predict, control, or warranty the outcome. On website after website, in book after book, they tell us what to do and what to look for.
The authors of Lasting Love: The 5 Secrets of Growing a Vital, Conscious Relationship, wrote:
“If you want a close vibrant love relationship, you need to become a master of commitment.” I could scarcely believe that a whole book had been dedicated to something so basic. Even though I had to grant that sometimes wisdom is a firm grasp of the obvious and there are clearly people who think they can have a good marriage without actually acting married or doing what it is that marriage requires, to me, it was like saying if you want to get wet, get water. Have we gotten to the point where we need that sort of elementary guidance?
Perhaps so. Scientific American Mind ran an article entitled “The Happy Couple.” In it, the author, Pileggi, states that how your mate responds to good news is as important, if not more important, than how well they support you when times are difficult. “In the past few years positive psychology researchers have discovered that thriving couples accentuate the positive in life more than those who stay together unhappily or split do. They not only cope well during hardship but also celebrate the happy moments and work to build more bright points into their lives.”
So people who have a good time together and have a good time having a good time stay together? Stunning.
One writer, Dee Anne Merriman, chose seven match areas to consider: Physical appearance, emotional maturity, lifestyle choices, financial style, value structure, marriage and sex, and intelligence. All of these make fine sense until you begin to notice the inherent problems: They are all presented as if, one, there were actually a sure-fire way to gauge or assess those match-areas, two, a way to centrifuge and separate a person as if he or she were a blood sample, and, three, even an idea of how to line those areas up between two complex beings to produce the perfect relationship.
I began to consider the possibility that this sort of pseudo-empiricism is part of the reason people experience such frustration with love and keep vainly trying to find the “perfect” match; Perhaps their confusion and resignation is due to the fact that they are told by the experts that if only they follow these simple steps, this or that proprietary program, everlasting happiness will be theirs. Of course, it rarely is.
The more I researched, the more I perused the so-called science of love, the more I was left wondering if it can ever be so well-planned or so conscious. I know I made my own “list” before I met my husband and, still, with as much “expertise” up my sleeve as anyone, my marriage certainly surprised me. It surprises me every day with its goodness, its fortitude, and the love that carries us forward—to no credit of my own, I am sure of that.
Did Cheryl and Bill ever think about things like that before they got married—match areas, accentuating the positive, lifestyles?
“We talked about goals—children, those things—but not like people do now. We were also very different. I was responsible and more grounded. Bill was…adventurous, impulsive. I was more restrained. He was an open book. I planned. He flew.”
And they were very different for as long as they were together. So are many of the people I know in long-term relationships or marriages. And not just superficially different—fundamentally so. Their marriages stand as a counterpoint to everything we are being told about how to find true love.
There is a debate deep at the heart of all this: Is love, in fact, a matter of the heart or the brain? Some would say it “depends” on what you mean by love. But I think for anyone who has actually loved another—whether that’s a child or a partner, a friend or a pet—there are no “depends.” While there is an element to it that is ineffable, inexplicable, eternal, when you feel it, there is simply no question as to its truth or meaning. It’s as solid as oak.
So that over the years as you move together through the first flush of Eros into friendship and familiarity, surf mighty high waves of irritation and frustration, it does not crash onto shore or ebb with the tide. It stays still. It digs in roots and holds strong.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “This is one of the miracles of love: It gives a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.”
I would think of love as Lewis did, then: As a miracle, as an expression of something both lusciously earthy and other-worldly, as a glimpse at the promised Horizon through a field of waving tall grasses while tasting the juice of a single blade as you hold it in your teeth, as a Heavenly two-step, a delight of the Divine. It is not empirical. How can it be when it is a heart carved into a tree and a love that still stands, long after the tree itself has returned to the forest?
We started out on the trail full of childish hope: Maybe, just maybe there would be a trail of crumbs, a sign, something that would lead us to the tree in a mountainside full of trees. We walked for hours.
It took little time until we noticed that most of the growth along the trail was quite young, from saplings to trees perhaps a foot in diameter. The older trees were set far back or lying in enormous pieces on the ground.
Fifty years. The one they carved would have to be closer to 70 or 80 years old. A tree would grow and see quite a bit in that time—flooding rains, ice storms, winds, drought. The odds of us finding Bill and Cheryl’s tree looked worse as time went on.
Then we saw a tree that finally made me accept the fact that we’d be leaving there without the photo we wanted. On a relatively young beech were two sets of names. It was the only tree we found with anything carved on it at all. The interesting thing was that the letters had been growing with the tree and were starting to widen and callous, looking in some parts indistinguishable from the bark. The names were becoming the tree. The tree had made them part of itself.
As we left, I found a poetic justice in that. They, their young affection, that day, that moment, had become part of that whole forest.
Thinking of that tree, of those two kids climbing a mountain and opening their hearts for all the world to see, of the future that would bring both drought and abundance, of children and business, of their last years together and their utter devotion, presenting love as a science reveals at best a profound lack of imagination and, if true, would leave most of us without much hope. I have never seen a list work.
So, as I often do for my articles, I asked my husband what he thought of this whole journey, the initials, whether there is a way to know, whether love can last anymore without people going to experts for answers or techniques. And, in his usual Montanan manner, to respond to the question, he took me out to our backyard and carved our initials into a tree.