They are lovers. On St. Valentine's Day, when carved hearts shape our boxes of chocolate and clue feelings that we lazily shape into squares and cubes the rest of the year, they are perennial romantics. I see them at the track where I run. They are sensible walkers. They keep to the outer lane, which for them is lovers' lane.
She is thin, her hair bobs as she walks in soft legerity and her face is femininely soft in its calm. He is angular. He has granite in his bearing. It is a moveable love feast when they take their laps, because what they exude is exquisite tenderness. Arm in arm, body to body, these are old lovers, not young ones: they look to be at least 80 years old.
I confess to a bias. Any couple married 25 years can be assured of applause from me. For 30 years--or 40 or 50--I give them standing ovations. They have conquered the momentary. They have oozed beyond the primordial. There is genealogy to their love: in the beginning was attraction, which fathered friendship, which fathered devotion, which fathered eros, which fathered fidelity.
I know that I sometimes read too much into the beauty of long marriages. Maybe it is time I stopped letting my switch be tripped by the aura of romance that engulfs couples like the one I see at the track. These are times, after all, when neo-pornography passes for music in songs like "Let's Get Physical" and hedging the marriage bet is shrewdly caught in the New Yorker cartoon with the young man leaning across the table and proposing to his girlfriend, "Will you be my first wife?"
If the times are passing me by, as are all those six-minutes-a-mile runners at the track, I take comfort in the archaeology of long marriages. Dig beneath the levels of rocktop, and the emotions that flowered in youth are perfectly preserved. The lovable that each saw in the other decades ago has not been crumbled by time. What lovers give to each other in the early years of their marriage become, as Eliot wrote in "Four Quartets," "the gifts reserved for age."
Successful long marriages are rare in America because we are trained to seek democratic individualism. The phrase "marriage partner" seems quaint to ears dinned by messages urging us to "do it your way." Young women are told that they betray feminism if they let themselves become dependent on a man; marriage, it seems, is an admission of dependency. To be a partner means you don't have what it takes to go it alone.
The word "lover" has been watered, too. It has come to mean the illicit, not the stable. Lovers have affairs, while married people have mortgages. Actually, lovers were once correctly seen as the dull ones. In "The Psychology of Marriage," Balzac wrote: "It is easier to be a lover than a husband for the simple reason that it is more difficult to be witty every day than to say pretty things from time to time."
Synchronicity--a man and woman marrying not merely to be together but to grow together--is the eventual achievement of a long marriage. For the newly married, the delusion of the institution is that everything ahead will be struggle-free, even though no one--not even while walking up the aisle to the wedding altar--disagrees intellectually with Jung's belief: "Seldom or never does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly and without crises. There is no birth of consciousness without pain.''
One of these years we ought to set aside a St. Valentine's Day for Old Marrieds. In the 1970s, we had plenty of couples of longevity who were known to be as in love after 40 years as 40 days: Will and Ariel Durant, Linus and Ava Pauling, Claude and Irene Pepper. Every community and neighborhood has couples like them.
If a problem remains, it is that Old Marrieds tend to use Old Phrases in explaining their happiness: We always talked out our troubles, we knew how to forgive, we never went to sleep mad.
Those are yawners when "How to Make Love to a Man" is on the best- seller list for 22 weeks, and Sally Field is telling us how macho a guy is Burt Reynolds. But if that's the choice, then I'm for some yawning.