(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

A handsome young man gets on his knees on a beach towel, pulls his girlfriend close and points to the sky. Overhead, a plane tows a banner popping the Big Question. A contestant on a talent show is waiting to hear the judges’ comments when her boyfriend walks out, gets on his knees and opens a tiny box displaying a sparkling diamond. A sky diver screams “Will you marry me?” while free-falling to the earth with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, a friend with a cellphone camera records the proposal. Minutes later it is posted on every social media site. Within hours, it goes viral.

These over-the-top moments are romantic, but they hardly guarantee a happy marriage. For a marriage to last, I’ve found it’s the small private moments that matter the most: The conversations that take place behind closed doors. The honest sharing between partners. The trust that develops while washing the dishes, paying the bills and making a grocery list.

My husband and I have been happily married for 37 years. But it started off as unromantic as possible. If social media had existed, my proposal wouldn’t even have received a “like” from me.

It was 1978. “Star Wars” had yet to become a phenomenon. Big hair, disco balls and crockpots were all the rage. I fell desperately in love with a guy who played the guitar by night, worked in a silk-screen shop by day and had two small children.

I worked as a bookkeeper for the Grand Rapids Owls hockey team. During the week I paid the bills, answered the phone and balanced the bank accounts. On game nights, I worked in the box office.

So there I was, selling tickets, trying to learn the seating arrangements, fending off the excited groupies, making change, watching the line grow longer instead of shorter, when my future husband appeared at the window. My heart hammered excitedly as it always did when I saw him in those early days.

We’d been living together for a few months, and I was still getting used to the way he squeezed the toothpaste tube from the bottom, yet tossed his clothes on the floor. However, the way he said my name never failed to excite me.

When he smiled at me on the other side of the ticket booth, it wasn’t his normal, easygoing grin; I could tell he was hiding something. At the moment, I didn’t have time for guessing games. I had tickets to sell!

He kept grinning like a silly schoolboy. I grew annoyed, as he was keeping other customers waiting.

“Where do you want to sit?” I pressed.  “C’mon. Hurry up.”

“Let’s get married,” he said, leaning across the counter and taking my hand.

“What?” I felt the callus on his thumb rub against my finger.

“Marry me.”

There was no ring. No confession of undying love. No fireworks. Just a line of people wondering why he was taking so long to get his ticket.

Too stunned to speak, I stared at him.

“Next week,” he said. And then went on to explain it was a matter of practicality. He wanted visitation rights with his children, and our living together would not sit well during his custody hearing.

I didn’t know what to do. Do I say yes? Do I say no? Do I run from the window and vomit?

His words were matter of fact, but I knew they stemmed from the love he had for his children. He was a good father — the kind I wanted for my own children.

I eventually regained my composure and again asked him to choose a seat, sold him a ticket and watched him walk toward the stadium entrance. His shoulders slumped, head down.

I peeked out the sales booth window just as he turned around. We stared at each other for a brief moment — that look was my answer to him.

Two weeks later, we were married at the courthouse.

We didn’t have time for an elaborate “show and tell” event. And it didn’t matter.

What mattered was the feeling deep in my gut, telling me I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this man. Instead of planning how we would say our vows, we focused on what came after: building a life together. Raising a family and doing mundane things like filing a joint tax return, unloading the dishwasher, gathering clothes to take to the dry cleaner. And now, here we are, sliding easily into wrinkles and white hair.

Of course, no one is perfect. I’m constantly annoyed by my husband’s dirty handkerchief sitting on the headboard. We don’t like the same TV shows. He doesn’t like the way I fold his T-shirts.

But I love the way he laughs at my silliness. He loves the way I rub his feet. And I love that he likes my changing body.

If given the chance to replay that night at the ticket booth, I wouldn’t change a thing. A happy marriage doesn’t come from how you got together, but in how you grow together.



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