Modern Love Podcast: Why Do People Get Married?

Modern Love Podcast: Why Do People Get Married?

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dan jones

Hi, I’m Dan Jones.

miya lee

And I’m Miya, and we are the editors of Modern Love at The New York Times.

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Love now and always.

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Did you fall in love last time?

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Just tell her I love her.

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Love is stronger than anything you can think of.

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Because you’ll never love anyone but yourself.

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For the love.

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And I love you more.

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(SINGING) What is love?

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Here’s to love.

dan jones

Welcome back for a new season of the Modern Love podcast.

miya lee

In Modern Love, we publish essays every week that explore the complicated love lives and relationships of real people. And on this podcast, we’ll bring you the best of those stories.

dan jones

The essay we’re bringing you today is called “Trying to Keep Up with Grandma’s Love Life.”

miya lee

An inspiring essay, I think. It’s mostly about how to live your life and how to love without fear of social expectations or judgment.

dan jones

Yeah, what I was struck by in this essay is how we often — young people especially — say they try to avoid what their parents and grandparents have done in relationships. And in this case, it’s like the opposite.

miya lee

I think it’s kind of subversive.

dan jones

It’s true. It’s written by Jake Maynard and read by MacLeod Andrews.

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macleod andrews

Three years ago, my mother sent me a text that read: “Grandma Gurt, 3, Jake, 0.” The joke was that her 80-year-old mother, Gert, was getting married for a third time, while I, at 28, was still single.

But the twist, which might be too strange to even joke about, was that Gert’s soon to be husband was her former brother-in-law, Bill.

Uncle Bill had been married to Gert’s sister. He was also heading into his third marriage at 79. The previous spouses had died, three from cancer and one from a heart attack.

My family has always been thick and messy, spread like soft cheese across two counties in the most rural part of Pennsylvania. And more and more, our family tree was beginning to seem a little Faulknerian.

Not long ago, when Gert’s minivan pulled into my parents’ driveway with Uncle Bill at the wheel, my mother was blessedly ignorant. “Isn’t that nice?” she said. “Bill has been driving my mother around all winter.”

The news of their courtship dropped a few weeks later when the two were spotted walking down Main Street, holding hands. The engagement came soon after that. The wedding was planned for June. I didn’t know how to respond to my mother’s text. Was she disturbed that her mother was marrying her uncle? I considered telling her that at their age, the relationship was probably more akin to roommates than romantic partners. But that’s not what I said because what I actually say to my mother and what I should say to my mother are rarely the same. Plus, she started it with that snarky text.

So I replied with some snark of my own. “You think it’s because she’s knocked up?”

[music]

My grandmother and Bill married that June under a white tent that hosted the reception, too. It was a thoroughly country affair with food fit for a Methodist potluck. Gert wore a pale blue silk dress, and Bill wore matching bow tie. The day was sticky hot, and the crowd was edgy, ready to spring into action if one of the newlyweds went down in the heat.

During the ceremony, I bounced one of my nieces on my knee. My girlfriend, Annie, bounced the other. We had been together seven years and were 28. While I called Annie my girlfriend, she called me her partner, which represented the trouble between us.

To my family, it was strange that Annie and I weren’t married and almost as strange that we didn’t have children. My grandmother started having children as a teenager. So did my sister and many of our cousins. Most of my mother’s siblings were grandparents by 45, if not sooner. While Annie and I were very much behind schedule, everyone seemed optimistic.

Annie was smart and great with children. She had grown up on a farm and played the fiddle, an idealized country girl who could keep me in line. If my family thought Annie and I were odd for being unmarried and childless at 28, my friends in Morgantown, West Virginia thought the opposite — that we were odd for even being in a long-term relationship at all. In my graduate student circles, few people were coupled up. And even fewer had been together as long as Annie and I had.

Out at bars, I’d listen as my friends laughed about Tinder or swapped stories about blurry hookups. Annie and I recently had used Google Calendar to schedule times to have sex. The idea of marriage was embarrassing, but it wasn’t that I wanted to be single and free. I just wanted to appear that way. I didn’t want to seem hickish, prudish and tied down, the traits I saw in many members of my family. Getting away from home had meant getting away from living like I was at home. But still, I spent my 20s coupled up. You can’t take the country out of the boy, I guess.

Holding each other’s liver spotted hands, Gert and Bill said “I do” in a way that didn’t seem even a little mechanical. The pastor said, “While we take the photos, I’ll let you sort out what to call each other.” The attendees laughed. But after the joke faded, I noticed my mother looking around thoughtfully. She was working to understand the new backstitch in the family thread.

The most awkward part of a wedding is usually the intersection of two families. That feeling should have been largely absent from Gert and Bill’s. But for me, another neurosis replaced it. Everybody in my hometown suddenly felt related, tangled vines of my kin ensnaring the landscape, squeezing until the hills rose up higher, so high you couldn’t see out.

It’s limiting in a place like that, where “Who are you?” and “Who is your family?” are the same question. In a way, it it feels a lot like being partnered at a young age. It’s hard to be yourself. And this was a lesson I was just beginning to learn. Annie and I spent so much time together that I didn’t know quite who I was without her. My life had been our life. Meeting new people in graduate school, I would hear myself beginning sentences with “we,” instead of “I.”

“Who is we?” people would say. Who, indeed.

For their first dance, Gert and Bill did a polka. While they bounced unsteady and arthritic, Annie wept small tears. My sister was tipsy from the airplane bottles of liquor she had brought in her purse. She said, do you see the way he looks at her, just like he’s always going to take care of her? There was something about the idea that irked me. Is this why people get married? To have someone to take care of them? I wondered if some people just couldn’t be alone, not realizing that I was the hypothetical person in my mind.

Two years after Gert and Bill’s wedding, Annie and I split up. Our relationship steadily degraded despite our efforts to salvage it. There are many reasons why we split, but I won’t bore you with the details. Post-Annie, my life felt surprisingly terrifying and vast. Alone for the first time in my adult life, I struggled. My credit was bad. And certain maddening bureaucracies — the cable bill, the car inspection, the groceries — had been entirely Annie’s responsibility. If I sound pathetic, I was.

The work of living had always been divided between Annie and me. After the love ended and we stopped even liking each other that much, we cared for each other. We took care of things for each other. Caring had filled the spaces where romantic love had been. But it wasn’t enough. It made me think of my sister’s comment at the wedding. So I went to visit my grandmother and Bill. They had decided to start fresh, selling their houses and buying one together. It piqued my interest. If they could start over at 80, why couldn’t I at 30?

They seemed warm, if a little nervous, to entertain me for an afternoon, as if they were still learning their relationship dynamics around houseguests. On the living room wall hung photos of their first and second marriages. It made me wonder if there were earlier photos of them together, back when Bill was married to Gert’s sister. It made me wonder if there had been attraction between them then or any inkling that life is long and impossible to predict.

In the basement, Bill showed me his man cave filled with camouflaged furniture, ceramic lamps made to resemble leaping deer and a case full of rifles passed through his family and my own. In the craft room, Gert had a card table covered in family documents and photographs. She was compiling ephemera from our family and Bill’s into a huge book, interweaving the two families’ histories in the way that their marriage interwove the present.

Bill was as excited about the scrapbook as Gert was. He showed me a picture of my grandfather I had never seen, looking wry and ironic, sitting on a donkey.

“Your grandfather, he was a real hell of a guy,” Bill said. My grandmother ran her hand across Bill’s back. It wasn’t a gesture of comfort. There was something romantic about it. It was the way Annie had touched me for years after we met, and then not again for years afterward.

It occurred to me how exciting it must have been for Gert to feel those electric pangs of love again. And that moment, I saw my grandmother and Bill not as old people seeking each other’s comfort, or as old people at all, really. I saw them as newlyweds, lovestruck and hopeful. I thought about how they both had lost love not just once, but twice before. And at 80 years old, they were trying again. They entered into this new love, knowing they would lose it once more.

And all at once, they seemed brave.

dan jones

Jake Maynard is a writer and professor living in State College, Pennsylvania.

After the break, Jake calls up Gert and Bill.

gert

Hello, Jake.

jake maynard

Hey, Gram, how are you doing?

gert

Pretty good. How are you doing?

jake maynard

I’m doing good. Can you hear me?

gert

I can.

jake maynard

Excellent, and is Bill there with us, too?

bill

I’m here, Jake.

jake maynard

Oh, hey, Bill. There you are. Gram, I couldn’t figure it out. How long has it been since we’ve seen each other in person?

gert

Oh my gosh, Jake. I don’t know. Have you been here since we made [INAUDIBLE]?

jake maynard

I think I came once since we made [INAUDIBLE]. And I think at that point, you were just kind of getting started on the scrapbook. I wanted to ask how that was coming.

gert

Well, it’s coming. It’s growing. I don’t think it’s ever going to end. [LAUGHS]

jake maynard

Well, that’s good, I guess. I keep thinking about what it was like for you all to stay home together for the past year.

gert

Well, you know what a family we have. He has a family with five children. My second marriage, I have three stepchildren. So there’s a lot of catching up always to do.

bill

Naturally, with this family here, I’m busy.

jake maynard

Yeah, we do keep you busy, don’t we, Bill?

bill

Still trying to remember names, Jake.

jake maynard

[LAUGHS] So when you two started dating, I only heard little snippets of it. So I want to hear the full story about how you two actually started dating.

gert

OK, I had been a widow for five years. Bill had been widowed —

bill

Four months.

gert

Four months?

bill

Well, before we got together.

gert

Oh, OK.

bill

Yeah, my second wife passed away. And I knew that Gert was — she had lost her second husband. I knew she was alone. And I’m going to get a hold of her and see if she’d like to maybe just go out with me to things. And everything was going good. And well, maybe I think I’d better ask her if she wants to get married, which I did. And I know she thought about it a little bit.

gert

A little bit.

jake maynard

Wait, wait, wait, Gram, how long did you think about it?

gert

Several months.

bill

Yeah.

gert

Several months. I just —

jake maynard

So why did you think about it for so long?

gert

Well, just because it was another big change. And I had been through quite a few different changes. I was content where I was, how my life was going.

jake maynard

What is it that kind of made you decide to say yes?

gert

Well, we were going out probably once a week. And then he’d show up in between a week. And then we’d go out on the weekend. And he’d show up again in the middle of the week, yeah. It was nice to have somebody special. I had been asked by three different men in town to date.

And I was not interested. And the one in particular, I thought, oh my word, never ever in my born day.

jake maynard

Wait, three other men asked you to get married?

gert

No, no, they asked me to date.

jake maynard

Wow, I didn’t realize —

yeah, I didn’t realize that you were such a hot commodity.

gert

You’re stammering.

I guess, maybe probably women feel this way more than others. Oh, what’s that woman thinking of getting married three times? Does she have to have a man? Have you ever heard that?

jake maynard

Yeah.

bill

Can I say something here?

gert

Yeah.

bill

To me, there’s a major — I mean major difference when there’s a loss of a mate through death and the loss of a mate through a divorce.

gert

I’ve always thought that, too.

bill

When there’s a death, you have to come to the realization that that individual that you’re in love with is gone. They’re no longer here, and you have a life to continue with.

jake maynard

So that actually brings me to a question I really — that I’ve been thinking about a lot that I wish I had asked you when I wrote the essay. I want to know from each of you, how did it feel to be in love again?

gert

I think your first love is always giddy and can’t wait to see that person. And you have high expectations, not that that doesn’t lead to a more toned down love. I think married love in a nutshell is being happy, supportive, just pleasing each other.

bill

Of course, I have known your grandma for it seems like forever, being in the family before. And I always admired her. So I’m happy to be in this marriage. I’m very happy. That’s all. That’s the best I can describe it. I know I want to spend at least another 100 years with her.

jake maynard

Wow. Well. And so, Gram, I want to ask you, what does he do to make you happy?

gert

Just about everything, Jake. Just about everything. He gets up before I do in the morning. He gets the coffee pot ready. I have a kink in my back — permanent. He heats up the heating pad for me and brings it to my chair. Now that is being pampered.

I like it. Sometimes I say, you don’t have to do that. And he says, I know I don’t have to do that. I want to do that. What?

bill

Well —

gert

You’re poking me.

bill

No, I’m just assuring you go ahead.

When I see her get out of bed in the morning and I know what she’s going through with her back and her legs, I can’t do enough for her to make her comfortable or try to make her comfortable. I don’t even have second thoughts about not wanting to do it. That’s just something I’ll do.

gert

He’s just an all around nice, loving, considerate man.

jake maynard

Do you two feel — do you feel lucky to have found each other?

gert

Do you feel lucky that you have me and I have you?

bill

Yes. I do.

gert

Yeah, we do.

bill

I got a sign that I picked up that put over the dresser in the bedroom. I have to mention this.

gert

Oh, don’t say it.

bill

It says, “Good night begins with a kiss.” And that was the advice that I’d give to anybody that’s married. Make sure you kiss your wife before you go to sleep, whether you’re mad or not.

jake maynard

That is good advice. Well, I will let you all get on with your day.

gert

OK, thanks.

jake maynard

I’ll make sure to plan a time to come see you all.

gert

Give us a call and make sure we’re here.

jake maynard

All right. Bye, Gram. Bye, Bill.

gert

Love you.

bill

Take care.

jake maynard

Love you. Bye.

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miya lee

Jake is in a new serious relationship. And he says it’s going well. Many thanks to him, Gert Coder and Bill Heatherdale for their lovely conversation.

dan jones

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Hans Buetow and edited by Wendy Dorr, music by Dan Powell. This week’s essay was written by Jake Maynard and read by MacLeod Andrews.

Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick and Choire Sicha. And also to Ryan Wegner at Audm. I’m Dan Jones.

miya lee

And I’m Miya Lee. We’ll be back next week with more stories for Modern Love.

dan jones

Thanks for listening.

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