(Note: An abridged version of this essay was published by the Newport Daily News on June 13, 2020.)
Fifty years ago this weekend, my wife, Geri, and I were married on a sun-drenched day at the Catholic church at West Point, overlooking the picturesque Hudson River Valley.
Reaching such a milestone is at once quite celebratory and sobering; it is also a good occasion for reflection.
Sadly, that time, as today, was a period of great strife and turmoil in our country. The late 1960s were fraught with political and social unrest, spurred on by several movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, feminism, and the counter-culture. Six weeks before our wedding on June 14, 1970, Ohio national guardsmen shot and killed four college students and wounded nine others at Kent State University, during a protest against the recent U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. On May 15, state police shot into a dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two students and wounding 12 others.
Despite our progress in civil rights since that period, a resilient racism persists in America, and we have paid for it this past month. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, journalist William A. Galston stated: “I fear, as never before, for the future of my country.”
Living four blocks apart in the same hometown in New Jersey, Geri and I have known each other since the age of five. Marriage, unmarred by divorce, was the rule in both our extended families.
On my side, in addition to my own immediate family, I had the example of a total of 14 sets of aunts and uncles, with only two divorces. I learned that marriage was commitment.
With all these relatives, most living within a 30-minute drive, my immediate family of five shared Sundays, holidays, weddings, funerals, and other special events. They became important and reliable sources of happy times, dependability, and mutual support.
When the furnace died, Uncle Mike showed up. When godfather Uncle John could not make it, older Cousin George filled in as my sponsor at Confirmation. Uncle Frank showed up with his camera at special family events; he took my Confirmation picture. When the kitchen ceiling was in need of repair, Uncle Gus helped my father fix it. When my mother started to fail, her many sisters went to the local Shop-Rite for the groceries. I learned service to family and dependability. When in need, family shows up.
As early baby-boomers from middle class, suburban America, both raised in an American-Italian culture, Geri and I searched for mates in our college years. To me personally, it was another essential preparatory step—a rite of passage—to launch into true adulthood. We shared two presumptions: Our marriage would be a life-long commitment. Second, we would have several children early. Without children, we would not have a genuine “family.”
The young tend to define love as physical attraction and sexual passion, giddily wonderful and enthralling. It is this; however, whether in six months or in six years the passion eventually wanes. The honeymoon euphoria evolves into the unglamorous everyday—cutting the lawn, packing lunches, emptying the house gutters, completing the tax forms, changing the diapers, driving the kids to soccer practice. Over our 50 years, I have learned that love is also a decision—a decision which one makes often.
In its special report on marriage, “A Looser Knot,” the influential British magazine, The Economist, looked at marriage worldwide and made three major observations: Marriage decisions are increasingly made by the young people getting married, not their older relatives. Second, “marriage has changed from a rite of passage to a celebration of love and commitment—a sign that two people who already live together are ready to commit themselves further.” Third, there is a growing acceptance of divorce.
In his essay, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” (The Atlantic, March 2020) David Brooks explains that historically extended families were the rule—several generations living together. He argues that the nuclear family—two parents + children—flourished in America for only a short period of time, 1950-1965. The successful family of that period has been replaced “by the stressed family of every decade since.”
He states that the pressures on the family have been mostly cultural. The “self,” privacy, and autonomy have become more important than the family. The women’s movement has given women more freedoms and choices. Much more so today, marriage has come to be about individual fulfillment. In my case, my children and grandchildren came to be a part of my fulfillment rather than hindrances to it.
He ends his essay on a positive note, indicating that the stressed nuclear family is giving way to larger “chosen families” and “forged families,” composed of family and friends, these offering the same kinds of benefits the extended family once gave.
My immediate and extended families, coupled with my “forged family” of lifelong friends, have been sources of great happiness, comfort, security, and practical help, as they continue to be. During a downturn in my health years ago, my wife and family pulled me—at times dragged me—through it, sometimes making decisions for me when I could not make them myself. We all pulled each other through the passing of my son, Tom, last year. On a practical note, my twin grandsons, Anthony and Vincent just finished helping me with back-breaking yardwork.
On the level of American society, I believe the family—along with community—are the best “incubators” of good citizens, teaching important values needed not only for family but for citizenship: commitment to something larger than self, responsibility, rules and order, the limits of individual freedom, civility and manners, along with other important intangibles, such as faith and trust. They, rather than schools or government, are the best developers of character and the best inculcators of virtues, such as patience, civility, and empathy, sorely needed today.
Second, in his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan said: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” I wonder if our great challenge of anti-racism really begins at our family dinner tables.
Of course, I lament the negative trends for the American family I have witnessed in my lifetime: increased divorce rates and increased births to unwed mothers. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the U.S. fertility rate has dropped; last year it hit a record low of 1.7, well below the rate of 2.1 needed to sustain a population.
With all the restrictions and isolation forced upon us during the pandemic, I did observe some benefits. Instead of working out alone at the local fitness center, I frequently took walks with Geri. On our walks on Water Street here in Portsmouth, we encountered whole families walking and biking together, rather than the solitary walkers and bikers before the pandemic. On our walks we greeted more people unknown to us than ever before. My hard-working son-in-law, Marc, was able to spend quality time with his children, my grandchildren. Geri has finally begun to paint for pleasure with our granddaughter, Mary Jane. And after 20 years, without my wife begging me, I finally painted the cellar stairs.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.
Adamy, Janet. “U.S. Birthrates Fall to Record-Low Level.” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020.
Brooks, David. “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The Atlantic, March 2020, 55-69.
Galston, William A. “I’ve Never Been So Afraid for America.” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2020.
A Looser Knot. Special Report: Marriage. The Economist, November 25, 2017. 1-5.