He noticed her right away. Dainty and demure, she was as fine as the filigree she fashioned each day for a large jewelry maker in San Francisco. He was just an apprentice, hired on for 69 1/2 cents per hour to learn the art of engraving. The war over, Stan Warner was 22, ready and eager to make a living.
But no matter how serious he was about his work, he couldn't help but be distracted -- even though "she" worked all the way across the building.
He finally wrangled an introduction from a coworker, then asked Helen if she planned to go to the company Christmas party. She did. "Good. We'll dance together," Stan promised.
Dancing at the Christmas party, he asked her out for New Year's Eve. She didn't hesitate.
They feasted on seafood at Bernstein's, then strolled down Market Street, tossing confetti with the crowd. On impulse, they caught a streetcar to the beach and found an abandoned, still crackling bonfire made from railroad ties.
In the rosy glow, Stan and Helen warmed their hands and made small talk. Finally, in the earliest hours of '46, he took her home -- again by streetcar -- to her parent's flat across from Golden Gate Park.
Ten days later he asked her to marry him.
Oh, in the meantime he had done a little work behind the scenes. He had persuaded her supervisor to move Helen's desk from one end of the building to his own, even placing her workbench next to his. And he'd bought her a ring and worked up his nerve to pop the question.
They were standing in the pouring rain at the corner of Fillmore and Polk, waiting for their respective streetcars when he asked, "Will you marry me?" She gave a little scream and put her hands over her face.
"She didn't say yes, and she
didn't say no, but she did accept the ring," Stan remembers. "She put it on her right hand, though."
Eleven days later as they shared their brown bag lunches at a nearby park, Stan noticed Helen had switched the ring to her left hand.
"Does that mean what I think it means?" he asked.
The answer was yes; the question was when.
"When's your birthday?" Helen asked.
"Let's do it then.
That year April 18 fell on Maundy Thursday. It took some searching, but they found a Lutheran minister who agreed to perform the ceremony.
The major difficulty was Helen's mother, who balked at her daughter's marriage. On April 17, she invited Stan to dinner. He found Helen with red and swollen eyes, dutifully sewing the last stitches of their wedding quilt. Helen's mother's arms were crossed stubbornly. The tension within was thick as the fog without.
"What's wrong?" Stan asked.
Helen's mother shoved a box of papers toward Stan. They were adoption papers -- for a child with no legitimate heritage -- his future bride.
"Now what do you think?" Helen's mother said triumphantly. Surely no one would want to marry her daughter now.
"To tell you the truth, ma'am, I'm relieved. Relieved she's not really related to you!"
Even now, Stan's eyes twinkle when he pulls the punchline. But Helen's eyes could light up the room. According to her, until that point her agreement to marry Stan had been an act of faith. Stan had yet to prove himself. But in that moment, he became her Knight in Shining Armor.
Until that day, Helen had never known she was adopted. The cultural milieu, along with the punishing manner in which her mother told her, made Helen feel unworthy of love at all. Stan's unconditional acceptance, at a moment when Helen could barely accept herself, would become the cornerstone of a marriage built to last.
It was a small wedding, with big results. Not only did it mark the beginning of a new marriage, it also revived a marriage which had died ten years before. Stan's parents, divorced for a decade, renewed their relationship at their son's wedding, remarried, and spent their remaining twenty years together. Surely God was smiling on a very special event when Helen and Stan took their vows.
After a ten day honeymoon a couple hours down the coast in Monterey, Stan and Helen returned to find a place of their own. Their first "home" was a furnished 3rd story room with kitchen and bathroom privileges. Their rent was $5 per week. They didn't own a car, a television, a typewriter, nor a stick of furniture. But they felt rich having found each other.
"I wasn't worried," Helen says now as she smooths her skirt, "We just took it one step at a time."
One step at a time they've walked through life together -- for fifty-two years.
I fell in love with Stan and Helen's story, and I was surprised. Because although I had known them for many years, I hadn't really known them. Maybe never would have if The Plain Truth hadn't issued me a challenge: "Find the secrets of successful marriages to share with our readers. Ask couples married fifty years or more."
Right away, I knew my editors were onto something. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? I wondered. Suddenly all those marriage manuals written by my fellow Baby Boomers seemed to come up short. Why had we never asked the real experts?
The experts weren't too hard to find. Nowadays in local papers, fifty year anniversary announcements are a regular feature -- some weeks outnumbering weddings.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Before the end of the war produced the Baby Boom, there must have been a marriage boom. The only reason we haven't
noticed is because as usual the spotlight is on us Boomers -- now beginning our round of fiftieth birthdays -- rather than on the generation that thrust us on the stage.
Somehow always relegated to the background, these were couples whose marriages survived the turmoil of the '60s (when "experts" were saying that marriage was a dying institution), and the resulting fallout of their children "doing their own thing" (including drugs, divorce, and suicide). In the case of David and Susan Younan, a marriage built on the Lord's foundation in a predominantly Muslim country had withstood tremendous trials and now gleamed bright as burnished gold.
All could well be called Survivors.
Still, that term doesn't do justice to the vision of harmony and security I was treated to during the interviews.
This article wouldn't be complete without thanks to my editors for giving me this assignment,
as well as to the couples who spent so much time with me. My heart was touched, and I was humbled by the memories the Survivors walked me through, the dignified old photographs in scrapbooks we paged through together.
My own marriage will be better all the wisdom they shared.
I know yours will be as well.
Seven Secrets of Survivors:
Their stories were different, the themes were the same. Each couple I interviewed was unique, but the success of their unions was based on common principles. Stan and Helen's story is a powerful illustration of the values held by all:
· Acceptance. People once referred to a future spouse as the recipient's "intended." In other words, this mate was uniquely planned, a special gift for one other only.
Because Stan had already chosen to receive his own gift -- Helen -- it didn't matter when her mother pressed on him the unfortunate circumstances of her birth. Stan's acceptance of Helen broke all the barriers she might have faced, but more importantly, it demonstrated that she was worthy, just the way she was.
Likewise, David Younan, whose religion taught him that there was only one woman for him, waited on the Lord for affirmation that Susan was "the missing rib that God intended to make me complete."
· Commitment. As in the Ross story (see box), the bottom line of any marriage is the wedding vows. There's no way around it. Some couples will go through periods of wondering why in the world they ever got married.
From the point of view of The Survivors, Why doesn't matter. What matters is the promise. Dr. James Dobson puts it this way, "Love is not a feeling. Love is a commitment."
This commitment is often strengthened through the birth of children. David Younan says, "It is amazing how that baby changed my life from top to bottom, made me a more responsible person and brought joy and happiness and unity to my life."
· Leaving and cleaving. Let's face it, some parents have a hard time letting go. In these cases, grownup children must assert their independence as a couple. Lynn Parker (see box) was so convinced of the importance of this principal, that as commanding officer when one of his men got married, he had him transferred as far from home as possible.
On the other hand, parents who share a deep commitment to the Lord can be an invaluable source of support. The Younans remember that every time they had a problem or disagreement, they were surrounded by people who could share their experience or wisdom. "Our marriage was never empty."
· Realistic expectations. Survivors are emphatic that they never expected to change their mates nor certain circumstances of their marriage. Betty Parker knew she was marrying a career Coast Guard officer. Melba Ross knew she was marrying a minister. Each knew her husband's work would entail
relocating, and neither quarreled with this later on. Within each marriage gender roles were respected: while there was a sense of mutual submission, the husband was responsible for his house.
David Younan is grateful God gave him the ability to provide for his family so that his wife would not have to work outside the home. "But I believe her responsibility was much greater," he says.
· Careful finance. Don't spend what you don't have. Every couple told me this. They described making do with less in the beginning years of their marriages -- with no hard feelings. Survivors expressed concern for today's newlyweds expecting to begin marriage at the same standard of living as their parents. So often they end up disappointed or in debt.
During the 40s, everyone knew that they would start with little else but each other. "We never felt deprived," Betty Parker says, "It was just the way life was." Helen Warner adds, "So many of those marriages held together because times were harder."
· Self-control. Temperance was a hallmark of the successful marriages I found. Helen and Stan made it a rule never to fight in front of their children -- specifically because Stan's parents fighting had driven him from home at an early age. Waiting to discuss something later often cooled off hot topics, averting major disasters.
"From the time I married Susan," David says, "I realized she was a gift of God. God was telling me, 'Here David, this is my daughter. Take care of her.'" Thinking of your spouse in this way brings forth an uncommon tenderness and respect.
· Generosity. Don't be selfish, the Parkers urge: Put the other person first. Stan and Helen carry this spirit of generosity even further. Though their two sons grew up and left home long ago, the Warners have never suffered empty nest syndrome.
That extra bedroom is usually put to good use. The night I interviewed them, they introduced me to a man newly released from San Quentin prison whom they were helping get back on his feet. Hospitality like this has been a way of life for them.
Looking back over those Seven Secrets, I wonder if we modern types can handle such an old-fashioned, no-frills approach.
Today we're more accustomed to hype for communication techniques, date nights, weekend getaways and romance.
But maybe this is a reflection of my own Boomer generation's self-centeredness. After all, most of the current advice does come from Boomers.
The Survivors took me back to the basics, reminding me that marriage was made not to fulfill us, but to fulfill God's purpose.
That's a humbling and refreshing message. Without couples' conferences or marriage manuals, the Survivors muddled through -- while their Boomer children in many cases fell apart. Maybe they knew more than we ever gave them credit for.
After all, it's hard to argue with success.
Barbara Curtis has authored numerous books and has written for magazines and newspapers and can be found at her website: Mommy Life