Cuento (Story) for a Wedding in Spain
(I was honored to be asked to speak at the wedding of my friends Ana and Phil in La Manga, Spain on Saturday June 10th. My gift to them was a story about marriage.)
I wasn’t sure exactly what Phil and Ana were asking me to do at this wonderful event, but it was billed on the program as a reading. A reading of what, I wondered? Perhaps a poem. In the first summer that I really came to know Phil, I was grateful to share my love of poetry with him. I believe that was the summer when he also realized the poetic expression that can realized in filmmaking. I’m not sure that reading a poem is what I should be doing with my time with you now, but actually I have a favorite one about marriage, on the humorous side. It’s short, so let me start by sharing it with you.
By Marie Howe
My husband likes to watch the cooking shows, the
the Discovery Channel, and the surgery channel.
Last night, he told us about a man who came into
the emergency room
with a bayonet stuck entirely through his skull and
Did they get it out? We all asked.
They did. And the man was O.K. because the blade
went exactly between
the two halves without severing them.
And who had shoved this bayonet into the man's
head? His wife.
A strong woman, someone said. And everyone else
A funny poem, relevant to what we’re doing today, but I don’t know. Is it enough? Maybe the reading should be something more profound. Wisdom from an ancient source? The lyrics of a Spanish love song, explained? Eh.
How about a short short story, one of my favorite means of communicating something important? The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. And so I decided to write one for you, as a gift on your wedding day—since as a Jesuit I don’t have a budget for real wedding gifts!
Just a little note about the story, before I read it to you…to put it in context for today. Perhaps you are as moved as I am when you see a mature married couple walking down the street hand in hand, or dancing romantically to an old tune, or daring a public display of affection with a kiss that is more than a peck on the cheek. I’d like to think of you two in that way many years in the future. And so I thought I’d write a short short story about just such a couple whose marriage has endured many years together—establishing homes, pursuing careers—sharing all the joys and sorrows, including their inability to have children. The story is not about you two per se, but I hope it conveys a sense of the truth you have already begun to live together. So, here's a story just for you:
Walter and Marie had simultaneously retired almost 15 years ago, he from his job as an engineer, she from her teaching position. “We wanted quantity time with each other before it was too late,” they told everyone. And in the immediate years afterwards, they did a bucket list like retirees do. They bought a camper and traveled across the country, visiting a host of national parks and obscure places of beauty. They enrolled in courses to learn how to play the banjo, how to write a novel, how to paint with oils and acrylics. Inspired by the first President Bush, they even jumped out of an airplane with a professional strapped on their backs. And when the list was pretty near complete---after deleting a few, like visiting an active volcano and competing in a seniors ping pong championship—Walter and Marie were content to be together in the ordinariness of their days at home.
They were content with one another, too, knowing full-well the other’s strengths and weaknesses, their usual opinions, their annoying habits. When they were visiting with friends and relatives, it was remarkable how they could literally complete one another’s thoughts and sentences. And though they could be honest about their partner’s limitations and faults---he was often too laid back, she was often too much of a micro-manager--it was also remarkable how devoted and protective they were to each other. Everyone who knew them were charmed by their affectionate embraces and the warm smiles they displayed when their ‘better half’ was being discussed. They were not embarrassed to publicly kiss one another, or land a playful slap on the other’s rear end. She was: ‘my honey bun’. He was her ‘dear heart’. The neighbors often heard those terms as they called out to one another from the porch or the backyard.
As they aged in place in their final home, both had a deliberate, dedicated avocation, which was surprisingly unappreciated by the other. Marie had her garden, to which she dedicated major hours of her day. By all accounts, it was the most impressive and productive garden in the town. It contained an astonishing collection of perennials and annuals: African daisies, Lady Diana Windflowers, peonies and pansies, calla lillies, daffodils, tulips, roses, snapdragons, cornflowers, petunias, zinnias, cosmos. But growing flowers wasn’t just Marie’s hobby. There was a deeper, more meaningful rationale to cultivating her ‘miracle garden’. Marie had decided that it would be her mission to share the beauty beyond the occasional visitor to their home. Each day she would prepare a dozen or so bouquets of flowers from the garden, and then she would deliver them to people on her list—the expectant mother, the grieving husband, the child who was celebrating their birthday, a couple marking their 25th anniversary, the elderly woman recuperating in a rehabilitation facility, even the young athlete or actor who had performed well in the last game or school play. It was an extraordinary act of love on her part, but Walter thought that it was a bit too generous in time and money, he was annoyed at all the phone calls she received and had to make for the floral deliveries, and he was worried that Marie was pushing herself too hard, and he didn’t think it was wise for an 83 year old woman to be driving all around town every day for such unnecessary deliveries.
But Walter had created his own new occupation in his retirement years, which Marie was none too happy about either. In the morning, while Marie was watering the plants and preparing the bouquets, Walter would set up a folding chair near the sidewalk in front of the house, a thermos of coffee by his side, and offered a gift to each passing car or truck. It was known as the ‘Walute’, a half wave/half salute accompanied by a big smile. Everyone received the ‘walute’: men and women on their way to work, Fed Ex drivers and postal carriers, police in their cruisers, children in the passing schoolbuses. Walter would be at his post every morning, rain or shine, for a solid hour and a half of waving. Everyone waved back and smiled, and the children were especially eager to see Walter at his post and receive the ‘walute’. Marie thought it was a bit too much of a spectacle, maybe even a bother to people in the community, and she worried that he would catch his cold out there, especially during bad weather.
As a matter of fact, on a day when Walter was suffering from a bug he had caught, Marie decided that she had to confront him once and for all. That’s when they had the biggest argument of their long marriage. Walter countered her criticism with his own objections to her flower deliveries. The exchange became heated, and it ended with the two of them stomping off to their respective places of work—Marie in the garden, Walter in his chair on the sidewalk.
Marie bent down to clip a particularly beautiful clump of orange African daisies, and suddenly felt a sharp pain in her temple. She fell over into the flowerbed, unconscious. Almost 20 minutes went by before Walter emerged from the front of the house, carrying his chair to put it back as usual in the shed. He couldn’t see Marie at first, until he spotted her legs sprawled on the path beside the beds. He rushed over to her, and within moments he had called 911.
Marie survived the stroke, but weeks of rehabilitation followed in a facility near their home. Besides of course visiting Marie, Walter continued to show up for duty every morning on the sidewalk, and everyone received their ‘walutes’ But he also discovered how much of an impact his wife had on the community when he began receiving a deluge of phone calls: concern for Marie, and deep gratitude for her generosity. Several women called to offer their labor to keep things going while Marie was recuperating, but Walter politely declined. The garden out back began to grow weedy and a bit forlorn, but Walter saw no reason to put any work into it. Hadn’t it been the very thing that caused her stroke?
And then one day a little girl showed up at his door. Her name was April. She wondered if Marie was ok. “Yes,” he said. “She just got a little sick”. April told her she was worried because every day for the last year Marie had delivered a special flower to her since her mommy had died. Walter looked at April. Every day a flower for her broken heart. And suddenly Walter recalled the little daughter that Marie had always longed to have, and the secret tears that he knew she shed when they were told that a baby would never be possible. He brought April around to the garden in the backyard and together they picked a whole bunch of flowers. As she left to go home, Walter’s eyes filled up, his heart all the more grateful for the woman who had been by his side for the last 62 years.
And so Walter decided that Marie’s garden needed to be tended, and her deliveries needed to be resumed. He would carry on with help from eager volunteers until his ‘dear heart’ returned. And April would get her flower every day, as usual.
On the day of Marie’s return, Walter had everything in order. He had a plan that would enable Marie to resume some of the burdens of the garden ‘ministry’, but now with his own help and that of the volunteers. He had also arranged for a permanent live-in home health aide to enable Marie to navigate the challenges of the debilitation from her stroke. He was so excited to bring her home, to show her the garden, and to tell her how proud he was of her wonderful gifts of flowers. He wanted her to know, most especially, how much he loved her.
But Walter never made it to the rehabilitation center. They found him sitting in his car in the driveway, a big bouquet of flowers with a card to Marie attached. He had suffered a massive heart attack and had passed away.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because when Marie came home and settled into a new life without her honey bun, she discovered how much he meant to the whole town. Thousands of people—including hundreds of children-- showed up at his funeral, and when they took him to the cemetery, there was an astonishing moment when they all simultaneously gave Walter his own ‘walute’ farewell, an expression of gratitude to the man who greeted them every day with his smile and his love.
And that’s why even this morning you will find Marie sitting in a chair on the sidewalk outside her house, offering a wave/salute and a big smile to everyone who passes. Marie discovered, like Walter, that their respective retirement jobs were an expression of the truth that had kept them together and in love for over 60 years. Their simultaneous missions were rooted in a deeper understanding about life: that no matter our blood lines, we belong to one another, each and every one, and that in the end we were put on this good earth to take care of one another.
And so, Ana and Phil, on this day of your wedding, I wish you more than 60 years of love ahead of you. I do believe that your marriage will last if you stay rooted to one another in the deeper truth that lives between you, the truth that brought you together in the first place. You clearly belong to one another, but we also belong to you, and you belong to us. Thank you for being a visible sign of love to the world, and know that we will always be standing by to share in that love in all the days to come.
BLESSING SONG FOR ANA and PHIL
May the Lord bless you, protect you, and guard you…And hold you forever, in the palm of his hand.
May God the Father, and Jesus, the Son,, With the Holy Spirit, Bless you all your days.
For to follow in the way of love, Is to follow the way of the Lord
Love one another as God has loved you.
May the Lord bless you, protect you, and guard you…And hold you forever, in the palm of his hand.
May God the Father, and Jesus, the Son, With the Holy Spirit, Bless you all your days.