Paddling After Jake and Myrtle

Nov 17, 2005 |John Thomas

Longtime married couples are rare. Happily longtime married couples like Jake and Myrtle are rarer yet.

I met Jake and Myrtle when I was dating their granddaughter.

Our dating relationship had arrived at the meet-the- extended-family stage, which can go either way. I didn't have much extended family to speak of; all of my grandparents had passed away, and the few aunts and uncles I had scattered about would have greeted me with, "Now, you're John who?"

But Alfie, who is now my wife, comes from a tight-knit crew, three generations sitting around the Sunday dinner table and all that.

Jake and Myrtle Shoemaker were Alfie's grandparents on her mother's side. I wish you could have known them. You would have loved them. They spent a lifetime loving each other and those around them, working hard, living simply and richly without a hint of presumption. Jake and Myrtle are my marriage and family heroes, and the longer I live the more heroic their lives become to me. They were who I think we all want to be, deep down.

I didn't grow up around many long-term married relationships, which contributed to my hesitancy — all right, paralyzing fear — of joining the fraternity of the marriedhood, thus my late-coming to the party (married at 29). I simply had no picture in my head of two people growing old together. My grandparents passed away when I was young, so I have little memory of them, certainly no memory of their marriage relationships. Quite frankly, I was never around many elderly people, much less those happily married.

I knew some young couples who were happily married. I knew a few middle-aged couples still on their first marriages and who seemed to tolerate one another. Everyone else was either divorced, like my parents, or on a subsequent marriage. Penguins have more commitment than most couples I knew.

I don't expect you to believe this, but it's true: I didn't personally know a single couple that was finishing the race together, not one. Having no picture of the end made me wary of beginning. Jake and Myrtle changed that.

When I met them, Jake and Myrtle were both in their 80s and closing in on 60 years of marriage. 60 years! I hardly knew anyone who'd been alive for six decades, much less married for that long. I kept staring at them, studying them like they were a museum exhibit. Look. They keep smiling. Wait, now they're holding hands.... She just brought him some tea.... He's helping her down the steps. I'm sure I made them nervous with my psychopathic ogling.

The two met and married in the late 1920s. As the story goes, Jake was hanging out downtown with his best friend when Myrtle passed by on the other side of the street. "I sure would like to meet that girl," Jake wished out loud to his friend. "I think I can arrange that," said his friend. "She's my sister."

Consider the odds against this daring young couple: neither had more than a high school education, the Great Depression was in its early stages and jobs were scarce and becoming more so, and they were barely out of the teenage years. The future couldn't have been anymore uncertain. But with a simple faith and trust in God and undying optimism, they leapt into the unknown, got married and started a family.

They gave little thought to "keeping up with the Joneses," unless by that you mean "eating." To me, hard times means $2.75 a gallon for gas or a slow Internet connection. They were glad to have any income at all and to be dry and warm when it rained at night. It seems to me their young lives were defined by hardness, but they didn't see it that way. To them, it was just "life." There were no How To resources about life, no books or conferences on marriage or parenting, just the Bible, which as it turns out was a pretty solid source of information for them.

* * *

My dating relationship with Alfie had reached that place where the water current begins picking up speed and you realize the river will soon require a commitment from you that is going to make pulling over to the shore very, very difficult. You and your paddling partner both hear the waterfall in the distance and feel the cool mist on your face, but can't quite bring yourselves to acknowledging it out loud.

Usually, this would be where I would look for a nice place on the shoreline to pull over and camp for a while. Or possibly just grab a life vest and jump. All I could see everywhere around me were wrecked canoes, or rowers yelling at one another, or worse — not talking at all, just sitting there, paddles in the boat, bumping into rocks, waiting for the crash.

But this time was different. Jake and Myrtle were up ahead, having made it through the class five rapids (defined by the International Whitewater Rating System as "extremely difficult; long violent rapids that must be scouted from shore; dangerous drops, unstable eddies, strong, irregular currents and hydraulics"). They were waiving me forward to the deep, calm pool of contentment.

"It's a great adventure!" their lives said to me. "Strap on that life vest, hang on and paddle hard! Go for it!" That's what I needed. They provided for me a vision of marriage, a good marriage that handled whatever life threw at them, and thrived — all the way through to the end.

I was there at the end, when Jake's health was failing, and the sun was setting on this extraordinary couple, 62 years of two becoming one. I was there to see Myrtle try to paddle alone after so many years of rowing with her partner. One year after Jake passed, nearly to the day, Myrtle joined him, unable to mend her broken heart.

By then my wife and I were a few years into our marriage, doing our best to manage the unpredictable currents of young couple-hood, banging off rocks and getting stuck in low water and shooting thrilling rapids. Whenever our paddling was out of sync and the water would splash over the nose of the boat and douse our faces, I'd look up ahead, beyond the roaring whitewater, and see Jake and Myrtle, holding hands and cheering us on, assuring me that a little water in the boat is OK. Just bail it out, make adjustments and keep going.

Twelve years later, with each new bend in the river, Alfie and I keep learning to better navigate the waters and row in unison (which says more about her than me, because if I were paddling with me I'd want to turn around and whack me in the head with an oar).

Despite all our fears of the future and challenges of the present, we know we can do this, and here's why: we have a picture in our minds of the end of the race, of looking back to our kids and grandkids and cheering them on, of leaving the same kind of legacy that was left for us. Our hope is that maybe some day when the tide rises and the river roars, some young couple will look downstream, past the churning currents, and see us waiving them on. You'll recognize us. We'll be the ones standing on the shoulders of Jake and Myrtle Shoemaker.

Copyright 2005 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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