It is no bad thing to remember that the Christian religion began as a family affair — mom, dad and baby boy.
This helps to put things in perspective: Families matter profoundly to the Lord: good, strong, healthy, loving families; the more so at this historical moment when such families appear to grow rarer, like prothonotary warblers and Californian Republicans. I am thinking just now, and proposing to talk for a minute or two, about a good family — more particularly, a good marriage to which I was a witness for something like a quarter of a century.
This was the four-and-a-half-decade-long marriage of my onetime colleague in the Listen-up, Let’s-Save-the-World trade, James R. (Jim) Wright and his wife Dorothy — Dot, as everyone knew and loved her (because, knowing her, you couldn’t help loving her).
The proximate cause of this monologue is Dot’s death in early December, following a long and stressful illness. Death, if you can believe it, with the presidential election is still unresolved! How could a newspaper pundit’s wife — schooled in the overweeningness and urgency of political affairs — depart with political outcomes unresolved?
One reason my friend Dot Wright (“the blond bombshell,” Jim called her) could do so was that she possessed a huge fund of humor. Sense of humor equals sense of proportion: a mirror, you might say, disclosing particular human concerns, including your own, amid the depth and variety of competing concerns.
A sense of humor and a sense of proportion are the currency you bring, or import quickly, to marriage. Or else …
Or else what? The taint of self-absorption, self-righteousness, self-pity? Self, self, self; me, me, me?
Something like that. The Christmas gift of salvation, originating in that family setting of a couple of thousand years ago, is a gift of many dimensions — not least, salvation from me-ness. On which count I would judge Dot to have been handsomely saved. The workings of the everyday world she viewed with unfailing wryness and amusement — and, my goodness gracious, with a wit that wouldn’t stop. The lady was quick, the lady was funny. And, with it, kind and generous. These things often go together — humor, kindness and generosity. That is because such things contribute to our seeing life whole; understanding what a fix we’re in, every last one of us, and how much, despite differences of outlook, we need each other.
Now, one thing we know the longer we live: none of us lives long enough to know good friends thoroughly. But it always seemed to me that the foundation of the Wrights’ long marriage was delight in each others company, based on that same glorious sense of proportion. Jokes shared; meals relished; books read; movies discussed or cussed; offenses dealt with and delicately put away. Such, I would judge, is real romance. Not the stuff they do on the soaps; no, the real stuff; that which lasts a lifetime.
Bony-handed and bone-headed, old conservatives are forever lamenting the drop-off in general appreciation of what (chiefly to us!) truly matters. It seems hard, all the same, to deny that in our own time the cooperative aspects of marriage have waned, while the competitive aspects have waxed. Me-ness, not we-ness, as our compass and guide; marriage as a disposable paper towel — use it, toss it. That would seem the standard now. It wasn’t when the Wrights married, back in the Ike years. They never picked up the new ways. The old ways were good enough. They were funnier, for one thing.
It was this thoroughly anti-modern lack of self-consciousness — together with Dot’s prowess at the stove top — that made the Wrights’ joint society always pleasurable and lovely. This was a team you couldn’t, in the worldly way, have pried apart. There was too much friendship here, too much good humor and joy.
I would not call this a Christmas story exactly, but there are Christmas aspects. In due course the baby boy in the manger grew up. One day, as the Book of Common Prayer wonderfully puts it, he “adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle” a marriage at Cana of Galilee. What kind of marriage? All we know is, it had to be a good one — generous, loving and probably funny. It could have been Jim and Dot’s marriage, I suppose, if they’d chosen Galilee, 2000 years ago, to fall in love.