- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother’s Day has a relevance in the story of “Jay” and “Betsy,” who shared their testimony a few years ago for a study about happy, enduring black marriages.

Jay (pseudonyms are used in the study) lives in an inner-city neighborhood. He has been married to Betsy for more than two decades and works two blue-collar jobs to make ends meet.

A few years ago, Betsy, the mother of their four foster children, was struck by a drunken driver. The accident cost her both her legs and her ability to speak clearly.

In their interviews with researchers, both Jay and Betsy said they had no time to “hate nobody” and they had forgiven the drunken driver.

But at one point, Betsy also said she wouldn’t blame Jay if he “ran away” now that she was disabled and their family life was so difficult.

Jay turned to his wife and said, “You know, like I told you, I said, ‘till death do us part.’ I’m going to be here. I want you to be here for me, too.

“That’s what my mother told me,” Jay added. “[She] said before we got married, ‘You got to listen to the words.’ That’s what my mama said, ‘If you [are] truly, really, ready to get married … you got to listen to the words.’ That’s what I did. I listened.

“That’s what I want it to be, till death do us part,” he told Betsy. “I’m always going to have [your] back, and I want you to have mine.”

“Stories like Jay’s and Betsy’s … are rarely heard in the social sciences,” said Louisiana State University professor Loren Marks, lead author of a study titled “Together, We Are Strong: A Qualitative Study of Happy, Enduring African American Marriages,” which appeared in the April 2008 issue of Family Relations.

The study, which involved 30 black couples who were married an average of 26 years, sought to identify the “meanings and motivations” that kept themtogether, in joy, despite all odds.

The study found its answers in the couples’ mutual reliance on each other, willingness to share family and household tasks, high valuation of their wedding vows and faith in God.

“We really don’t have to go outside the house” for strength and support, said “Clarence.” There are friends and family to talk to, he said, “but anything that’s really bothering me, anything I’m anxious to discuss, the first person I go to is Shantell, [my wife].”

Husbands and wives talked about leaning on God and each other through financial woes, raising children (theirs and their kin), and the “knocks of need” — the literal knocks on the door from people seeking help.

Knocks of need are common in poor neighborhoods, especially for married couples, because there are two adults in the house, they often have two incomes and there’s stability, said Mr. Marks.

Such extra pressure might look like it would break up a family, but in black families, it often strengthens the couple, just as a weakened arch becomes stronger when an increased load is placed upon it.

“By joining firmly together, while under pressure, these marital arches have endured across time and collectively borne significant weight without collapsing,” Mr. Marks wrote.

Jay and Betsy’s story certainly has that element, said Mr. Marks, who shared a few more details about them with me.

When Betsy was in the hospital, she looked like she wasn’t going to make it — she flat-lined several times — and doctors thought she wouldn’t have much of a life even if she made it. They asked Jay to “pull the plug.”

Jay listened and thought. Then he told the doctors, “I will mortgage my house down to the last dime. And until that day, [you] are to do anything [you] can to keep her alive, because that is my wife, and I will be praying for a miracle.”

Today, Jay and Betsy have a difficult life. She is in a wheelchair. She can communicate, but it is garbled, said Mr. Marks.

“But just sitting in her presence and talking with her awhile is a deeply moving and spiritual experience,” he said. Their story, he added, lends honor not just to marriage, but to Jay’s mother, who spoke to him so wisely so many years ago.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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