Bonds of Gold

Joe and Nina Failla are part of a generation celebrating a record number of 50th wedding anniversaries

On a frigid but sunny day in January 1948, everything was finally set for Joe Failla and Nina Massari's wedding. Joe's barber had given him a "complete do-over." Nina had donned her billowy satin dress and a simple veil. At St. Joseph's cathedral in Hartford, Conn., 150 guests waited expectantly.

As Joe and Nina walked down the aisle, they may have felt singly important. But among twentysomethings of their era, they were hardly alone. Between 1946 and 1948, more young Americans than ever before - or since - got married. With 6 million marriages, it was America's biggest wedding boom.

Today more couples than ever are celebrating 50 years of togetherness - and with it the optimism and grit that won a world war, settled the suburbs, raised the baby boomers, and virtually defined modern America.

As with Nina and Joe, the young age of the married couples belied their life experience. A bright idealism was tempered by the Depression's hard times. Their youthful gazes had a steadiness wrought from the deaths of many young friends in Europe or the Pacific.

But in the wake of World War II, a determined optimism took root. This generation "knew enough about war to know they hated it," recounts historian Stephen Ambrose. "They had seen enough destruction. They wanted to construct. They had seen enough totalitarianism. They wanted freedom."

For Joe and Nina, that process of building began humbly. At first, they moved in with Joe's parents. But Joe had a solid job as an engineer and was attending night school. Nina was preparing for the birth of their first child. Together they had little doubt they would succeed.

Shaped by hard times

Like so many of their peers, Joe and Nina were shaped by the adversities of the Depression and World War II.

In the 1930s, Nina's father's thriving construction business failed, and he became a vegetable chef in Hartford's grand hotel, The Bond. Nina's mother went to work in a dress factory.

But Nina's Italian immigrant parents tried to hide the hard times from their daughter. She remembers only hints - like how richer kids at school got fancy Wonder Bread sandwiches. The penny-pinching did affect her: To this day, Nina rinses out plastic baggies for reuse.

For Joe, high school graduation day in 1943 was a defining moment. "They were waiting for me," he says of the Navy. Soon he was hopping Pacific islands in a four-engine flying boat. He and his daring young friends thought they were invincible. But when he heard about the death of a friend - a football buddy - "I grew up pretty fast that day," he says.

Settling into marriage

Perhaps because of the sacrifices they made as teens, the ups and downs of long-term unions seemed less than daunting to this generation. "People who've been through war know how tough things can be," says Richard Borofsky, a relationship counselor in Cambridge, Mass. "Compared with that, the difficulties of marriage don't seem so bad."

From the start, Joe and Nina were "pretty comfortable with each other," Nina says. But their union soon made new demands. The first big test was the arrival of their son, Tom, in 1948. "My motherly instinct said I had to take care of Tom first," Nina explains. "But Joe wanted to be taken care of too."

Help came in the form of Joe's mom.

In fact, during their first decade together - when they had three more children - Grandma often jumped in. Joe and Nina went out to dinner or even to spend the night in a hotel. "It wasn't anything elaborate," Joe recalls, "but we would come back refreshed" and thinking "this guy's not so bad." Like many of their contemporaries, they attribute some of their success in maintaining harmony to the helping hands of extended family.

Prosperity comes home

Living with parents worked out well enough, but the prospect of staking out some of their own space was irresistible.

In 1950, Connecticut offered veterans a housing loan with an interest rate of just 1-1/2 percent. With Joe making $50 a week, they put $500 down on a $10,000 home. It was only 700 square feet, but with three bedrooms and two full baths, "It was like we had a palace!" Nina marvels.

In fact, with 1-1/2 percent inflation and fast-growing wages, America had entered what historian Ambrose calls the best decade in its history - particularly for the white middle class. "Only kings could have dreamt of living like this just decades before," he says.

Indeed, it was one of the many newly available luxury items that saved a Failla family camping trip.

With her last child, Teri, a newborn, Nina was loath to deal with cloth diapers and a diaper pail in the woods. But when Joe bought a pack of the new disposable diapers, she gave the OK. "It was a bribe," she laughs. "And it worked!" he retorts.

Eventually, the Failla brood outgrew the "palace." In 1961, when Joe got a promotion, they blazed a path to the suburbs. Their extended family members in Hartford pleaded with them not to move the 60 miles to Fairfield. "Not a word was said as we drove from the city," Nina says, "And all our eyes were watery."

But they made friends in their subdivision. The children settled in, and the boys took on a paper route.

Learning to change

It was not all smooth sailing. In the 1970s, Joe had to scramble harder than ever to keep his income up. After quitting one company to avoid a move, he opened a rug-cleaning business, only to close it the next year. The couple say the decision - made in shaky economic times - was one of the toughest they ever made. Joe went back to engineering.

Nina, meanwhile, faced an empty nest. But at a stage that often strains marriages, she rallied. A part-time job boosted her confidence. "It felt good that somebody other than the family would give me praise," she explains.

One of the biggest strains came in 1980. As devout Catholics, Joe and Nina found it almost incomprehensible that son Richard and his wife would divorce. The divorce rate among Joe and Nina's peers was about 25 percent, half the current rate, according to Andrew Cherlin, author of "Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage."

While Joe and Nina saw their son's split as a tragedy, they mostly wanted to help. "I felt bad I couldn't make it better," says Joe quietly.

Half-century reflections

Today Joe and Nina live near Phoenix in a home with a swimming pool. Joe shoots photos, Nina paints. They often visit their children and four grandchildren.

Over five decades, they say, they maintained harmony by remembering even during fights that they loved each other. They didn't overspend, distinguishing early between "what we need and what we want," Joe says.

And, they say, they were a team. "I never made decisions by myself," Nina says. Joe adds: "I looked at myself as part of a couple - or part of a family. There is no Joe Failla out there separate from everything else."

As for their anniversary? It's agreed: Nothing special. "I don't know," says Nina. "Maybe we'll go out and have a nice dinner."

BENCHMARKS OF FIVE DECADES TOGETHER

1943: Joe and Nina, who were both born and raised in Hartford, Conn., graduate from Hartford High School. US Navy begins South Pacific island-hopping campaign. Joe flies a four-engine flying boat on supply missions there.

1948: Joe and Nina get married, right on the heels of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Nina considers copying the queen's dress - but doesn't. Tom Failla is born. The Polaroid instant camera is introduced. The first color newsreel, of the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, is taken.

1950: The Faillas pay $10,000 for their first home. The US population is 150 million. Color TV broadcasts begin.

1961: The Faillas, now with four children, move to the suburbs. Everyone in the family cries during the 60-mile car ride. Alan Shepard is America's first man in space.

1970: With jobs scarce, Joe starts a rug-cleaning business, which he sells one year later. The US population is 205 million. The Beatles disband.

1994: Joe sells his last business and buys a camera to take up photography as a hobby. Nina's full-time hobby is painting. Hard work is history.

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