Long-married couples go for the gold

For thousands of long-married couples around the country, tomorrow will mark an unusual event: a celebration of golden anniversaries, courtesy of a restaurant chain. Those who have been married 50 years or more can enjoy a free meal and have their picture taken.

The offer, good at 400 HomeTown Buffets in 40 states, marks the eighth Valentine's Day that the chain has honored "longevity in marriage" and what spokesman Brent Mortensen calls the "big accomplishment" of half-century-plus marriages. Five percent of currently married couples have reached their 50th anniversary, the US Census says.

To prove that they qualify for a free meal, couples must show a marriage certificate. "They bring in these beautiful old documents," a HomeTown Buffet employee in Connecticut says. "Some are from Europe, with engraving and pictures." Other celebrants share golden-anniversary photos.

Hearts and flowers and valentines are often deemed the province of young love. But, as this event shows, mature love holds a valued place, too. In an age of divorce, "oldlyweds," as one wag affectionately calls them, deserve all the honors they can get.

As one sign of growing "longevity in marriage," the White House Greetings Office sends out golden anniversary cards, signed by the president and first lady, to couples whose families or friends request them. Other card manufacturers expect an increase in 50th-anniversary celebrations as people live longer and baby boomers grow older. Already Hallmark offers a 75th-anniversary card.

Fifty or 75 years across the same breakfast table! What newlyweds can imagine such an accomplishment? Yet, oldlyweds can't imagine it otherwise.

To watch long-married couples everywhere is to be touched by the tender gestures, wordless exchanges, and tiny rituals they've developed over a shared lifetime:

She smooths his collar, more out of habit than need. He clutches her elbow to steer her around a puddle. She smiles patiently (but don't ask what she's thinking) as he begins the thousandth retelling of a favorite joke at a party. He displays equal forbearance as she shows friends the latest pictures of grandchildren, plucked from her purse.

Where would families - and the world - be without the stability of these "On Golden Pond"-style marriages?

It's easy to sentimentalize lengthy unions - to assume that half a century or more of hard work, successes and disappointments, laughter and tears, can be reduced to a sound-bite answer when someone asks: "What's the secret of your long marriage?"

The secret? There are many. Love. Patience. Forgiveness. These couples recognize the polar contrast between the romantic ideal and the nuptial contract. They long ago settled into an acceptance of what they do and don't have.

That acceptance includes an ability to laugh about the imaginary shackles that bind them. The restaurant chain's golden-anniversary event includes "a lot of joking around," the employee in Connecticut notes. "They'll say, 'Fifty years and we're still stuck with each other.' But there's a lot of happiness and love showing through the jokes."

Many celebrants would probably also laugh knowingly at an old joke about a couple being interviewed on their 50th anniversary. "In all that time, did you ever consider a divorce?" the questioner asks them.

"Oh, no, not divorce, we're too old-fashioned for that," one replies. "Murder sometimes, but never divorce."

Laughter. Add that to the secret of long-term marriages. As the restaurant employee says, "People who can laugh with each other can stay with each other."

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