Seventy years ago this week, a young bride in a peau de soie gown walked down the long aisle of a church in St. Paul, Minn., and exchanged vows with the groom she first met when she was 16. After the ceremony, the newlyweds and their 80 guests gathered at her parents' house for a simple reception of ice cream, cake, and candies.
"That was it," recalls the long-ago bride, Jean Wittke. "Nobody had sit-down dinners then."
But last Saturday Mrs. Wittke and her husband, Lloyd, did have a sit-down dinner to celebrate another joyous occasion - their 70th wedding anniversary. Surrounded by 30 friends and family members, including their two daughters, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, they basked in the glow of richly deserved tributes.
Seventy years! What a milestone! What a testament to love and patience and steadfastness. No wonder some of their relatives came from around the country and as far away as England to honor them.
For couples of their generation, getting engaged and married often appeared to be a simpler process than it is today. At that time, most would have had no need for professional wedding planners or books with titles such as "Countdown to Your Perfect Wedding." The 21st-century mantra about "finding a soul mate" didn't yet exist. Nor did the stacks of self-help "relationship" books that now crowd bookstore shelves. Love mattered, of course, but a certain pragmatism prevailed. In addition, divorce was far less acceptable.
Today, love and marriage have grown more complex. "People have higher expectations," says Mira Kirshenbaum, author of "Is He Mr. Right? Everything You Need to Know Before You Commit." She adds, "They're getting married later. They've had more previous relationships, more disappointments, more suspicions. They've been hurt more."
For many couples who wed before or during World War II, the decades have been marked by an impressive stability. The Wittkes have lived in the same bungalow in Minneapolis for nearly 60 years. They practiced economic simplicity. "We never bought anything we couldn't pay for," she says. He worked as a draftsman and she was a homemaker, there when their children returned from school.
Ask Mrs. Wittke the predictable question, "What's the secret of your long marriage?" and she credits their religion. "If there were rough edges, we worked them out," she says. She also offers another ingredient for success: "Stay out of debt."
Just how much change has taken place since the couple said "I do" can be measured in a few historical details. They have lived through five wars and voted for 12 presidents. In 1936, the year they married, Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected president by a landslide. The dust bowl raged in Oklahoma. A first-class stamp cost 3 cents. The divorce rate was less than 2 percent, and unemployment stood at 17 percent. That year Margaret Mitchell published "Gone With the Wind," and Bing Crosby starred in "Pennies From Heaven." In England, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne for American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
At a time when roughly half of new marriages end in divorce, long-term unions of 60 and 70 years or more stand as beacons of hope and possibility. Last year, a couple in England marked 80 years together. Currently, the top limit for greeting cards denoting a specific anniversary is the 65th.
As Mrs. Wittke notes with a laugh, "Our friends all told us that you can't find cards for the 70th."
In this popular month for weddings, when the strains of Lohengrin fill the June air, hopes for lasting happiness run high. To the brides and grooms walking down the aisle, seven decades probably seems an unfathomable amount of time. Who among them can imagine celebrating their platinum anniversary in 2076?
"Seventy years together?" they might say incredulously. "You've gotta be kidding." Maybe, maybe not. It could happen. Even if it doesn't, going for the long run seems a worthy goal, as Robert Browning suggested when he wrote, "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be."