A 50th Anniversary Confronts the `Post-Marital Society'

A GOLDEN wedding anniversary has always seemed to me to be one of life's great accomplishments - a testament not only to the longevity of two people, but to the longevity of their patience, caring, tolerance, and love. Fifty years of living under the same roof! Fifty years of eating across the same table! Fifty years of sharing dreams, disappointments, pleasures, and successes! What cause for celebration!

As a child I loved to read - and reread - the yellowed clipping from a 1922 Wisconsin newspaper describing the dinner party my great-grandparents gave on their 50th anniversary. It was a small-town society report, covering everything from the guest list to brief biographies of the honored pair.

Practically the only information not included was a list of the gifts they received, one of which - a beautiful Bavarian china sugar bowl and creamer - later played a starring role on my grandparents' dinner table.

On holidays and special occasions - whenever my grandmother used her best dishes - the gold-trimmed set gleamed richly on a white damask tablecloth. Although I never knew my great-grandparents, I was so taken by this remembrance of their lengthy marriage that long before my parents celebrated even their 15th anniversary, I began looking forward to their 50th.

This month, that anticipation became a reality. Fifty Augusts after my parents' wedding on a warm Midwestern Saturday afternoon - a simple but elegant event attended by 75 guests - 30 relatives returned to the same city for a golden-anniversary dinner party. We came from five states to honor this couple and to cherish the stabilizing influence of every long-term marriage at a time when the American family seems increasingly fragile and vulnerable.

Days before the party, anniversary cards began arriving in the mail. The bank sent a plant. Even George and Barbara Bush got into the act, sending a red-and-blue bordered card bearing the presidential seal and a form message that begins, ``We are delighted to join in wishing you a happy anniversary....'' (The Greetings Office at the White House reports that it sends 100,000 such cards each year to honor couples who have been married 50 years or more.)

At the party itself, a framed photograph of the long-ago bride adorned a side table. The long-ago groom gave a short speech. One daughter read a brief, touching autobiography the groom had written in a freshman English class while working his way through the University of Wisconsin. The other daughter narrated a slide show that formed a marital time line, beginning with the wedding that united a $120-a-month electrical engineer and a $60-a-month telephone company revenue accountant who had turned down an out-of-town teaching position to be near her fianc'e during their three-year courtship.

Beyond the jokes and good food that make up the common substance of any successful party, a golden-anniversary celebration in the late 1980s raises a special question: Are these 50-year celebrants part of one of the last generations to think of marriage as a lifetime commitment?

In a despairing article in the current issue of The Public Interest, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, coins a chilling phrase: the ``post-marital society.'' He quotes researchers at the University of Wisconsin who claim that about two-thirds of all first marriages are likely to ``disrupt,'' and almost one-fourth of first marriages will end in five years.

These grim statistics prompt other questions:

How many families picnicking in parks, walking on beaches, and pushing babies in strollers during this summer of '89 will no longer be ``intact'' in the summer of '90?

And how many radiant brides smiling out of society pages this month will still be married to the same groom in five years, 10 years, or 25 years?

The doubts cannot be ignored. But neither can the immeasurable hope on which every marriage is founded - a hope justified more often than not, even today. As every 50th-anniversary celebration attests, the shining model is still there - more than 100,000 of them each year.

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