Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Just a Piece of Paper

“He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1John 5:10-11)

“Marriage is just a piece of paper.” According to my grandson, Richard, this is the consensus of opinion among his friends and acquaintances at Berkeley, here in California, where he just graduated. And he is quick to tell you these are not second generation hippie radicals speaking. These are, for the most part, young people coming from homes much like his own, though without the same strong Biblical foundation, perhaps. He tried to point out in a recent essay what may be some of the reasons for this cynical attitude. It was not these, but, rather, their definition of marriage that rankled.

Obviously, those of us who have lived with one person for thirty, forty, fifty, or more years know that marriage is much more than a piece of paper. It is laughter and tears, heartthrobs and heartaches, ecstasy and agony, but mostly, just plain hard work. It is things like not getting your own way, and finding out how liberating that can feel. It is looking back on agreements and compromises that would rival the accomplishments of a professional diplomat or negotiator. It’s the constant perfecting of the art of keeping someone interested for almost half a century! I could go on, but my intended thesis is this: Marriage is not just a piece of paper; nevertheless it is a piece of paper. And, to my way of thinking, that is a good thing.

The underlying assumption behind the statement, of course, is that the piece of paper is meaningless. And this is where I part company with the young “philosophers” that Richard questioned. These same young people are glad, or will be glad, to have the title to their own car or the deed to their own house, even though these are just pieces of paper. Evidently, documents of ownership are more valuable—or at least more preferable—than documents of love, devotion, and allegiance. There is no such thing as “free love,” only freeloaders who lack enough sinew of soul to pledge love that will last and perform “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we both shall live,” and mean it enough to sign the dotted line.

At a certain point in my mother’s developing Alzheimer’s Disease, she did not know my father and would periodically become very distressed at his presence in the house. For this reason, he (with his good, Kentucky common sense) put their marriage license in a picture frame and hung it on the wall! When she would insist that he was not what he professed to be—her husband—he would simply point to the document that proved it. You could argue that his care of her during this trying time in their lives was credentials enough, but even God himself recognized the importance of a “record,” as the verses above will attest to.

I have in my possession a copy of the marriage record of my maternal grandparents, George W. Blount and Lou Anna Sparks. The marriage took place on April 14, 1887, in Lee County, Kentucky. My grandfather was thirty-three and my grandmother was sixteen. It was the first (and last) marriage for them both. I keep it in my file of important papers. And you will find in the same place a certificate printed on embossed paper, enclosed in an envelope that has begun to yellow with age. It confirms that Salle Jo Hopkins and Richard Douglas Sandlin were united in marriage “according to the Ordinance of God and the Laws of the State of Ohio at Grace Baptist Church, on the 14th day of October in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty-One.” It was signed by the minister, John Rawlings, and witnessed by my sister, Martha Lou Hopkins and a pastor friend of my husband, Wm. L. Jackson. Printed at the bottom is this text: “What therefore God hath joined together; let not man put asunder.”

I do not have to bring this document out periodically to remind myself that I am married to this man. His face is as familiar to me as my own reflection in the mirror, and if God sees fit, will be until I die. Our marriage is more than “just a piece of paper.” But one day my children and grandchildren will hold in their hands a document that will tell them I loved their father and grandfather enough to take his name and give it to them. And, somehow, I think they will be glad to have it.

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