Most Memorable Flights Include Some Turbulence
In the photo, I am standing on the wing of a small plane. I am glowing—poised cautiously on patent leather heels, tailored wool dress, white gloves, white gardenias on my shoulder. He stands on the ground, black suit, confident smile, one hand reaching up to balance me as we pause to wave goodbyes before crawling inside the four-seat Piper Cherokee. Behind me, a young pilot peers from the cockpit, sharing the joy and expectancy of the moment.
It’s night. Vows have been repeated. Cake cut and served. Photos with families completed. Time now to take flight, to lift off on an adventure without a clue quite where it will take us.
Well, we know that this flight, this first venture into wedded life, will last less than 30 minutes and drop us a bit short of 50 miles from where we began. It will take us from Lebanon where I grew up, to Eugene where we will live while I finish a final term at the University of Oregon.
But it’s not the distance so much as the symbolism that pleases us still in this photo that fills the final page of the white leather “Our Wedding” album. The trusting innocence of two young lovers, soaring off on high hopes—and very little more—into the uncertain territory of marriage.
The year was 1964. Fifty years ago. And yes, we’re still making this journey together, coming now in December to the close of our golden year.
Although we didn’t see them at the time of take off, I admit now there were early indications, even at the airport, that this journey might not always be smooth. A college friend with a passion for flight had proposed the dramatic post-wedding lift off. He hadn’t reckoned on an absence of night lighting at Lebanon’s small-town runway. For a moment, we feared our high-flying fantasies had encountered disabling turbulence even before we set off.
Friends and family quickly rallied support. We took flight in the glow of headlights beaming from cars lined along the runway. Basking in newly-wed bliss, naively confident there’d be no problems we couldn’t handle!
My mother stayed behind at the church. There was cleanup, of course, but also history. She’d witnessed too many crashes already in life to hold faith in the buoyancy of dreams, or the safety of small, private aircraft. A single mother, widowed at 38, with two children to show for just ten years of marriage, she had learned to expect the unexpected. She’d stiffened against the risks of tenderness, determined simply to survive when my father’s tragic fall from a scaffold forced her to create a life from the slim resources accrued in a brief marriage.
The year was 1950. I was seven, my brother just five. We stiffened, too, over the years. Grief moved in as a family member, a ghostly shadow none of us ever quite released.
No wonder, then, that her fears boiled into anger when I announced an intention to secure a marriage license before completing a college degree. A mother who’d felt the floor capsize beneath her dreams now wanted nothing more for her daughter than security. An education and a teaching certificate.
I wanted joy. I wanted dreams. I wanted the sunshine beyond the shadows. I thought I’d found that warmth in Dean. I was right. And so was she. That teaching degree came in handy when the man I’d wed pursued his own degrees through the early years of our marriage. A few years later, it opened the door to a newspaper career that challenged our assumptions and redirected ambitions.
Looking back this year, from the summit of 50 years together, we scan a landscape of work and educational pursuits that that carried us from Oregon to Kansas, to Wisconsin and then to London. Households of furniture bought and sold at garage sales with each move. The battered VW van we bought in Costa Rica and drove back to jobs in Kansas. The macramé rugs we proudly knotted ourselves and spread on linoleum floors.
“We never fell out of love
at the same time.”
Stripped of friends and furnishings, we formed our own community in those years. We baked pumpkin pies and gingerbread cookies to combat the loneliness of Thanksgiving and Christmas far from home. We became our own best friends.
Then, in a tempestuous decade of transition from adventurous students to aspiring adults, we tested the strength of that friendship. Career changes. Job losses. Family expectations. Was marriage harder or simpler because no children arrived? For a time, professional spirals launched us on separate flights—he into the heady power of a fresh doctorate degree and an administrative post in a medical school—me, into the seductive clout of a newspaper byline.
The year was 1977. A battle over women’s rights raged across the nation. I stood on the front lines in America’s heartland, funneling the passion of strong-minded women into newspaper interviews for The Wichita (KS) Eagle—Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Phyllis Schlafly—powerful, persuasive women lined up on opposing sides of the Equal Rights Amendment. Professionally, I walked a middle line, covering both sides as a journalist. But the passion of their voices bled through the newsprint and I absorbed the intensity of questions that challenged me as a woman, a wife, an employee receiving unequal pay.
Reverberations rattled the expectations of our 1964 marriage. At home, I raged against credit card denials, phone book anonymity, and the joint checking account We talked. We balked. We counseled. We shared concerns and questions in a couples’ support group. We did what many couples of our era did in those tempestuous years: we fortified the foundations of our relationship by re-evaluating the assumptions we had carried to the altar.
On the 21st anniversary of our marriage, I dressed in my long white wedding gown once more. Dean rented an elegant grey morning jacket with ascot. We stood before friends and recited vows that now held new depth for us. We called it a “coming of age” ceremony, an acknowledgement of the maturation of our relationship.
The year was 1985. We’d made our way back to Eugene by then, forging a stability that held us upright through economic downturns, career changes and the cancer that came later. These days, as we advance into a sixth decade of partnership, we no longer question the enduring stability of this relationship, fortified with both gold and steel.
When asked how we managed to get this far together, we shrug and quote a sage cousin: “We never fell out of love at the same time.”
We wonder, now, how we will manage to survive without one another. We make uneasy jokes to blunt the fears that flit across the horizon. I tease Dean about the cute young thing in the short golf skirt who’ll catch his eye as soon as I exit the scene. He responds with taunts about the buff trainer I’ll hire when he’s not here to share my walks.
An interview earlier this year with a woman who outlived her husband of 53 years brought painful truths about the inevitable sorrow that awaits one or the other of us.
“All love stories end in sadness,” she cautioned. I know. I lived inside the haunting sadness that sustained my mother’s love story long after death cut that narrative short. And here am I, recounting the many chapters of a love story that wends through more than 50 years. I should be grateful! And I am. Grateful and also greedy.
“Not, yet. Not yet,” I whisper. So many plans still before us. So many planes yet to board.
Carolyn Scott Kortge is a former Register-Guard reporter and editor,
and author of "The Spirited Walker." Contact her at email@example.com