I turn 50 this weekend. That's old enough for an identity and I can, depending on who asks, identify myself as a writer, a parent, a farmer, a rugby player or pilot. For other audiences and demographers, I can be a Vietnam-era veteran, a person of Irish ancestry, a Roman Catholic -- even a driver, a beer drinker, a runner and a subscriber to various magazines.
What I really am is married.
Bosses, rugby players and editors may see me as a speech writer, a wing forward, a columnist from the country. But to most of the people I care about I'm simply a part of an entity called Bill and Gloria.
As in, "let's invite Bill and Gloria to dinner," "It's Bill and Gloria's anniversary," "Ask Bill and Gloria to watch Kelly," "Let's see the new lambs at Bill and Gloria's."
I didn't set out to become part of a team as closely linked as Abbott and Costello or Romeo and Juliet. What I wanted to do one spring evening 27 years ago was simply to take a pretty girl to dinner. She was 20 and guileless. She thought I was sophisticated because I wore a tie, bought her flowers and took her to a good restaurant on our first date.
She's spent 27 years wondering why she was ever so naive. She lives with a man who shows off rugby wounds like a small boy and who likes to get dirty playing in the garden. I still wonder how she can be so innocent.
I wonder, too, how she can be so tolerant. After we'd been married for eight years, I took up serious running -- 5 or 6 miles a day. When that paled, I began rugby and have called from emergency rooms four times to say I would be late for supper. We'd been married about 20 years when I began flying lessons. If she's extra worried, she's never shown it.
The tolerance works both ways. I'm underwhelmed by crafts, yard sales or women's movies. But I have been a faithful, if often grudging and silent, companion to innumerable and indistinguishable craft galleries, to yard sales featuring material that flood victims would reject and to movies as awful as "The Color Purple," "Terms of Endearment" and "Moonstruck."
What we do together is garden. She likes flowers; I like vegetables. She plans. I dig holes where told. I carry trees and flats of petunias. She says, "There . . . there . . . there," and I say, "As you wish."
"As you wish." It's a line from "The Princess Bride," one of the talismans we share -- a book and movie we both loved. We've had a lot of those touchstones: a shared passion for auctions once; later a fondness for Irish music; we discovered opera and classical music pretty much together; we like hosting our annual harvest party for fellow gardeners and farmers; we begin each day with a shared prayer; "while you're up" means it's the other's turn to bring coffee.
We've moved nine times and owned houses in three states. We've both worked full-time while the other was in college full-time. We kept each other awake at 3 a.m. to bottle-feed new-born lambs, worked together for hours moving books and furniture when rain flooded the basement. I was a support when her father died early in our marriage; she was my rock when a brother died two years ago.
Our two children, of course, were the real focus. I'm not sure how many Lassie League and Little League games, how many gymnastic meets or wrestling matches we've been to. How many trips to the emergency room or nights of sitting together with a sick child. How many bedtime stories or coloring books, how many "I'm a Little Tea Pot" recitations (not enough; we loved every one) or how many tuition checks. But a lot -- and we did them together.
Our children are grown now, away at school. They call, write or check in from time to time; come home for a weekend or part of a vacation. But they have their own lives -- which is what we've told them they had to have since they were born and the lesson I'm most proud of imparting.
Which leaves my wife and me. The first one home begins supper for whichever of us is late that day. We catch up on personal news as TV news fills us in on the world. One of us often heads out to a meeting while the other says, "I'll clean up, have a good time."
I'm not sure what makes our marriage work. Fidelity, of course, and an anger at people who say of infidelity, "Everybody does it." We don't. Our friends don't. A sense of humor helps a lot; we both need it. A willingness to allow the other person to be an individual (my rugby, her pottery, my flying, her folk group) and yet to want to include the other in our activities.
That may be key: that we want the other to share what we have. She likes my rugby friends. I liked the Costa Rican teachers she met in a grad-school course last summer. We've had both groups at the house.
The thank-you notes from both groups were addressed to "Bill and Gloria." Which is fine. It's who I am. Who we are.
Bill Earls writes from Middlefield, Connecticut.