Chapter 1: A long, long time

He’s standing at the checkout counter feeling proud of himself. It took a while, but he had figured the place out. It’s big and dark and glitzy, more like a nightclub than a supermarket.

After five minutes of wandering through aisles lined with dog food, frozen dinners and free-range chickens, he had managed to find the dairy section and a gallon of two percent milk for their two little grandsons.

Now he’s having trouble getting his credit card to work. He looks up at the cashier. “Just tell me what to do,” he says. “I’m good at taking orders. I’ve been married a long time.”

One of his silly jokes, but the young lady doesn’t laugh. She gives him a quizzical look and says, “Just slide the card again and push the green button.”

“A long time,” he says absentmindedly. He long ago lost track of the years. Now he dutifully follows the young lady’s guidance and masters the credit card routine. “There you go. You’ve got it,” she says, looking both amused and puzzled.

The man walks away thinking, “It has been a long time.” Even if he has trouble remembering exactly how long.

The first time he saw her was in 1968. After living his whole life in the same house in Chicago, he had found his way to Baltimore and a new job. His prospective boss’s secretary met him at the elevator and led him down the hallway. She was a pretty and friendly young woman who filled out her dress quite nicely.

That was just a stray thought. He was here on business, making a mid-life career change at 28.

That’s what he thought this trip to Baltimore was all about, a new job. The Lord God of Heaven and Earth had a different idea. This was all about the Lady who filled out her dress quite nicely.

A month after he started working, they went on their first date. A few more months and they were engaged. Three more months and they were married. Eleven more and their baby daughter appeared, to be followed by four brothers.

Somewhere along the way the young woman who filled out her dress quite nicely became The Lady Who Works for Food, spending her days presiding over a house filled with five kids, one husband and a father-in-law in his 80s from the West of Ireland. She took it all in stride, working for food, as the family joke went, but really working for love.

He worked at his new job for two years. They have been married for 50 but they don’t think of marriage as an endurance contest with prizes awarded for the number of years you manage to survive. You marry once and for all. That was fine with them.

When it comes to marriage, the husband is a bit more Catholic than the pope. He doesn’t want death to part them. Heaven would not be heaven if she was not there at his side.

He had heard people talk about how hard it is to stay married, how each “partner” had to give 100 percent, maybe 110 percent. That sort of talk puzzled him. Being married to the Lady had been no trouble at all.

He had been surprised once when two deeply religious coworkers told him about “rough patches” that threatened to end their marriages. He told his wife the stories and asked her, “Did we ever have a rough patch?” He didn’t think so, just checking.

The Lady shook her head as he asked the question, gave him a puzzled look and said, “No.”

A few times over the years, they had let the sun set on their anger but they always managed to make up at sunrise. “With the dawn comes rejoicing.” They were busy living. They didn’t have time to brood over injuries.

They shuttled across the country – from Baltimore to Chicago, back to Baltimore, back to Chicago, back to Baltimore – as their family grew. Thirty years ago, they landed in Sacramento. He worked at newspapers, she cared for the kids. That’s what they wanted to do, and they did it.

Along the way came toils and troubles, sorrows and joys. They weep for their oldest son, but they firmly believe they will see him again in the land of the living where every tear is wiped away.

They proudly say their children all have good hearts. No evil has settled I their souls.

As the man walks into the dark parking lot, his cell phone rings. “Where are you?” the Lady says. “You’ve been gone an awful long time just to get a gallon of milk.”

“Sorry,” he says. “This place is the size of 12 football fields. I had a hard time finding the milk. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“OK. I was just getting a little worried.”

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