Three anniversaries, 3 gifts, one refining process of grace
“Paper, Silver and Gold.” That’s what it said on a card by the anniversary cake my wife made.
Your first anniversary, by tradition, is paper. That was for my daughter and her husband, married in 2016.
Your 25th anniversary is silver. That was for April and me, married in 1992.
The golden anniversary was my in-laws’. They were married in 1967, 50 years ago.
Paper, silver and gold. I stared at the words and they took on more meaning as I looked.
Paper is the marriage certificate. And the wedding-gift thank-yous. And your first Christmas card together. It’s your ticket to start.
Silver is the forks and knives you got as gifts — but then you had to add more for the kids and then more for Thanksgiving. The silver is not for you. It is for gathering and feeding others.
Gold is the wedding ring.
In year one, that ring felt unnatural and clanked against stuff accidentally. In year 25, you sometimes wanted to hock it for cash. By year 50, that golden ring is part of you. You hardly notice it, but would miss it terribly if it were gone.
Do you know how paper, silver and gold are made? I looked it up.
To make paper, you take raw materials — bits and pieces of rag or wood — and chop them to bits and beat them to a pulp for hours. Throw in some unexpected materials to add interest and beauty. Then soak it, flatten it, squash it and dry it until it’s rough and unkempt but united into one thing that will last.
Then you stretch it thin.
This is how the first year of marriage works, too. You take your strength and your mess, add it to her strength and mess, beat it together with the hard reality of a shared life, use the unexpected to add character, soak it in happy times, flatten it with exhaustion at the end of each week, and mush the two into one thing.
Then you stretch it thin.
Silver is harder to make. The key is that 80 percent of silver is used for industrial purposes. It’s something beautiful that is hidden inside something useful. That’s your marriage at 25, too.
To make silver, you take the rocks from the mine and put them through a Primary Crusher and then a Secondary Crusher — you know, the way you feed your hopes and dreams, like George Bailey, into the Primary Crusher of a not-your-dream job, then the Secondary Crusher of the bills and taxes and fees you have to pay for everything you and your children touch.
Then you feed these broken down pieces through the pulverizer — which is very like the process of family life, whereby our egos are churned to dust by living with, by, and for others, 24/7.
The resulting rock dust is burned in a furnace for hours — you know, like the burning furnace of God’s love that is so intense it turns troubles and pain into grace and love.
Collect it, cool it, and you have something beautiful and useful.
Gold is harder to find. Gold miners have to go deep underground and drill in a pattern specified by engineers. Gold is always found intertwined with other metals. It has to be ground into mud and then the gold doesn’t rise to the top, it sinks to the bottom.
We went to an archdiocesan 50th wedding anniversary Mass and we saw the same thing. The couples came down the aisle and you wouldn’t think you were seeing the most beautiful thing on earth. They were all shapes and mismatched sizes. Some were spry, practically athletic; some struggled, slowly putting one foot before the other.
One husband waited patiently for his wife, bent almost double at the waist. He was beaming. One wife held her husband’s hand by placing hers over his where he gripped his walker.
When they renewed their vows, looking into each other’s eyes, a tall broad-shouldered man in front of me began to shake with sobs. His small wife’s bright smile and firm hand steadied him and he stopped.
Then I knew I was looking at the most beautiful thing in the world.
Your first anniversary is a terrifyingly blank piece of paper on which you will write the story of your life.
Your 25th anniversary is a table setting of silver, a little the worse for wear; tarnished, but that can be fixed.
Your 50th glows. Maybe it looked like mud. That got washed off. The gold is what stays.