I am settling into my seat on a Southwest flight en route from Cleveland to Baltimore, and as I’m buckling up I notice that Dennis Kucinich is in the row in front of me. The Democratic congressman and 2008 presidential candidate from Ohio, if you can’t picture him, is short, in his mid- sixties, and has large ears and an elfin face. It is five minutes from takeoff and just as the flight attendant is about to begin her air- mask spiel, a six- foot latecomer with waist- length red hair and tight jeans comes racing on board, puts one long leg over the armrest, and cozies up so close to Kucinich she is practically sitting on top of him. This is not hyperbole: She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. And she looks like a college student.
She kisses his ear, his cheek, then they start making out. They radiate the heat of teenagers in the backseat of a car. I break the “cell phone off” rule and text my friend Max: “Need NOW. Google Dennis Kucinich and tell me if he’s married and if yes, how
long.” God love Max: In less than a minute, before we start our whoosh down the runway, she reports that these incongruous lovebirds are thirty- one years apart and have been married for six years, Elizabeth Harper is his third wife, and he is her first husband. (I then turned my phone off , for any FAA official reading this.) Back in my office, I did some more digging on her official website, on which is posted a thorough article titled “How Kucinich Found Love,” by Evelyn Theiss, that ran just after they wed, in the October 30, 2005, edition of Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. I discovered that Harper is an activist from the English village of North Ockendon who grew up in a cottage where Pea Lane meets Dennis Lane. She saw this as a sign that the politician, always the shortest boy in his class, was meant to be with her, always the tallest girl in the class. She met Kucinich when she visited his office on Capitol Hill on behalf of her job with the Chicago- based American Monetary Institute.
Harper said that she knew within “eight minutes” of their first encounter that Kucinich would be her husband, and that she “loves everything” about the man known for championing humanitarian crusades. Having traveled to India at the age of eighteen to work with Mother Teresa’s charity, she immediately noticed the bust of Gandhi on Kucinich’s shelf, another sign of a soul mate. A few months later, they were dancing at their wedding reception in the rotunda of Cleveland City Hall. The groom was fifty- eight, and the bride, who has a pierced tongue, was twentyseven. Elizabeth shoos off naysayers of the May- December match with this explanation to The Plain Dealer reporter Theiss: “And it’s not like I’m some ditsy young thing and he’s an old fogey. He has the wisdom of an ancient and the energy of youth.” Theiss got the first story, fresh off the blush of the nuptials. I would love to interview Elizabeth Harper Kucinich in ten or thirty years, when she has lived with her mate as long as the rest of the women portrayed in The Secret Lives of Wives. These are wives who have accrued lots of ancient wisdom about what can feel like ancient marriages. Not many of them would lope down an airplane aisle and start nuzzling and necking with their husbands, oblivious to the crowd, lost in lip- locks.
Let’s just say that the majority of my subjects, many of whom have been married longer than Mrs. Kucinich has been alive, have a bit less romantic spring to their steps. Yet, with each passing year, they have more grounding intelligence about matters of the heart.
They have shown me through example that the fleeting intoxication of new love, if we’re lucky, leads to something deeper and better— a permanent attachment.
I wish Mr. and Mrs. Kucinich that luck, and most importantly, grit and the ability to surrender in paving the way toward a forever marriage. Voices in this book will help show them the way. I’ve only been a wife for twenty- three years, a newcomer compared to the Golden Anniversary girls you are about to meet. But we vintage wives of a certain age know that while steamy moments of intimacy do stoke the fires of marriage— lots of us do still make out with our husbands— it’s stamina at the level of soul that makes for a lasting relationship.
I have learned so many valuable lessons and secrets on how to stay married during this two- year research project on love, hate, and carrying on. One thing I know for sure that is personified in the congressman from Ohio and his English fair maiden is that what draws a couple together is a spiritual mystery that only the two of them can understand. Yet what keeps a husband and wife together is not so mysterious.
There are some very basic survival strategies that definitely inflate our odds of staying on this side of the divorce rate that hits about 43 percent of first- time American marriages. Frankly, that’s why I wrote this book: I’m a midlife wife facing an empty nest looking for answers on how to accomplish what can feel like the impossible dream: maintaining passion, commitment, and my sanity with one person, in one house, for the rest of my life. The biggest takeaway for me is the importance of sustaining a strong sense of an evolving self apart from the relationship.
I consistently make the point throughout this book that there is no gold standard for marriage, that each couple can write their own rules that match their individual levels of acceptance and intolerance— and that it’s really no one else’s damn business. In fact, many of my sources opt to remain anonymous, and in those cases, a pseudonym of their choice has been given; there is no surname, and identifying details have been changed. Sources who spoke freely on the record are quoted with their real first and last names.
Whether an identity is shielded or not, the substance of all the oral histories is true to the bone and based on lengthy interviews that took several hours, and in most cases, several days. Any similarities to names or stories of persons portrayed in the oral histories to persons not interviewed are coincidental. Terry and Pat Attridge epitomize the hard reality of a long marriage apart from the fantasy haze of new romance. Both children of Irish immigrants and raised Catholic in Brooklyn, they have been sweethearts since college and married for fifty- eight years. Pat, a retired school teacher, and Terry, a retired federal magistrate judge, are still standing strong after weathering some of the worst blows any couple should ever endure. Three months after they got engaged, Pat was drafted to fight in the Korean War. He was deployed in February 1953 and severely injured within four months by mortar fire that tore up half his face, resulting in the loss of sight in his right eye and hearing in his right ear. At a time when a bride should be her most expectant and blissful, Terry was at the bedside of a fiancé with disfiguring wounds, healing from multiple reconstructive surgeries. “This may sound like a lopsided reaction, but when Pat went to Korea, I was really afraid he was going to get killed,” says Terry, eighty-one, a perky woman dressed in a navy jogging suit with turquoise piping. Her eyes are bright blue and her hair is champagne blond. “So even though his injuries were very serious, I wasn’t overwhelmed with sorrow because I thought ‘he’s alive, he’s coming home.’” In between treatments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Terry and Pat got married. “I had a lot of loss all at once,” Terry adds softly. “I lost my dad and my mother and my brother very close to each other. We lost one of our grandchildren, and I lost a breast to cancer. I am someone who is able to deal with challenges well. Because instead I focus on what we have!”
Terry rises and shows me a large photograph on the entry hall wall of what she calls “Attridge Nation”—their four children, who spawned eleven grandchildren, all of whom have Attridge Nation bumper stickers on their cars.
“I know we’ve been through a lot but I got off easy compared to what other people have gone through,” she says. “Truthfully, you live long enough, bad things eventually happen to us all. I’ve been able to handle just about everything because I know my husband is there for me, and I am there for him.
“You ride the waves together.”
As she walks me to my car, Pat, a vigorous eighty- two- year old with some facial paralysis, is on his knees planting heather in their garden. Terry holds my hands tightly and tells me that she hopes I stay married as long as she did so I can experience my own “grandmother joys.” She witnessed the first marriage of a grandchild in the summer of 2010: “It was the happiest day of my life,” Terry says, choking back tears. “Neither of us ever expected to live this long to see this; we were so proud of this dynasty we created. As a couple we have been so fortunate, to have one long life with the same person. I can still look at my old Pat and see the boy from Brooklyn.
“When things got tough I always believed that something good was around the corner. I was brought up to believe in my faith and that marriage was forever, and so I stuck it out. And the reward is that after making it this far I get to be Queen of Attridge Nation!”
I pull up in my driveway, and in the approach to our house I walk by the thirty- two- foot leyland cypress trees my husband and I planted as saplings when our four sons were toddlers. Our children, ages seventeen through twenty- one, now stand six feet to six feet five, and they’ve lived in the same house with the same parents for nearly their entire lives. As they venture out and start their own tribes I will be the queen waiting for them to come home again, so I can fuss over Anthony Nation, in our old house, in our old marriage, amid the towering trees.
As I write these last words in this book on long marriages, many regions in our world are rippled with chaos and instability, from earthquakes, tsunamis, or multiple wars. I am grateful that this husband and wife have been able to provide a safe and stable harbor for our children and for each other.
What a relief.
Reprinted from The Secret Lives of Wives by Iris Krasnow by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Iris Krasnow.