Family Values

Today, Feb. 17, my parents have been married for 65 years. They are still living in their home by themselves, at 89 and 91. Our family is very lucky to have them still with us, still in good spirits and relatively good health.

We appreciate all they've done for us, and for others, during their long life together.

One of the nice things about growing up with two parents like mine was that they introduced their offspring to many different ways of enjoying life.

From my father, I learned to love music. Most nights when my sister and I were little, after he came back from serving in the Navy in World War II, he sang us to sleep with the deep bass voice that had made him a valued member of his undergraduate glee club. The repertoire didn't vary much, though it was democratically mixed: popular ditties from the '20s and '30s, college fight songs, spirituals, operetta standards, and always Brahms' Lullaby as the finale.

From my mother, I learned to love words. She knew about all the best children's authors of the era: Milne, White, Travers. When I got older, she'd read aloud with me from favorite poets. I particularly enjoyed our dramatic reading of Robert Browning's poetic thriller,"My Last Duchess." A high point of the week for both of us was the day the mailman brought "The New Yorker." My mother went right for the short stories, while I started off with cartoons but eventually moved on to the hard stuff. She also knew the best places to get used books, so we read lovely illustrated editions of all the 19th and early 20th century classics: Alcott, Hawthorne, Cooper, Scott, DickensÂ…

My mother has always known the best places to get everything to enrich life. She follows, without doing it consciously, William Morris's dictum "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," but her ace in the hole is that she's very good at finding what she believes to be beautiful at bargain rates. My childhood trips with her to "Father Dempsey's" thrift emporium taught me that you can turn your living space into a personal art gallery on any budget. She still loves to go to a garage sale of a Sunday.

My father liked outdoor excursions too when my sister and I were growing up, but nature walks rather than garage sales. He showed us the interesting things you can see on any outdoor path at a child's level: the way acorns come apart, and what caterpillars are up to.

My parents set a good example for their children; both my sister and I have been happily married for more than 40 years. We can testify to the many joys of a stable family life. My parents still take care of one another every day, and often, still, of their children, their grandchildren, and now their great-grandchildren.

That's what marriage is all about, in the end, people taking care of other people. Love helps, and of course passion (which is not the same as love) gets things off to a rousing start. But what marriage really means is that adults have voluntarily accepted the duty of looking after one another and of bringing up children if they have them. Many religions, including the Christian church, have traditionally viewed marital promises as being made by the spouses to one another, sometimes blessed by the approval of a priest or a congregation, but valid with or without the participation of the state.

When people agree to take on additional responsibilities to one another by marrying, the community as a whole benefits. That's why governments have historically conferred special privileges on those who are willing to get married, providing them with stable rules for property ownership, inheritance and tax benefits. Many countries such as France have two ceremonies, one in church and the other at city hall, to recognize the dual nature of marriage.

Of course people sometimes take care of one another even without marriage. Families, whether or not they are state-sanctioned, take care of each other much of the time. Friends do look out for friends, whether or not they've promised to do so. But the distinctive thing about the marriage contract is that it's both voluntary (unlike families) and intended to be binding (unlike friendships).

Until recently, the most obvious benefit of conventional marriage to the rest of society was that two grown-ups signed up in advance to raise the kids of the next generation. Religious groups have been wary about trusting members of other religions to do this important job, so they've often put barriers in the way of "mixed marriages." When my parents were married in 1939, they couldn't be married in church, because my mother was a Catholic and my father was not, though a priest did agree to marry them in my grandparents' home.

By the time I got married 21 years later, Catholics had dropped the rule against church weddings, but there were still state-enforced prohibitions of racially "mixed marriages." Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court outlaw "statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications."

Times change. Children in the upcoming generation of American families like ours have ancestors from Africa and Asia as well as from Europe. Their parents have gotten married in multi-religious or non-religious ceremonies. And 30 more years out, our descendants will be amazed to learn that it was once considered to be in the public interest to prevent consenting adults from promising to take care of one another, just because of what they do or don't do in their bedrooms. Statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of gender classifications will then seem as absurd as the unconstitutional laws against racially mixed marriages do now.

With the widespread availability of birth control, children are no longer considered an inevitable result of marriage, even when partners are of different genders. People who won't have children to take care of them in their old age need, even more, to make sure that someone has signed up for the job. It's not safe, in the age of Bush and Schwarzenegger, with managed care, attacks on Medicare, falling stock values, and looted pension funds in the news, to rely on government to provide a safety net.

But when children are part of the plan, it's even clearer that any kind of marriage prohibition is foolish. Those who want to conceive children can do so with or without marriage, but it's in the best interest of society to do everything possible to encourage those who want to become parents to find partners to help with the job. Religious groups, under our constitution, are allowed to have all kinds of silly rules about which marriages they bless, but we should expect more from the government. There is no good public policy reason for the state to dictate what the sexual relationship between parental partners needs to be.

My parents are different kinds of people, and that made them more creative and interesting parents, but the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman was not the most important difference between them. Every child deserves parents like mine. Many children have been successfully raised by single parents, but children are who come into the world, as I did, with two fine though different people already signed up to educate them about life and its pleasures, are very fortunate.

The new mayor of San Francisco has gotten a lot of praise for removing marriage barriers for same-sex couples, and he deserves it. There's no reason for officials all over the country not to do the same.

Becky O'Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.

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