Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 23, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Weddings and Hometown Memories
Marriage is a good thing. A woman and a man, joining together to create
a new family.
Oh, I've heard all the reasons why marriage is unnecessary. As Joni
Mitchell once sang, "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping
us tried and true."
And that's correct, as far as it goes. To make a promise between two
people, all you need is the two people. I mean, duh. How hard is that?
But marriage isn't a promise between two people. Even before churches
or governments got involved (indeed, before there were churches or
governments as we understand them today), marriage wasn't marriage just
because two people found each other irresistible.
It became marriage only when it took place in the eyes of the community
-- with the recognition by the neighbors that this marriage was worthy to take
place as an equal among the other households.
Marriage is a promise, not just to each other, but to everybody else, that:
1. You are now out of circulation. You are no longer "shopping" among
2. You will be faithful to your spouse, which means you will not pose a
danger to bthe marital fidelity of other couples. This is a vital protection for the
stability of society -- especially for men, so they don't have to fear raising your
child by stealth.
3. You and your spouse have proper respect for the opinions and
judgments of those among whom you live. They expect you to obey certain
social forms, and you have followed them, thus affirming your membership in
4. You will take care of your spouse even if the original attraction fades,
or one of you gets sick or crippled.
5. You will provide for any children that are born to you, and endeavor to
raise them to have at least as much respect for the expectations of the
community as you showed by getting properly married. Thus you are
promising to help the community to continue to exist across the generations.
In exchange, the community promises:
1. Others will not try to break up your marriage or have an affair with
your spouse, and if someone does try (or succeed), they will be condemned by
all decent people.
2. You will be treated as an adult, a full participant in the life of the
community, even if you're still quite young. You will be regarded by all others
as the most important person in each other's lives.
3. You will be given great leeway in how you decide to care for your
children, but if you prove incapable -- neglectful or dangerous -- your children
will be protected from you, so that even if you don't deserve it, your attempt to
reproduce still has a chance at being successful.
4. If your children are orphaned, or your spouse widowed, the
community will step in to help take care of them, and respect their inheritance
rights -- and, again, the community will help your attempts at reproduction to
These promises vary in their specifics from culture to culture, but among
civilized people, cultures that make and keep these promises concerning
marriage are far more likely to survive than those that don't.
This is because the loyal family that has the recognition and support of
the surrounding community is vital to the ability of the community to survive
across time, and of the married couple to have some assurance of letting their
In other words, people who marry within a society that values marriage
are more likely to have offspring that survive to reproduce themselves. And
societies that value marriage are more likely to thrive and continue generation
That's why famous people who make a big deal about not being married
are, in fact, damaging everybody else's marriage.
That's why the adulteries of somebody like, say, Bill Clinton are not just
a matter between him and Hillary. Clinton, and all who reacted as if his
infidelities were nobody else's business, were seriously weakening the idea of
marriage -- on which society absolutely depends.
What provoked this diatribe on the obvious? (Obvious, that is, to
civilized people, and yes, I understand and mean the implications of that.)
My firstborn son was married this past weekend, in Seattle, to a
wonderful young woman from North Carolina. They've entered into the family
business. Or, rather, the business of family.
Naturally, like every other couple getting married, they have no idea what
they're getting into.
And like all the married couples I know of who are actually trying to
make it work, they'll find that sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's
Bad things happen no matter how careful you are. Feelings get hurt.
Dreams go unfulfilled. There's never enough of this, always too much of that.
Children cause grief and dread; their suffering makes you suffer. People you
love are inconsiderate enough to die when you don't want them to. You
sometimes wonder what you're doing married to this person.
But there are good things, too, when both partners want to make the
marriage work. Children cause far more joy than grief. At least, when loved
ones die, you had someone worth loving in your life. If you learn to dream of
better things, then your dreams come true after all. Forgiveness and
repentance heal wounds.
And at the end of it all, you'll know what joy is, and what life means, that
great circle of needing and giving, making and sharing.
At my son's wedding reception, the song he and his bride chose to dance
to was "The Luckiest," from Ben Folds's Rockin' the Suburbs cd. I'd heard the
album several times before, but never listened to the words, not till I saw them
dancing on the first night of that public promise to each other. Beautiful song.
Full of truth.
And I thought, No, I'm the luckiest. You two are too darn young to know
what lucky is.
My parents wanted to come to the wedding, but flying is a pain these
days, and since they live in Utah, it's not that big a deal to drive to Seattle.
However, they're not young anymore, and that much sitting and driving
can be a strain. So I flew to Utah (I had business there anyway with the game
company Glyphx) and drove up to Seattle with them.
On the way, we stayed a night in Richland, one of the tri-cities of
southeastern Washington -- which also happened to be the town where I was
My family moved away from Richland before I was two months old. But
my Uncle Sherm and Aunt Delpha had bought a farm in nearby Benton City,
and we visited them many summers during my growing up years. So I knew
What I didn't really know was what my family's life had been like there.
As we approached, and during our stay there, my parents told stories. All of
them were fascinating to me, but I can hardly expect them to be remotely
interesting to you, so no, I'm not going to take you through the newspaper
columnist's equivalent of slides of the family vacation.
But in their time in Richland, these Depression-raised, World-War-II
veteran people were struggling to find work to support their growing family,
sometimes doing outrageous things -- like moving into a cabin with no indoor
toilet or tub!
And in the midst of all this struggling, my young mother suddenly found
herself yearning to get other people to hear some of the songs her mother had
written, with music arranged by my talented Uncle Gordon.
So Mom wrote a script that linked the songs together (and then got
Grandma Parkee and Uncle Gordon to write a few new ones), and a woman in
the church group directed the play.
My dad built and painted the scenery, and he still takes pride in the fact
that it got applause. You see, in the first act, the set was a dilapidated house
with a weedgrown yard and shabby fence. Then the curtain went down, and
when, thirty seconds later, it came back up, the house and yard were
completely transformed -- freshly painted, flowers instead of weeds.
This was a stage with no fly system or turntable. That thirty-second set
change was done by making double-sided set pieces -- everything was simply
picked up and turned around.
My first, utterly selfish thought was, Oh, so I wasn't the first in my family
to write a hit musical. But despite my XXL ego, I didn't mind that a bit. It
made me kind of proud to be following in the family tradition. And proud also
that my mom loved her mother enough to go to all that trouble to get her songs
before an audience, at least once.
Now, my grandmother was a published poet and columnist in her day, so
it's not that she was lacking for public attention. But I know now, as a parent,
what it meant to her that her daughter showed her such respect and went to
such trouble. And what it meant to be part of an audience that enjoyed what
When we left Richland, we stopped to see my aunt in Benton City, and
those of my cousins who were at home, living in one of the other houses in the
The active orchards and vineyards have long since been sold; my uncle,
who moved his family to a farm, never made money at it -- but he raised
wonderful sons and daughters who knew what it meant to work hard and feel
the sun on their backs. Now they're all college-educated and many of them live
in big cities, but they have small-town hearts, farmers' hearts, and that's a
good thing in a country that barely knows what it's like to have the same
neighbors for forty or fifty years.
That's what my son and his wife have just entered into: that great web of
life, where parents make decisions that shape their children's lives. My wife
and I decided to raise our children, not in the West, but in North Carolina.
They would have been great kids wherever they grew up, but I think North
Carolina was as good a place as any, and far better than some, and they've
been happy here, and made good friends, and found love and joy along with
sorrows, and now they're dispersing, one in Seattle, one in L.A., two in a little
graveyard overlooking a lake in Utah, and one still at home with us, but all of
them a part of every bit of joy in our lives.
And I realize that there is nothing in my life that would mean anything
without my family.
That's why you get married. To forge those links, to earn that place of
trust, to take those risks, to find that joy.