It’s 1962. My brother, Bill, is 19. His new girlfriend, Cheryl, is 17. They decide to go for a drive in his new yellow Opel with the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. They head north from New York City toward New Paltz to take a hike at Mohonk in the Shawangunk Mountains, a glacial ridge of sacred beauty. Nestled in one corner of the mountains is a dirt path that leads up to the historic hotel overlooking the Catskills. Behind it is a quarry lake so deep, the water so black, that it can be imagined as a nesting place for wishes, a portal to possibility, destiny, even magic, a holding space for lovers’ memories.
They park the car in a small lot and head up a winding path toward the hotel. Sometimes they walk tandem over a narrow precipice, and sometimes they hold hands.
At one point along the trail, Bill takes out a pocket knife and carefully etches a heart with his and her initials into a tree.
Does he know then? Does she? That he isn’t just another boyfriend, that she isn’t another girlfriend? That a life-long love is being engraved into an oak trunk to commemorate that walk and to those feelings for a hundred years?
Now it’s 1965, the year Cheryl and Bill get engaged. Right before he proposes, he sits down with our mother, who looks at him with uncharacteristic seriousness and asks, “Are you sure?” And he answers with uncharacteristic certitude, “Yes.”
It’s 2012. Bill died three years ago. He and Cheryl were together for 47 years. This week I went to find that tree and the hand-carved note he wrote into his future.
On the trail
How many initials carved into trees are a testament to too little judgment and too much moonshine? How many are a testament to loves lost and hearts still aching? How many are able to draw us a picture of two people on a trail, walking a little slower, perhaps, but still holding hands?
Years back, we used to see more of those hearts and letters. They used to be on trees or on park benches. Occasionally you would see one on a bus, carved into a seat or scrawled onto an ad. Over time, instead of carvings we saw spray paint splattered onto rocks and concrete bridges: “CS and CJ,” “I love Lane,” “Joey loves Marcy.”
Now we see them rarely in any form. Instead of initials, we see graffiti celebrating the self or splattering rage. Fewer and fewer people seem willing to make even the temporary commitment to paint. Carving initials into a tree that can last longer than we’d live? Never.
I asked Cheryl if she knew he was the one when she met him. “It wasn’t for me, but it was for him,” she laughed. “He talked about marriage from the beginning. He was open, honest. He poured out his whole life on our first date.”
And that communication proved to be the bedrock for the duration. “I could talk to him about anything. And there was nothing he wouldn’t do for me. I remember one time, it was snowing and he couldn’t drive to see me. But he was determined. So he started walking from Yonkers. He called when he reached the Whitestone Bridge to Queens. He walked miles in the snow. My mother had to tell him to go home, not to dare cross the bridge in a storm.”
Is that sort of love predictable? Chemical? Repeatable? Is it even noticeable? Can we tell the difference between lasting love and young lust? Is it a choice, a learned capacity, or a gift?
Denise Schipani interviewed dozens of couples for an online article in The Ladies’ Home Journal. They were all married more than 20 years and reported themselves to be happy.
How did they do that? Each one had a different story. For Margaret C. it was about being satisfied with what was offered. For Russell S. a happy marriage came from acceptance.
Cheryl thinks the secret may be generational. “A lot of the couples we grew up with are still married, but sometimes that meant keeping their heads in the sand. Our generation overlooked more than yours does. Yours says, I’m outta here. And the women now, they have the jobs, the means to leave. It’s easier today. When it’s not that easy, you find ways to work it out. You make a conscious choice to not let a moment, a resentment, a fear, take over the whole marriage.”
While making good sense, all these comments are retrospections, not prescriptions. They are simple observations, not recipes. And they certainly don’t tell us how to know beforehand, if in fact there is a way to know — although my brother Bill showed little hesitation when he picked up his knife and started carving.