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My two bridesmaids married before I did

David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on August 17, 2023 stating that a long, successful marriage is more important to a happy life than a successful career. Let’s think about that for a moment; so many people strive for money, thinking it will buy happiness. But the position stated here is that fulfillment comes from long-term, positive relationships. They impact our entire outlook on life.

I have been married for 49 years and have thought a lot about what goes into a successful marriage. I do not claim to have the answers, but I have puzzled through this for many years. I think a shared set of values is the basis to start from. Love and physical attraction are intangibles that can remain or fade, so other attributes need to be strong as well. The ability to communicate, nurture, empathize, to be compassionate, compromise. An ability to laugh with one with another and share the fun helps. A common sense of purpose also goes a long way too. These traits are ideal. In many instances, marriages stay together for the sake of the children, for financial reasons or inertia.

My Feature photo shows me with my wedding attendants, my two bridesmaids and a dear friend who sang before the procession. I’ve known all these women since our teen years and remain friendly with all to this day. All have successful marriages (one, regrettably, lost her husband to cancer in 2017). I would like to focus on my two bridesmaids.

Debbie

We have been friends since 8th grade. She is bubbly and smart, a committed Jew. Her mother became one of my surrogate mothers. She lived close by, had several close friends in the neighborhood and I was happy to be included in that circle. She is the bridesmaid on the right with short hair. I was always in her house; at some point, I dated her older brother, knew her aunts, uncles and cousins (they were members of our temple, she was more religious). She took me to her lake house. She dated Larry Bacow (the president emeritus of Harvard) before dating the man she would marry. I saw him at a lecture this summer and reminded him of that. He remembered her fondly. She is that kind of person.

She met Eugene in 11th grade Physics class. He wanted to be her lab partner as she was the cutest girl in class. She took all the hard science courses because she knew what she wanted to be at a young age: a veterinarian. Yet she had time to be a cheerleader, be in “Bye Bye Birdie” with me, or work backstage on some of the other plays. She had boundless energy. When she started dating Eugene, I was the third wheel (he was a grade ahead of us and I knew all his friends through my friend Chick – we were friends from temple and he lived around the corner from me, he’d come over and we’d hang out, but never date). Once Debbie started dating Eugene, that was it. They were IT.

Eugene went off to Cornell, but transferred back to the University of Michigan when Deb went into the five year program at Michigan State for their veterinary program so they wouldn’t be so far apart. I dated her older brother the summer after our Freshman year and we were a foursome. They taught me to play bridge, but Eugene had to partner me, as David had little patience with the beginner. We’d go camping together. For a while I wasn’t the third wheel, but David and I didn’t last long. Deb and Gene still welcomed me.

They married on March 24, 1973. My father let me come home from Boston to attend the wedding. I was overjoyed. Debbie was still in school, Eugene took a job teaching math in Jackson, outside Ann Arbor. After Debbie finished her schooling, they moved back to Huntington Woods, where we were all from (Eugene grew up a few blocks from Debbie). Eventually they bought a house two doors down from my parent’s home. They had their first child, but Debbie could still work part-time. Eugene worked for his father’s paper company. They made grocery store bags. His father’s company was bought by a St. Louis firm and Eugene’s job moved with it. They already had two children, but Debbie continued to work.

Early photo shoot with 2 of their 3 children

I couldn’t see them as often. We’d exchange letters and photos of our growing families. Debbie was ambitious. She went into a new graduate program. She became one of the first-ever board certified animal psychologists. Eugene pitched in and helped raise the (now) three children. Debbie established a lucrative private consulting practice and became an in-demand speaker. They traveled together all over the world to conferences. They enjoyed going to sporting events with the kids, including coming to Boston to see a game at Fenway Park. The family had fun together.

A Boston visit (in our home with all their children, me and David), 1991

Eugene brought Laura on her college tours, including to Brandeis and Tufts and I visited with them then. She chose Tufts (when Larry Bacow was president of that university, which was the first time he reconnected with Debbie). I saw the whole family when they came in for Laura’s graduation. We stayed with them when Vicki visited Washington University in 2006.

They bought a condo in Naples, Fl which gave us another chance to connect in 2008.

Naples, FL, 2008

But mostly, we kept up via phone, email and then Facebook. Their family has grown to seven grandchildren, four in St. Louis, three (Ben, the youngest son lives in New Orleans) not. Eugene is the second of four brothers who are far-flung. His mother is gone, but his father, aged 102, still lives in Phoenix. Debbie visits him regularly.

So the news, in 2014, that Eugene had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, hit us all in the gut. I spoke to Debbie as often as I could. She cancelled her speaking engagements. The diagnosis wasn’t exactly correct. The cancer was at the intersection of the stomach and the esophageous. But Eugene made the best of it and, feeling up for it, still took Laura to NYC to see “Hamilton”. He died on March 16, 2017. It had been a long, happy marriage.

How does one move on from that? Debbie had two children, four grandchildren, lots of friends close by, who were by her side. They, plus work, kept her going. A little over a year ago, she moved out of the home she had shared with Eugene into a townhome in the same community. She was tired of all the outdoor upkeep and who can blame her. And earlier this year, she finally told me that she was dating someone and she was happy. I am thrilled for her. They are taking it slow, but it is nice to have companionship again. I say – bravo! She deserves it.

Patti

I met Patti in 10th grade. (Patti is the bridesmaid with the long dark hair on my other side.) We were in Geometry class, Girl’s Choir, but we really bonded during “Bye Bye, Birdie” rehearsals where she was choreographer, I was “Randi”, Kim’s little sister (it is a male role, but they changed it in our production) and a certain senior named John Z. was the rehearsal accompanist. So I was there to witness the birth of that relationship too. I guess I’ve been a third wheel for much of my life. The two of them were just smitten with each other and Patti and I found that we were kindred spirits, loving so many artistic pursuits.

For the next several years, we were in the choirs and madrigals groups and worked on the musicals together, she as choreographer, I as head of make-up and finally took a role in “The Music Man” our senior year. I didn’t get either of the parts I wanted, but didn’t want to pass up my last chance to be in a play at my high school (my talents were rewarded at Brandeis).

I spent more and more time at Patti’s after I got my driver’s license and my mother would let me use her car. Patti did not live close by, so begging for the car was bothersome, but her mother was always lovely to me. I tasted delicious food at her house. Christmas of our senior year, I attended Midnight Mass with them (“do everything I do – but don’t come and take Communion”). I found the pageantry fascinating. Her mother was a manager at Avon and gave me little presents from the company. I still had a hair brush she gave me until recently. I sent it to Patti, as it would mean more to her.

But she and John were the real deal and when I went off to Brandeis, Patti came east to Boston University to be close to John, already at Harvard. This afforded us many opportunities to see one another. They came to see me in my shows (and took lovely photos of me after). Patti and I spent two Thanksgivings together in her apartment when John went home. Neither of us could afford to. We had a blast together, and solved the mysteries of the universe.

Patti and John, 1971
Back stage after one of my theater performances at Brandeis

John graduated from Harvard in 1972 and pursued a PhD in Child Developmental Psych at Stanford. Patti transferred to Mills College, which became her true alma mater. I only saw them when we were all home on vacation. They married on June 17, 1973, 364 days before I did, so from time to time, we celebrate our anniversaries together.

Through the years they have enjoyed visiting Boston, a place they’ve known well through the years. Our oldest went to Stanford and our younger child went to work for Apple right out of college and lived around Silicon Valley for nine years, so we’ve had many opportunities to visit and I could see their true commitment to one another.

Celebrating our anniversaries in 1977. They came to visit us.

After John got his PhD, he got a teaching job at the University of Utah and moved there with Patti. She found the entire atmosphere stifling and announced that she was moving back to the Bay Area. She hoped John would come, but she couldn’t stand it in Utah. He did follow, even without a job. He is a fantastic writer and quickly became a tech writer for this start-up named Oracle. At the time, he was an independent contractor and wrote their initial tech material. Soon, he was in-house with stock grants. He worked there for some time.

On our Boston condo’s roof deck, 1980

Patti is fantastically creative. With her sister, she started a fabric business, sourcing material to make sheets, bedspreads, pillows and such. They sold to Bloomingdales, and other high-end retailers. Patti hoped to open a boutique of their own, but that never happened and the business blew apart. She went into tech writing as well. John went back to independent writing. They sang with the San Francisco Chorus under the baton of Michael Tilson-Thomas and thrived in that creative community. They vacationed on Maui, bought some land, longed to build a house. Eventually they did and moved there full-time. John played with the Maui Symphony, they loved their life there for a while, but getting back to the mainland when they needed to was arduous (they never sold their home in the Bay Area, just leased it).

Visiting them in the early 2000s

Patti had a cancer diagnosis long ago, a small lump in a breast. She had a lumpectomy and opted for no other treatment, choosing instead to exercise, and eat healthy, only organic (I sent lobster dinners from Legal Seafood for support). They both watch themselves carefully. I have never seen two people support one another so completely. They enjoy their group of friends, celebrate life, know how to throw a great party and are loyal companions. Their 50th anniversary was last June.

Watching my two close friends has taught me a great deal about long-term marriages, how to support each other and the joys of and sorrows of that are part of the bargain.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: right on!

Comments

  1. Thanx Betsy for sharing your insights into what makes a good marriage and for the stories of the happy unions of your two bridesmaids.

    And as always you have the photos taken and saved over the years!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    These are great stories of long and happy marriages. I have some friends who started dating in high school and are still together. It is amazing to find one’s soul mate at such a young age and stay together, growing and thriving.

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