40 Perfect Years
Together and independent
BY MARY O’BRIEN
Remember Konrad Lorenz’s experiments on imprinting? He found that if a gosling’s first companion was a human rather than an adult goose, the gosling would follow the human around.
I may have gotten my concept of what a friend is by imprinting on Jimmy Bentley. He was my next-door neighbor and best buddy for the first seven or eight years of my life. We never argued. When we got together to play, Jimmy would suggest an idea, say roller-skating around the block. If I didn’t want to do that, I’d suggest an alternative. We’d bounce back and forth until we both liked an idea, and off we’d go. We always had fun.
Forty years ago this month, I set off on an eight-week camping trip and a Jimmy Bentley life with O’B after our simple morning wedding. I was 16 years old when I spotted O’B in a high school to which I had recently transferred. He didn’t notice me, but I noticed him: He was always polite with whomever he was talking or walking. I thought, “I’m going for this guy,” and did.
To this day I am astonished at my 16-year-old instincts and lifelong good fortune. Each to one’s own, but here’s my list of what has made for 40 (to me) perfect years:
• Support for independence. I’ve been able to have my own life and work. No matter how many days or weeks I’m away, I’ve never heard a complaint. Instead, a cheerful, “Hi Rabbit!” has greeted me whenever I call or arrive home. Likewise, I’ve made spectacularly non-monetary choices for work over the years, but have never heard advice to the contrary. All I have heard is interest in whatever unprofitable work had seemed worthwhile to do.
• Seeing humor in foibles. You’ve got to hand it to someone who, riding shotgun, exclaims, “It’s so exciting to take a ride with you!” after I’ve twice in one morning started driving up the wrong way on a one-way street. Think about the useless alternative responses.
• Sharing tasks. Whether taking half care of our two boys (and the runaway 15-year old we took in), or half care of house tasks and cooking (except when our children were around and they too helped), it’s been a fair deal all the way around.
• Decency to all. It’s a comfort knowing that O’B treats others as decently as he treats me. I’m not sure why that’s such a comfort, but it is.
• Love of life. Hiking on a backpack trip, reading aloud to each other, grubbing out blackberries or getting some tape at a hardware store — it’s always fun. And peaceful.
A good relationship like this isn’t unique. I spent last Memorial Day weekend with a couple who, for 47 years, have been ranching, cougar-hunting, raising two children and working to protect jaguars from extinction near the Mexican border. The same affection, humor, independent lives, task-sharing and decency to all were there. A photo on their mantle shows a 19-year old young woman and a lanky 20-year old young man, both in jeans, about to set off on a week-long camping trip after their simple morning wedding.
On Memorial Day I thought of the war-crafted rows upon rows of white crosses. Under each of those crosses lies a life cut short. Whether the person who rests beneath any given cross believed their early death was worth it or not, the multiplicity of those crosses didn’t come from good relationships. Why so often we make life miserable for each other is partly a mystery and partly a realization that we’re not so different from our primate relatives as we might want to pretend.
I can only be grateful that I’ve had 40 years (and more) of dawn. I’d love to get a thank-you to Jimmy.
Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org