MY GRANDPARENTS would have been married 75 years this past Tuesday. They became the sort of couple that comes with hyphens, "Mike-and-Mamie," always together, and even biology conspired to make them bookends to each other's lives.
Pop-Pop was born on Nov. 7, Mom-Mom on Nov. 8. He died on Dec. 11, she on Dec. 12. Actually, she died the moment he took his last breath from emphysema in 1968, but lingered on another decade and a half because we, her children and grandchildren, begged her to.
No matchmaker could have conjured a better connection, and when I read today about the intricate questionnaires provided for eHarmony customers, I have to laugh - compatibility can't be gleaned from mouse clicks and cropped photos. My grandparents never took moonlight walks on romantic beaches, even though they did hold hands when strolling around the block. They didn't engage in the games that today's couples use to remain "excited."
They both had jobs, she in a factory and he with the Philadelphia sanitation division, and they had kids to take care of, and bills to pay, and parents living with them in an already-cramped West Philly home. They had the tragedies of stillbirths and early deaths; they dealt with poverty without ever letting their kids know they were poor; they went to church and sometimes to the occasional movie. Excitement wasn't even on the radar screen.
But love was.
What Mike-and-Mamie shared was what so many people of that generation shared, a commitment to living together regardless of the daily drudgery and disappointments. It was a promise to hope for the better but when the worse came, to remain. Today, the two people who make up a couple say they want to be with their "best friend," as if marriage is just a higher form of companionship. Many of us think that equality is the basis for a happy union in which men and women pull the same weight and contribute the exact same amount to the marital pot.
My grandparents knew it didn't work that way at all, that each of you had to be willing to give 100 percent and get back only a fraction of the investment. That wouldn't fly in today's egalitarian society in which "fairness" is king (or queen).
Which, after a bit of meandering, brings me to "marriage equality."
I've often written about my opposition to same-sex marriage, and the focus is usually on the legal aspects of the controversy. I think it's fairly clear that the Constitution doesn't require society to extend marriage "rights" to gays and lesbians, even though many people persist in misreading the equal-protection clause and cases like Loving v. Virginia.
If the LGBT community hangs its hopes on the Bill of Rights, it won't get very far because there is nothing in that document that mandates recognition of gay unions. It could possibly permit them; I'd go that far. But unless we play word games and start peeking behind those penumbras first pulled aside in Roe v. Wade, it's hard to imagine the Supreme Court declaring a right to gay marriage in 2013.
Where the LGBT community will be successful, and where it has started to focus its own attention, is in aiming to change the hearts and minds of well-meaning people.
Americans are generally kind and fair-minded. We look at a union like that of Mike-and-Mamie and wonder why two people who love each other shouldn't have the right to make that love public, recognized and even financially secure. LGBT activists capitalize on this warm-and-fuzzy desire to keep everyone happy by making us feel guilty for wanting to keep the most fundamental social unit the way it's been for thousands of years: one man, one woman.
Adultery existed, and chipped away at the strength of the unit. Evolving ideas of a woman's role in society did its part as well. Most importantly, an ever-increasing desire for instant gratification makes heterosexual marriage an endangered species.
And so those in the LGBT community argue that we heterosexuals have done a pretty bad job of honoring the marital promise and ask for their chance to, as some comics put it, be as unhappy as we are. But just because marriage has been worn down and made smaller than it used to be, and just because the Mike-and-Mamie unions are passing into the mists of memory, we shouldn't simply give up on the idea that marriage is more than just a public recognition of romance.
If that were indeed the case, we should open up the doors to bigamists and polygamists, who would take offense at the suggestion that their unions are any less valid than those of coupled gays and lesbians. And if incest is taboo because of biology, why do we not just legalize those sibling unions that agree not to reproduce?
The point is that people cannot be shamed into overturning a fundamental institution because other people stand in front of them saying "us too!" This demand for marriage as opposed to civil unions is the sign of a desire not to exalt marriage but to tear it down even more. The LGBT community wants us to say, finally, that marriage isn't all that special. It's just another rite . . . or "right" . . . of passage.
Tell that to Mike-and-Mamie.