To Be Absolutely Frank

Marriage Material

Choosing anniversary gifts means considering the intangibles.

By 6.20.02

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Yesterday was my leather wedding anniversary, which might sound kind of kinky, but simply means that I've been married for three years. Last time was cotton, and next June 19th I'm supposed to give flowers or fruit.

You might think that recommended anniversary presents should get costlier the longer one stays hitched, but they don't. The suggested gift for Year Six is candy or iron. A woman can earn a Prada handbag in 36 months, but putting up with her husband for twice that long might get her a box of Godiva or a fire poker.

It's only the biggest anniversaries -- 25th, 50th and 60th -- that follow a clear trajectory up the price scale, from silver to gold to diamond. Intervening years call for an array of gems that, at least to this layman, suggest no hierarchy of value. Are emeralds (55th) really more precious than rubies (40th)?

Maybe the point is to avoid a blatant incentive system, like those prenuptial agreements that stipulate more generous alimony in case of a delayed divorce. Staying married, in the romantic view, is its own reward.

Harder to explain is why gift recommendations cease to be annual following Year 15, and then come only every five years. Does the occasion become so routine that it's thenceforth worth observing only twice a decade?

More likely is that whoever made the list couldn't think of 60 categories of present whose arbitrariness wouldn't be transparent. Not even the most gullible consumer would believe that a cell phone is precisely the thing to celebrate 17 years of conjugal joy, while one's 23rd anniversary is the perfect moment for software.

Thus far in my married life, I've scorned anniversary present lists. Rugged individualist that I am, I won't march in lock-step with all the other men who married in my year. So yesterday I gave my wife a bottle of Chanel No. 19, chosen after extensive consultation with the sales clerk in the perfume shop.

The clerk quizzed me on her fragrance history, then waved a series of cards under my nose, while pointing out the differences between floral base and incense, etc. Clearly he'd advised plenty of clueless husbands and boyfriends before me; he was patient and informative, yet concluded with a firm suggestion. I'll admit I found the brand name reassuring too.

So maybe I'm not so original after all. At least I didn't forget the day, like all those hapless husbands on sitcoms. Yet I can't take credit even for this, since my parents (who themselves marked 41 years of marriage on June 10th) were on hand this year to celebrate our anniversary with us.

Looking across the dinner table at the older couple -- only four years short of sapphire status -- I could hardly imagine the two of us in their place. Already, after only three years together, I've started to repeat myself in conversation (as my wife repeatedly tells me). How can we remain even minimally interesting to each other for another 38 years?

Not that I don't think we can. I just can't conceive of how it will feel to be 75 and still living with the same person as when I was in my 30s.

Heretofore my life has been punctuated by major first-time events that, however frightening, were unmistakably moments of growth. The most recent instance was the birth of our son. It's not hard to feel close to the person with whom you share so momentous an experience. Increasingly, though, our new experiences will be those of decay, and the only growth will be in our memories, even as our access to those memories diminishes.

A marriage that flourishes in such circumstances is one based on true friendship. If my wife and I still have that after 50 years, we will have something whose worth no precious metal or stone, not even gold, could ever represent.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.