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Mom’s lessons for a happy marriage

My parents, Mary and Ray Finlayson, were married for 57 years, though they missed their last anniversary by two weeks when a terrible stroke took my mother. Staying together for nearly six decades is an achievement. Loving each other that long is harder to do.

Vintage photograph

Perhaps you wouldn’t ask your mother’s advice for a happy marriage, but I didn’t have to. Mom lived her love and she left me more clues in the God Boxes she left behind. The God Box was Mom’s secret cache of wishes, worries and prayers to God on behalf of her family and friends. After she died, I found hundreds of her tiny handwritten missives. Reading her notes about my brother Jack and me and my dad, I rediscovered her lessons for making love last.

Never miss a chance to celebrate

My mom and dad were married on June 11, 1949. But they couldn’t wait a year to toast their love so they gave each other cards and toasts on the 11th day of every month for the rest of their lives. They knew that they’d never regret saying “I love you” early and often.

Mary and Ray Finlayson

Love out loud

My dad used to put rivets spelling TGFM on his cowboy hats. The letters meant, “Thank God for Mary.” I kid you not. That’s just how proud he was of her. My mom was equally open about her lifelong infatuation with my dad. “Isn’t he handsome?” she’d say, just in case we hadn’t noticed.

Write it down

We were never the family that just scribbled, “Love, Mary Lou” at the bottom of a Hallmark card. Mom and Dad inspired us with the thoughtful personal notes and letters they constantly wrote to each other. I found one where Mom listed the 40 things she cherished about Dad. “I still love just watching you” was among them.

Invest in your alone time

Dad kept a PAW fund, really just an old bottle where he’d drop his daily pocket change. When the fund hit $150, he’d cash the coins, deposit my brother and me at our grandparents’ house and whisk Mom to a romantic getaway in a local hotel. PAW stood for “Pee Away,” meant to be spent only for fun. I’m sure it was.

The marriage comes first

My brother Jack and I knew that we were the center of our parents’ universe. But we also remember being told at an early age, “We love you both with all our hearts, but we love each other first.” Even as kids, we understood the importance of their love as the foundation to our life as a family. Adult medicine that was healthy for children to learn. At least, it worked that way for us.

My husband Joe and I are headed toward our 34th anniversary. I can’t say that I expect Joe to tack “TGFML” on his baseball cap any day soon, but so far, we are pretty darn ‘happily ever after.’ Thanks, Mom.

Tell us

What lessons have you learned from your parents’ marriage? Share in the comments below!

Mary Lou Quinlan is the author of the upcoming book, The God Box, Sharing my mother’s gift of faith, love and letting go, Greenleaf Book Group, April 2012, available for pre-order at

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