Some of us come later in life than others to . . . well, to adulthood. I was nearly in my 30’s before I had even an inkling of the realities of civic responsibility or how to be a friend or why I should fasten my seat belt or how to keep my temper. I grew to wish I’d paid more attention in history and French classes and been more pliable during my decade of piano lessons. (My mother is avenged; she told me I’d be sorry.) And I finally began to understand some things about that deepest root of all conservative flowerings: marriage.

Now, I’ve seen good marriages and bad—more bad than good, in my estimation, but then I’ve always been unreasonable. I had a bad one myself and lived to laugh about it. All my life, it seems, I’d watched various people bully or nag each other, cheat or try to, chafe and fret and complain until I’d nearly decided on a monastic vocation. Yet many of these same people have been married—and to each other—for longer than I’ve been alive. There had to be something to it, or why would so many attempt it repeatedly? Until my enlightenment, marriage was, to me, an empty social ceremony, functionless; private commitment was what really mattered, and tenderness, and I’d seen too little of either.

But something hit me during the chore of copy-editing 1,500 pages of nearly illegible (and nearly illiterate) family histories for a miniscule North Dakota town’s centennial book. Many of the writers—children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of pioneers—merely listed names and dates and places which melded behind my eyes after the first plodding hour of editing. A few enthusiastic souls (had no one ever asked them before?) set down accounts of adventures they’d lived through or been told about early pioneering days on this wild edge of the North Dakota Badlands. But even these tales, although they differed from each other in content, were identical in style, brimming with the same phrases and perceptions regardless of the writer’s nationality.

Strangely, for me, I found this sameness beautiful: a clue, perhaps, that I’d grown up enough to appreciate the similarity in which lies community. The little town I read about was not made up of half a thousand eccentrics but of the whole cloth—a strong, rough homespun—of Englishmen and Norwegians and Hungarians and Germans-from-Russia and Scots, Catholics and Lutherans and Congregationalists living pretty much identical lives and agreeing pretty much about what mattered. And for no reason that I can think of except the grace of God, I was struck with epiphany each time I read the words “life’s mate.”

“Lars worked at the elevator for six months until he learned English; then he persisted until he found a life’s mate, Lina, our grandmother, and they purchased the south half of the north half of Section 86, where our son still farms.” “Magdalena and her life’s mate, Frank, brought into this world 17 children (four of whom died in infancy), from which there are now 111 grandchildren and 326 great-grandchildren.” Life’s mate. The phrase sounds trite now, laughable, nearly anachronistic—but these writers mean it literally. Back then—back only a little ways, so close that we can almost remember it ourselves—people did marry “for life”: that is, in order to be able to live.

Few bachelors or spinsters prospered, and when they grew ill or old, all they could hope for was the charity of neighbors. A man needed a wife: to keep house while he worked the fields; to help with the farm, if it were to be profitable enough to support them; to keep him from promiscuity. A woman needed a man to coax the uncompromising clay on land they both would die for. And they each needed children to help them work. It wasn’t child abuse; it was family. Hard work was not only our harsh sentence in this vale of tears but our nourishment and joy. And marriage was a matter of life and death.

These little accounts I was forced to read happened neither long ago nor far away, yet they seem to belong to some brave lost time. For brides and grooms, a wedding is always necessarily full of private excitement and forgivably selfish pleasure; that is human nature and has a purpose. But the rings of weddings used to travel outward, widening into the community where the wedding became important in a much more concrete way. Today’s weddings, large and small, are almost purely theatrical, for show; the bride and groom ask neither for the blessing of the community nor for its support. Guests come merely to wish the couple well (for perhaps the second or third time), not to promise their help or testify to the union’s larger significance. Just yesterday, though, weddings were community praisefests (as well as deeply religious ceremonies), public evidence that there would be a future. Marriage was a promise to the community, as the community was a promise to the nation. A young wife’s privacy, and probably her civil rights, were routinely violated as her community suffered over her childlessness or congratulated itself upon her fecundity. Children, lots of children, meant growth. Life was exuberant and unplannable, families noisy, and townfolk demanding and forgiving but never complacent about right and wrong.

And not since we became too sophisticated for all that has our nation prospered so vigorously.

Now I am married to a man whose mother and I both agree is close to being perfect (except when he’s driving in heavy traffic). We find ourselves in the odd position of trying to make ourselves an island—to separate ourselves from the river of nonchalance moving past us—so that we can gather around us a community. It may be merely a community of like-minded people—but what else is community? Our marriage is itself a thing, has an existence and a right to thrive and fulfill its promises in spite of our sometimes neglect. And although our glands and brains may scream at us to grab for the gusto, our hearts know that all we really need, all the world really needs, is for us to be happy at home.