There are a dozen red roses slightly fading but still standing erect gracing the coffee table in John and Barbara Manning’s tidy apartment. They are a gift from John to his beloved wife Barbara marking their sixty-four years of marriage on February 9th. The other date John vividly acknowledges is December 7, 1997, and to be precise, the time: 12:30AM. In an instance, their life course was inextricably altered from their well-considered retirement plans. Barbara unexpectedly and suddenly suffered a stroke. There was now a bright demarcation in their joint experience; life before the stroke and their life, which was totally upended, after the stroke.
For the nineteen years since that pivotal date, John has been Barbara’s constant, dedicated caregiver but he would have it no other way; he simply sees this as part and parcel of their marriage contract.
“You’re in a constant restart mode all the time. But fundamentally, isn’t that just life? You just deal with it. You get up every morning and the prospects might be good, might not be so good but you deal with it and that’s what you have to do when you are married. It truly is a contract. People seem to forget that. They seem to forget the obligations they undertook when they got married.”
The three of us are perusing a photo album in which their adventurous and colorful life unfolds in the images on those pages.
Barbara was a brilliant student from Augusta, Georgia who was attending Fontbonne University, a girls’ college affiliated with St. Louis University in Missouri, on a full academic scholarship. John hailing from Queens, New York, was a junior at St. Louis University, studying philosophy and mathematics. They met at a dance and quickly fell in love and started making plans to marry after John finished his schooling.
“We used to go out on Friday nights. We were both Roman Catholics so we would go to a restaurant for some sort of fish dinner. We’d split the fish in half and order a Manhattan with two glasses and split that. It’s how we got to know each other. That was the date.”
“We were very fortunate. We had the big bands; a lot of music. We didn’t have television. You listened to the radio. The main entertainment was dancing. Both Barbara and I were good dancers.”
After college John enlisted with the Coast Guard and was stationed in Georgia where the two married and lived, along with time spent in Charleston, South Carolina. John enjoyed the service and the prospect of a position overseas was enticing. However, they had their first son and the assignment to the Isle of Rhodes, Greece, was far from conducive to having a young baby to care for. Instead, John left the service and took a job with IBM and the next move was to their headquarters in New York City. Two years and two children later, the opportunity to move with IBM to Tokyo presented itself.
The family spent five years in Japan, where John says they lead a charmed life. “What a fascinating country, fascinating culture and fascinating people! There weren’t a lot of Americans in Japan in 1962. We met a lot of diplomats and were always being invited to fancy parties.” The photos certainly illustrate the scope of their social lives during this time.
The family returned to New York and John transferred to IBM World Trade Corporation. “I liked the overseas assignments.” Four years later and now with four children, John accepted another assignment to Europe and the family moved to a suburb just outside of Paris. They lived in France for another five years, returning stateside to settle in Connecticut.
“After Barbara’s stroke it was very hard for me at first. It changed everything. I went from having a consulting business after retiring from IBM to thinking about going to school in Europe to enhance my consulting business so I could become an arbitrator, which would have been very lucrative for us. As soon as Barbara had the stroke, that was gone. I belonged to a beautiful golf club, one of the best in Connecticut. I had to give that up. We wanted to do golf tournaments together. Barbara was a real athlete. She introduced me to golf and she played tennis twice a week with a group of women. Those relationships petered out after about a year. It was tough on Barbara and as a result, it was hard on me. We had plans for after retirement. We just wanted to have some fun.”
John sought help in Connecticut about ten years after Barbara’s stroke. Once they made the decision to move closer to a daughter in Massachusetts they spent six months looking for a retirement setting that would best meet their needs. They have been in Peabody a little over a year. John appreciated the services Barbara had been receiving in Connecticut and he pursued assistance from North Shore Elder Services in Danvers. “It’s been a big help. I was doing it all myself and I’m not getting any younger.”
Their apartment is a showcase of mementos from their time living in Georgia, Japan, and France. John admits that downsizing to a one bedroom apartment was not easy but they are happy with where they have settled. Due to the stroke, Barbara has limitations and it is challenging to meet new friends. “It is not so easy anymore. My wife is handicapped now.”
John sees the one key to their sixty-four years of marriage as never staying mad at each other. “You can’t hold on to anything that made you irritated. You have to let it go. You have to be able to forgive and forget. And you have to be able to laugh. If you can’t laugh with one another, you’re really in trouble.”
On the topic of his contractual obligations to the marriage vows he holds sacred, John sums it up best. “It’s your willingness to do things, to reschedule your priorities all the time so your priorities meet the other person’s priorities. That’s what it’s all about. The years are what you make of them regardless of whether you do what you were going to do.”
John fully understands and accepts the importance of keeping himself healthy and reaching out for more help if he should need it. Barbara’s well-being and her ability to continue living in the community depends on it. John is a man determined to be by Barbara’s side as her caregiver and devoted husband. He is not one to ever lose sight of the marriage obligations he so willing promised to meet those sixty-four years ago.