We were traveling to Rochester, Minnesota, to celebrate their 75th anniversary.
No, that is not a typo. Lyle and Betty have been married for a remarkable three-quarters of a century. Before the trip, I stopped at our local card shop to pick up a 75th anniversary card, only to realize the foolishness of my thought. Even if such a card existed, it certainly wouldn’t be flying off the shelves!
Lyle and my mother were first cousins, which I think officially makes him my first cousin once removed. But to me, he has always been a warm and wonderful uncle figure, weaving in and out of my life, steady and strong, his welcoming arms stretched out as wide as his smile.
The bonus of having Lyle in your family is that you also get Betty, the lovely lilting-voiced aunt to his uncle, yin to his yang, who elegantly and effortlessly doles out wisdom laced with poetry and a fantastic sense of humor. These two have forever been such a force in our family that you really can’t say one name without the other, let alone imagine one without the other – lyleandbetty, a singular word.
Now at 97 and 95, they were celebrating seventy-five years together. We had missed the party and open house their children had hosted a couple of weeks earlier, but we assured them we would get there as soon as we could.
“WONDERFUL!” Betty had emailed in all capital letters. “I know you said you’d try to manage it, but I know how good intentions often fare.”
We landed at Minneapolis St. Paul International, an airport I once knew well, but now it felt as if I were arriving in a new city. It was an airport shop called Minnesota State of Nice that jolted me into the reality that yes, this is where I am from, the place I called home for so many years. I couldn’t help but smile. “Nice” is the Minnesota I remember, the way it was growing up.
We picked up our rental car and headed about an hour and a half south to the town of Rochester, home of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, and home of Lyle and Betty. It was an easy drive, past a seemingly endless stream of corn fields and evergreen trees, the water towers of towns with familiar names marking our journey. The sun cast a golden glow over the fields, giving the scene a dreamy look in the midday light.
Lyle was waiting for us on the porch of the independent care complex where they live. He steadies himself with a cane now, and yet keeps a faster pace than anyone around him, tapping his cane ahead of his stride, as if to mark the spot where he’s headed. He greets everyone he passes with a grand hello, his bigger-than-life personality as evident at 97 as it has always been.
Betty welcomed us at their apartment door, looking radiant and beautiful. She uses a battery-powered scooter to get around, and like Lyle, she moves about quickly. It’s as if these two have decided that although their ninth decade may have served up some physical limitations, they will figure out a way around them.
Their home is warm and inviting, chock full of family photos and mementos from their travels, brimming with memorabilia and memories of seventy-five years together. A large bowl filled with anniversary cards – there are at least 200, Betty said – is displayed on the center of the living room coffee table. There is Betty’s grand piano, Lyle’s reading chair with a stack of books piled beside it and an electric fireplace that was turned on, even in August.
Three years ago, Lyle published his memoir, “My Life Behind the Wheel,” a 338-page autobiography that weaves his life story around the antique cars he has collected and restored over the years. Betty writes a weekly email to her ever-growing list of family and extended family, regaling us with their week’s highlights, from food and friends to weather and world events.
We spent the afternoon catching up, sharing photos, reminiscing. Lyle and Betty are people who value visiting. The television is off; cell phones are put away. They give you their most undivided attention, wanting to know how you’ve been, what you think, making you feel as if you really matter. It’s an extraordinary experience just to be in their presence.
We took them to dinner and toasted their anniversary. When I had asked where I should make reservations, Lyle said he wanted to try somewhere he hadn’t been. We decided on the Lord Essex, an English-themed dining room at the Kahler Grand Hotel. When other diners overheard that it was their 75th anniversary, they would stop by our table to offer their congratulations. Lyle greeted everyone as if they were old friends, engaging them in gratitude and conversation. Our server sang “Happy Anniversary” as she brought out two crème brûlées, each with a candle. Wishes were made, smiles all around.
Betty had arranged for us to spend the night in the rental apartment across the hall from them. “We will meet you for breakfast,” she had told us, and when we opened the door the next morning, they were already waiting for us in the hallway.
On the drive to the airport, Herb and I couldn’t stop talking about the whirlwind of this brief but incredibly meaningful visit with Lyle and Betty. We’ve treasured them for all these years – the most inspirational people we’ve ever known, as Herb is fond of saying – but seeing them on their 75th anniversary, so vibrant and full of joy as if they were decades younger, was a real gift. It was a reminder that no matter what life challenges us with, the only control we really have is the attitude we choose to take.
We had traveled to Minnesota to honor these extraordinary people. But the truth was, they had made us feel like the ones who were being honored.