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 It is a week of milestones for the Leitch family. On Thursday, my mother turned 50 years old. (It is with extreme reservation that I write that sentence. When I started writing this column - which she no longer reads, wisely - my mother requested only one thing: Never give her away her age. I could write whatever I wanted about her or the rest of my family, but I had to promise Iíd never say how old she is. I suppose I should continue to keep that vow, but, well, sheís old now and probably wonít ever remember I made it.) Sunday is Fatherís Day, my dadís 26th. And next Tuesday is my parentsí 30th wedding anniversary.

I love to tell the story of my parentsí 25th wedding anniversary. I was with the ex-fiancee at the time, and, in a coincidence I just loved to point out, her parentsí 25th anniversary was a week before my parentsí. Her family was decidedly more wealthy than mine, and definitively more fancy. For her parentsí anniversary, they flew to Paris and had a deeply romantic week in a suite overlooking the city. They drank champagne, went sightseeing and ate at expensive restaurants ran by people named Jean-Jacques. My parents: They zipped to Florida for a weekend, saw a baseball game and, on the big night, went to Crabby Billís Crab Shack and ate, well, all they could eat (it was a special). The memento of the sacred evening was a key chain with a picture of the two of them, wearing papier-m‚chť hats in the shape of crabs. I carry this key chain with me daily and love to point out that Dad has sauce on his chin.

I forget sometimes that I am so lucky. The first friend of mine I can remember whose parents divorced was Jeff. It kind of happened out of nowhere, and obviously, at eight, I had no idea what was going on. One day he lived in this big blue house with a pool in the back, and the next he lived in a trailer park down the road with just his mom and five of the seven cats. In retrospect, I can understand that his mom needed a better lawyer.

In the years since then, Iíve made many more friends with separated parents, of course. (Whatís the number they say? Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce? That number has always seemed high to me. Of course, Iíve never been divorced; if I had, I suspect Iíd be astounded that itís not higher). I certainly mean no offense to those with divorced parents, but I think you see the world a little differently than those whose parents stayed together. I dunno ... I guess you seem more cynical to me, less optimistic about true love and lasting happiness with another person. It doesnít seem like you buy the shit that the whole societal notion of ďrelationshipsĒ is selling. You know how the game ends. Youíre not falling for that trick. Know, please, that I am not criticizing you about this. I donít even mean to imply that you are wrong. (Far from it.) Just that youíre a little more jaded, a little less hopeful, a little more world-weary, a little smarter maybe. Itís a tradeoff.

Of course, the question hangs there: If I had actually been married back in December 1998 like I was supposed to, would I be divorced right now? The answer, from my perspective, is obvious. Of course. There were fundamental flaws in our makeup together than would have made it inevitable, flaws that I wasnít mature or wise enough to notice then. Mercifully for the both of us, she was. But that didnít sour me on the institution of marriage; we were simply the wrong people. If she and her current husband, whom Iíve never met, were to split, I would be stunned.

Itís an ongoing process, and if I do say so myself, itís one my parents appear to have mastered. We all go through stages with our parents, of relying on them to rebelling against them to resenting them to appreciating them to now, when I simply find my parents unbearably cute. Relationships thrive at different points for different people. My parents found their stride at a perfectly rational time: When the goddamned kids were out of the house.

With me in New York and sister Jill in Champaign, Illinois, my empty-nest parents have found their comfort in two places: the Catholic Church and television. Two national religions, one organized, the other with priests. Mom, who became a Catholic only four years ago, coerced Dad into accompanying her to church functions through promises of a beer tent. Theyíre loyal churchgoers now, and though it provides them with spiritual underpinnings and a promise of a life better than this one, Iíve always suspected its primary function is for structure. It gives them a Sunday morning activity, a peer group and, most important, a reason to leave the house and not just watch television.

Because my parents are becoming couch potatoes. I remember when Dad would get home from work at 5, then go out and work in the yard until dinner - typically dragging me with him - then head right back outside until it was bedtime. No longer. Now there is a schedule. My parents have Their Shows.

The schedule, as far as Iíve been able to gleam it:

First, at 5 p.m., itís the recorded episode of As the World Turns. Salads, crackers and E-Z Cheese are consumed during this hour. By then, the local news is starting, and itís time to work on dinner. Usually something small, unless the kids are visiting, which is rarer and rarer these days. Local news, always catching Channel Three sports with Chris Widlic (ďThat other guy, the one with the sweaters, heís a real tool,Ē says Mom, with the authority of Solomon.) Then itís time for Frasier in syndication. On Sundays, they would watch The Sopranos, which allowed each of them to bask in separate fantasies of Mom as Carmela and Dad as Tony (the highlight was when Dad, after being asked to clean the dishes, did his best Midwestern-tough guy ďWhatever da fuck.Ē Mom stopped laughing a week later.) But during the week, there is only one schedule - one quirk. My father, in one of those midlife indulgences youíve earned when youíve built two houses and raised two disappointing children, recently purchased a satellite dish plan that allows him access to all St. Louis Cardinals games. But there are times that even Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols canít usurp the new king of our household, the best marriage counselor since Denis Leary in The Ref: Regis

My parents love Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (they refer to it as The Millionaire, as in ďWill, we canít talk, The Millionaire is on.Ē). Dad even has the CD-ROM game, and he canít even find the ďBĒ on the keyboard. Itís easy to understand why Millionaire continues to be such a hit, particularly in the Midwest. The show is soothing and contemplative; there is no time limit on Millionaire. There is no hurry, no ticking clock. Whenever you feel comfortable giving us your answer, just let us know. You can even ask your friends! The questions start out easy enough that anyone can get them right. It rewards you just for watching. It is relaxed and causes no trouble. Life is stressful enough; why do we want our television to add to it? It was made for my parents. They never, ever miss it.

And this is how it works. I just gave it to you, folks, the secret to a successful, functioning, mutually beneficial marriage. The Simpsons were right all along; the family that watches TV together stays together.

How are my parents getting along? Well enough, I suppose. They always find something about each other about which to complain when I speak to either of them on the phone, and that canít be anything but a good sign. As theyíve gotten older, more old friends have fallen by the wayside, and they spend more time together, at home, than ever. This year, particularly with all these milestones, Iíve begun to think about what would happen if something were to happen to either of them. I think theyíd be lost. Dad canít stand to be in the house by himself, and Mom would miss having someone to make her life more difficult. They have become inseparable. They have a stronger bond than ever, 30 years in, having spent more time with each other in this world than they did apart. Howíd that happen? The way things all happen in this life; it just did.

Iíve got my problems, and there are certain ways I approach the world, and relationships, that are not healthy. But if I need hope, an example led, that two people can just turn out just fine, happy, better for the wear, I donít have far to go. Well, at least between the hours of 8 and 9, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, when Regis is on. You know, now that The Sopranos is over.



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