My in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Chiles, cut a fine portrait last month, walking down the aisle of a candle-lit room at The W Hotel in Atlanta—she in a stunning champagne gown, with an armful of calla lilies; he in a sharp tux, his fingers interlocked with hers. Brian McKnight’s ballad “Never Felt This Way” filled the air, serving a fitting tribute, as if Brian wrote the lyrics specifically for this posh, golden celebration: There will never come a day/You’ll ever hear me say/That I want, and need to be without you/I want to give my all.
When they reached that magical place at the altar, with their children and grandbabies and family and friends surrounding them, we all lost it like we were at a Janet Jackson concert—alternately whooping and hollering and clapping and crying like we were a gang of groupies gone mad.
We had good reason. Walter and Helen Chiles, you see, were celebrating their 50th anniversary. At a time when black love stories—real-life examples of committed long-term relationships—are completely ignored or served up like unrealistic fairy tales, the 50-year mark is something to whoop and clap and cry about.
That’s five decades, dude. Since the couple wed in the living room of his sister’s home on Sept. 29, 1958, men have walked on the moon, black folks waged the Civil Rights Movement, America has fought in four wars, and, by God, the Wu-Tang Clan broke up. And through it all, Helen and Walter have remained together, a testament to practicing what they preached at the altar: For better, for worse, for richer and for poorer, through sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.
For Helen and Walter, you see, being together—staying together—is as important to them as breathing air. It’s not an option. It’s what you do.
Because of the kids.
Because a promise is a promise.
Because they love one another.
Helen has been schooling me on the art of marriage since the first day I presented her granddaughter to her, back in 1999. I was giving my baby girl, Mari, then about six months, a bath in Helen’s sink, and she could see right through my fake smile—right through my tired eyes. While I’m sure Nick was helping as best he could, I’m also sure his mom could tell I was exhausted and sore and silently questioning just how in the world people stayed married and raised babies all at once. You know, without k-i-l-l-i-n-g one another.