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.
"Love," she said, as she handed me a towel, "changes." It feels a certain way when it's new. And takes on a different feel when a ring is introduced. A whole 'nother feel when kids come into the picture—and when they leave, too. And certainly as you grow older. "Just remember that," she said. "Love changes."
All these years later, as they readied themselves for the big Golden Chiles shindig, my in-laws gave me a few more pearls of wisdom on how to stay together:
Give each other space. You just don't have to be all up under each other all the time. The smothering isn't cute—everybody needs to breathe. Let them.
Be a loser. Winning every argument isn't everything. Sometimes you have to take the "L" in the fight to score the "W" for your marriage. So what, you don't agree with everything each other says or does. Get over yourself.
Let your spouse be. Walter is quiet and tends to be a bit of a loner. Helen is the exact opposite—always up in the mix, armed with an opinion, and never, ever afraid to express it. Neither ever tries to convince the other that being this way is wrong. It's simply who they are, and they accept this—no questions asked. It's what's best.
My husband, Nick, and I are working on incorporating these jewels into our marriage. And we thank God every day that we have Helen and Walter's example, as well as that of my parents, who were married for almost 40 years when my mom died, to shine a light on how to make marriages work. Indeed, both couples are a sorely needed example of committed black love—the kind that slams against the statistics that proclaim black folks are more likely than not to be single and never married or divorced and never to be in wedded bliss again.
The statistics obscure another reality. Nick and I have been married for 11 years, and there are many more couples just like us—happy, in love, dedicated and committed—than the headlines lead all of us to believe. My list of married friends runs deep: My in-laws Angelou and James, and my friends Mike and Tina, Mona and Keith, Wendy and Reggie, Jenny and Anthony, Jackie and Harold, Marcia and Jomo, Kathy and Bruce, Michelle and Horace, George and Alicia, Stephen and Chanel, Renee and Anthony, Shawn and Desere, James and Bethsheba—each one of these beautiful couples buck the notion that committed black love doesn't exist.
The best each of us can do is prove the statistics wrong by keeping our eyes on Helen and Walter's example—by following their lead and staying together. For ourselves. For our children. For our community. For love.
Nick and I have 11 years under our belt.
Thirty-nine more to go.
I think we're gonna make it.
Denene Millner is an author, editor-in-chief of My Brown Baby , a decent wife, a helluva mom, and intent on proving the statistics wrong.