Holding hands through all these years

Beth Padgett
Special to The Black Mountain News

Like many people in the Swannanoa Valley, Jim and Joyce Parsons are living a quiet, unassuming life in Black Mountain. She is a spry, sparkling blue-eyed woman standing a petite 4 feet, 9 inches tall. Jim, with his kind compassionate eyes and ready joke, stands a bit taller, about 5 feet, 7 inches.

Like most people here who you take time to truly know, the Parsons are interesting, entertaining and often inspiring. The inspiration comes from their marriage of 58 years and the road they have traveled together, a journey fueled by life lessons and qualities each have brought to it.

A different time altogether

The year was 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office. Gas cost about 23 cents a gallon. The Civil Rights Movement was moving people to re-examine some long-held beliefs in ways that caused unrest and societal changes across America. Rock ‘n’ roll crashed over the nation. Poodle skirts, ankle socks and ponytails were in full swing, and teens were dancing it up at sock hops.

It was in 1956 that Jim, 26 years old, and Joyce, 23, decided to travel through life together.

Joyce, a former dancer, said that she had known the kind of man she had wanted to marry since the third grade. She had always been a precocious (and only) child, partly as a result of traveling and moving frequently with her family. Adventurous, she watched and paid attention. She was outgoing, made friends easily and was quick to adapt.

Jim had been raised in a traditional Presbyterian household. He had had some type of job since the age of 10. A self-described soldier, he at first impression can be seen as the kind of kind, elderly man that loves to joke and dote on his wife. A closer look reveals a man of substance, intelligence and understanding. He has developed a form of acceptance, gained from his mother’s no-whining parenting, that those seeking robust mental health would envy. He finds pleasure in life just the way it is.

Joyce was not the apple of her father’s eye - she was the whole fruit basket. Father and daughter had an especially close relationship marked by their shared love for adventure. It was that sense of adventure that attracted Jim to this very pretty, tiny dancer. On her part, Joyce was looking for someone stable who was able to understand her need for adventure.

Jim, who spent 22 months in the Army (some voluntarily overseas), came to the marriage with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Joyce had a bachelor’s degree in home economics and worked on a master’s degree in education while Jim was soldiering. Their material possessions consisted of a car, a bedroom set and a hi-fi stereo.

While these degrees are much more common today they were fairly novel at the time. Joyce decided to teach kindergartners because they were the only ones smaller than her. Jim, who earned a master’s of business administration, worked at Chicago Bridge and Iron for 33 years, earning steady promotions. Characteristically, each continued to grow separately and together.

Joyce, who grew up in a loving atmosphere with frequent boisterous arguments, knew what kind of marriage she wanted - one without fighting. Jim’s home life was a quiet one. He and Joyce Jim do disagree from time to time, but they have a somewhat unusual ability to restrain themselves from anger and hurt. They communicate constructively and effectively.

“We calm down, take anger out of the equation and get to the root of the problem,” Joyce said. “Jim is my partner, and why would I ever want to tear down my partner? It hurts me in the long run.”

Within four years of marriage, they had two sons. Joyce knew she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. But living with two preschoolers, shut off from the world, was depressing. “I don’t know how Jim put up with it,” she said. “Anyone else would have left or put me in an insane asylum.” But Jim did hang in there, and Joyce found her own cure - painting.

Then both of them discovered scuba diving. Her painting took on a theme – marine life. Diving cementing their relationship, they said. When the kids grew up and left home, they felt freer to dive. After Jim retired, they moved to St. Croix, a “hedonistic” time in their lives where they dived and did whatever they wanted, they said. They loved it.

Family responsibilities prompted a move to Phoenix, Arizona. The sharp contrast of obligations to their island life took a toll on the marriage. They ragged on each other and compromised to the point of near exhaustion.

So they decided to live apart (though only 15 minutes away) while continuing to see each other and sharing family events and social events.

Neither had lived alone before. They learned a lot about themselves, gaining a greater appreciation of each other in the process. Each developed new interests, shared interests and a renewed enjoyment in the other. The time apart made them stronger.

The separation ended when Jim suggested they go live in Australia for six months. There, they dived in the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand and South Pacific Islands. When they returned to the U.S., they took up residence together. They spent six months in Italy (clearly Joyce’s love for adventure rubbed off on Jim, enhancing and strengthening their marriage).

What makes for happiness?

So, what qualities do they consider to be the keys to their long happy marriage? Maybe it starts with each person’s individual traits and needs.

Joyce said she had a lot of growing up to do when they got married. She was very emotional, crying at the drop of a pin. Jim, not used to frequent hugging and kissing, learned about warmth. He also learned to open up for Joyce, he said. While anchoring her, he gave her license to engage her adventurous side.

Now in their 80s, both work out at Cheshire Fitness Center six days a week (their vibrant, good health is not an accident). Joyce’s passion for painting prompted them to put a small building in their yard (she calls it her as her “playhouse.” She is a hospice volunteer. Jim is co-manager of the Kiwanis Thrift Store in Black Mountain. Both continue to pursue their passions.

“People who feel good about themselves make happy homes,” Joyce said. Part of feeling good about yourself within the relationship involves the ability to resolve conflicts in a healthy manner. When Jim and Joyce discuss something, nobody has to be right.

It is important to Jim and Joyce that each has sovereignty. Spending time apart is as important as spending time together.

“Everyone is doing the best he/she can at that moment” and “everyone has a choice to refuse to hang on to a negative or undesired feeling” are the two principles that make up what they call their “guiding light.”

They understand, especially as they age, that someone’s “best” one day may not be their best on another day. They joke about it. Maintaining a sense of humor greases the hard times.

Jim said the key to his happy marriage is acceptance and forgiveness. “We screw up more than we used to. We have to forgive each other more,” he said. Acceptance and forgiveness go a long way in getting rid of negative and undesired feelings.

It has been said that deep love involves knowing a persons’ imperfections and loving them anyway. Jim and Joyce surely know each other’s flaws. But they don’t dwell on them. They laugh at themselves and with each other.

It has been said that someone’s love for someone else says more about the lover than the loved. Jim and Joyce have the ability to love deeply. Their lives have been enriched by the effort they have made to keep that love.