Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Wedding vows @ 33 years!

Marilyn and Chris, Sept. 20, 1986, Moorestown, New Jersey

I posted the story below about how I met my husband Chris Swarth in 1985. So, it's a bit of a rerun, but get to the bottom and see how the wedding renewals went on Saturday. Our dear friend Paul Sussman officiated and read this poem.

Vow by Diana Khoi Nguyen 

It will be windy for a while until it isn’t. The waves will shoal.
A red-legged cormorant will trace her double along glassy water, forgetting they are hungry.
The sea will play this motif over and over, but there will be no preparing for it otherwise.
Water will quiver in driftwood.
Sound preceding absence, a white dog trailing a smaller one: ghost and noon shadow, two motes disappearing into surf.
And when the low tide comes lapping and clear, the curled fronds of seaweed will furl and splay, their algal sisters brushing strands against sands where littleneck clams feed underwater.
Light rain will fall and one cannot help but lean into the uncertainty of the sea.
Bow: a knot of two loops, two loose ends, our bodies on either side of this shore where we will dip our hands to feel what can’t be seen.
Horseshoe crabs whose blue blood rich in copper will reach for cover, hinged between clouds and sea.
It will never be enough, the bull kelp like a whip coiling in tender hands, hands who know to take or be taken, but take nothing with them:
I will marry you.
I will marry you. 

So we can owe what we own to every beautiful thing.

The Kiss 2019

How Chris and I met: Positive experiences and good times are equally important in shaping a person’s personality. For example, although scientists rarely receive positive feedback, when we get a nice review or compliment from a student, it's a real rush. After my divorce, I spent a couple of years as a footloose and fancy-free woman glad to be released from a difficult situation. Science was blooming and when I left for California to work on the oxygen isotope project, I met my future husband. People often ask how we met and it's a now “classic” story in our family.

            In 1985 during my first sabbatical trip to work at Carnegie’s Plant Biology lab, I signed up for a whale-watching trip that took place on a Sunday on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th. Grey whales could be seen at Point Reyes National Seashore from the promontory where the lighthouse perches hundreds of feet above the ocean. I didn’t have a car, so signed up to share a ride from Palo Alto up to the Visitor’s Center of Point Reyes with a Chinese grad student who had a new license and little familiarity with driving. The front passenger door of her car was inoperable, so I sat in the back seat with another woman. As we drove north through San Francisco’s hills, we clutched the doors in shear terror. When we assembled with the group, the leader of the trip asked if anyone wanted to ride with him in his VW bus. I leaped at the chance!

           The leader was a trim, good-looking fellow from Berkeley, with curly brown hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. On our way to the lighthouse, he spotted a bobcat in a meadow at the side of the road. Even before we reached our destination, he’d pointed out about a dozen coastal bird species. Throughout the day, we chatted on and off, spotted whales breeching and exhaling offshore. At lunchtime, we shared sandwiches on a bench overlooking Drake’s Lagoon, where I told him about my research with stable isotopes. As the end of the day drew near, I wrote down my phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it to him, hoping that he’d call. He looked pleased, but answered, “Great, we could talk about your research some more.”

            I called my friends in the following days and told them I was excited to have met this cool ecologist, Christopher Wood Swarth. By Wednesday of that week he called! We set a date for that weekend. On our first date, we ate beef tongue sandwiches at San Gregornio Beach and fried calamari for dinner. Why we chose those two weird foods, neither of us can explain, but we’ve never cooked them again. By the time my brief 6-week trip was ending, we had grown to know and like each other enough to feel ready for a long-distance relationship. We traveled back and forth from the DC area to California, culminating with a trip to Europe in August just prior to Chris’s fieldwork in Cameroon. It was an exciting day when he was able to call me all the way from the US embassy in Africa!

            My second sabbatical trip started in January 1986. Chris returned from Africa, and we drove across the country with Sputnik the dog. We rented an apartment in Menlo Park and furnished it with Chris’s few belongings. That spring he proposed in a salt marsh—one of our favorite places—and I happily accepted. I returned to DC for the summer months, while wedding plans took shape. Back at the Lab, I told Tom Hoering about the engagement. He could tell I was excited and happy, but he wanted to make sure that this man was good enough for me. Tom and his wife Martha went for a vacation to Berkeley, ostensibly to visit a colleague at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. One afternoon, Chris, who was working as a biology outreach teacher at the Lawrence Hall of Science, was notified that he had a visitor at the main desk. There was Tom Hoering, standing in the main lobby, with the sole intent of checking Chris out to see if he was suitable. Tom had a way of sniffing the air that meant he was thinking about a situation and sizing someone up. It was a brief meeting, but Chris evidently passed muster. In September 1986, we got married in my parents’ back yard in New Jersey with family and friends.

            After over 30 years of marriage, I can look back and see what was important for us as a couple, a family, and for me as a working woman. Before our kids were born, we both enjoyed the freedom to work as long as we wanted and travel wherever we needed to go. When Dana and Evan were very young, we hired a remarkable young woman, recently emigrated from Nigeria, to be their “daycare mother” for their first 5 years. Susan Agugua, bright, perky, and funny, arrived every morning at 9 am, every bit as “Practically Perfect” as Mary Poppins. Having someone you trust with your children allowed us both to keep our careers going while raising a family.

            When the kids were in elementary school, I took them to school and Chris picked them up from after-school care. When one of them was sick, we put our “cards on the table” and negotiated who had plans that could not be changed and who could shift things around and stay home. Being able to pursue a scientific career requires work on weekends, remote locations, and dedication. Whenever possible, we took them to work with us, including on overseas field trips in Australia and Belize. Chris worked for almost 25 years at an ecological park, a veritable treasure trove of fun places for the kids to explore and learn about nature. Both Dana and Evan also spent time in my lab, weighing samples and washing glassware. Evan and several of his buddies even learned to run the mass spectrometers during their senior year in high school. For several years, the whole family trekked out to Southern California to do field work re-examining the San Jacinto Mountain ecosystem first studied in 1908 by Chris’s grandfather, Harry S. Swarth. They helped trap mammals, pressed plants, assisted with collecting and preparing bird skins for museums, collected insects, and monitored bats.

            Early on I learned to take off from work when they had spring break or Christmas holidays. We usually took a trip to see a new national park or a new beach, or visited Chris’s parents in California. Sharing with them our love for nature and our dedication to things we found important were important lessons for them. Dana is a natural-born artist and has also become a talented organic farmer and educator, hiking and camping whenever she can. Evan has chosen the medical field, using his interest in the human body to start a career in nursing. They’re independent and resourceful. When I was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, they rallied around to help out.

            Key to not running yourself into the ground with marriage, family, and a career is to keep your mind engaged on where you are at that moment. When I was at the lab, I got my analyses done, my writing completed, and my students and postdocs trained. When at home, I enjoyed cooking the nightly dinner, made sure our home was pleasant, if not fastiously clean, and delighted in hosting other families at our house. Our home was a mecca for the kids’ friends after we installed a half-court basketball platform and a hot tub in the backyard. As I matured as a scientist, I was more confident in my role as a leader and frequently hosted dinner parties at our house for colleagues from around the world. I morphed into the role of “Science Mother,” making sure postdocs and students were getting what they needed in their careers, as well as their personal lives.
Evan, Dana, Marilyn, and Chris, Riverside 2017
November 30, 2019: We had 65 family members and friends spend a cold November afternoon and evening at our "wedding renewal" ceremony. It had been raining cats and dogs for the first time in over 6 months. The skies remained dark and threatening but the rain held off. We set up chairs in front of our cave of rocks in Mariposa. Our friend Greg Ennis played jazz while people bellied up to the bar for an afternoon libation. We walked 'down the aisle' to the tune of "Can't help falling in love" by Bely Basarte.
Franny Kasen leading the way to the ceremony--it was cold!

I'd worked all week on thinking about what I would say. I decided to talk about the vows we took in 1986 when we originally married and discuss what's important now and how it fits with the past 33 years. 

"I, Marilyn, take Chris to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, til death do us part, thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you."

When you marry in your 20s and 30s, you know about "having and holding"--its all about having and a lot of holding.  Then, in any typical relationship, especially a marriage, the better or worse is gonna happen. It sure did happen for us--two beautiful, outstanding children, great jobs, beautiful homes, fun trips around the world. Then, there was the "worse"--the family illnesses, death of 3 of our parents, a couple of dogs passing away, mostly normal things. Fortunately for Chris and me, we started out "poor" and ended up on the richer side being frugal, paying off debts, and saving as much as we could. Dana and Evan are both financially responsible so the next generation is in good hands.

Since the 2016 ALS diagnosis, the sickness and health now has special meaning. We sure are in the middle of that now--big time. Chris and I need even more confirmation that we'll be there for each other, especially he'll be here for me as I need more and more help from him. There was never any doubt, but it felt good to recommit and renew.

So we said our vows again on November 30th looking out on a sea of faces that expressed compassion, love, solidarity, joy, and happiness. Their faces also had some tears. It was a moving ceremony marked by singing, poetry, and heart felt words. I couldn't imagine a better gift for Chris and me to give to ourselves.

We partied 'til 10:30 pm--hell we're 'old' people--dancing to the Macarana with everyone and "Crank dat Solja Boy" with the lab group--shooting off illegal fireworks--drinking fine beers and wines--smiling the whole time.
Wheelchair dancing!

I know now even more than before that family and friends will be there for Chris (and me) as our challenges grow more complex and difficult. Our hearts were open. We'll make it through.


  1. Great update! So happy to hear about the event.

  2. Such a beautiful story and such a beautiful life, Marilyn. You have been very blessed and although the medical issues you have now test that, the fact that you have so many people near you who love you so much is a blessing in itself. I think about you often.


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...