Paula Backsheider's father walked her down the aisle toward the man who would be her husband. With an unpleasant face and a snarl in his voice, her father looked at her and said, "You don't have to do this."
The sassy sophomore in college kept walking.
Fifty-four years later, Paula and her husband, Nick Backsheider, are still married and glad she kept walking.
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She had met the front-row student in their freshman British Literature class at Purdue University. The teacher made them memorize the beginning of Geoffery Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” a string of words the couple still knows by heart. Paula was called on, and when the words of Chaucer flowed out of her mouth, laced together with a thick Southern drawl, Nick turned to face her.
“He laughed, so I married him,” Paula said.
She had been looking for the first man who was smarter than her, while simultaneously being someone she couldn’t push around. They began spending time together, and those characteristics came to the surface in Nick.
She was dating a PIKE brother when she met Nick. Paula and her popular boyfriend would give Nick rides every once in a while, and she started noticing differences between the men.
“After a while, I noticed that [Nick] listened to me, and the PIKE only gave me beach towels and stuff,” Paula said. “I just switched my affection.”
For Nick, Paula was all he had ever had in the way of true romance. She was especially bright, beautiful and full of energy. Their worlds were different, but it only drew them closer to each other.
Paula was raised in a Deep South town where she was seen as an “honorary son.” She was active in sports and known for throwing a couple hips in field hockey. Nick went to a top-tier high school in the North, his uncle sang for the Metropolitan Opera and he was chock full of cultural knowledge that intrigued Paula.
He had a lot riding on this first relationship. When faced with a bank of frigid Indiana snow, he scooped up his lady and attempted to cross the mound. He wanted to be a hero — Sir Walter Raleigh-
“I tripped in the snow, and we both laid there in the snow, laughing when our English professor came by,” Nick said as Paula cuts him off with a fact check.
“It was our philosophy professor,” Paula said with a hand on his.
The professor looked down and rolled his eyes at the pair, lying there in the snow.
In a year they were married, and they kept moving forward. They continued on into their 20s, figuring out what that meant for the both of them. Paula wanted to be a good wife that knew how to dust, but she felt unprepared.
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Nick attended a “progressive high school” where all boys took a home economics course. He was horrified as he watched her wash glasses, dipping a dirty frying skillet in the same sink.
You never wash your nice glasses in the same sink as a dirty dish, his mother had always taught him.
She was struggling with learning how to dust and clean dishes, and she barely had time to spend with him. She laughed, gasped and said, “Then he got the idea that probably helped us have the marriage we do.”
They thought of the worst chore in their mind — what they hated doing more than anything. They gave it to the other person. He got the dusting. She got hedge trimming.
“We were happy,” Paula said.
With the homemaking figured out, they moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for education at Yale. They lived in an experimental housing project next to an African-American pastor whose wife baked yeast rolls, a Jewish couple and other Yale students just down the way.
With race riots raging only a few blocks away and the Black Panthers demonstrating on the Yale Commons, there was no shortage of culture and expression for their newborn, Andrea, to absorb. Nick sang Andrea to sleep nightly, and Paula rose with the sun to greet her.
School finished as they obtained doctoral degrees. The two began working, hopping from job to job. Nick followed his wife as she found her way through Rochester University, Rollins College and, finally, Auburn University.
They were long-distance for a time, and Paula said it just didn’t work for them. Nick got antsy and began picking up hobbies like mini-golf and painting to fill the time.
“We were going to have a coin flip,” Paula said. “Whoever won or lost was going to quit his or her job.”
He got the job. They were together again.
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They moved onto a couple acres of land with forests that hugged their home. Their tradition of “mommy and daddy time,” continued, and they met in the kitchen while dinner was being prepared and had the kind of conversation through which they had fallen in love years before.
In recent years, Nick has appreciated her company as he recovers from a fall. Her company is sincere, and she is fun, he said. Paula appreciates him for letting her be true to herself.
“It’s like every moment of every day he lets me be myself,” Paula said. “He’s there for me, and I’ll come in and he asks, ‘How was your day?’ It’s so rare for people on either side of a marriage, male or female, to let the other one be themselves and do things they really want to do.”
Paula said they are working toward a marriage worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records. Nick smiled and looked at his wife.
“We will see how the rest of this goes then.”