I started writing this several days ago, when I was lying in bed wondering why I hadn’t fallen asleep. The opening sentences I imagined seemed to work, I was pleased, and I fell asleep. When I woke up at my usual time, I’d forgotten the opening. But it doesn’t matter. This is really about a toaster.
Our toaster died a few weeks ago. It wasn’t a special toaster, and it wasn’t expensive when it was new. The toaster was a simple two-slice, pop-up GE toaster, steel body, plastic sides and lever. My husband’s friends pooled their meager funds and purchased the toaster as a wedding gift—in 1967. Yes, the toaster lasted for 47 years.
This household appliance didn’t simply stop working. As will happen with most of us when the time comes, the toaster broke down piece by piece. Instead of popping up automatically when the toast was done, it continued toasting. We knew the toast was ready when streams of smoke undulated upward. Fortunately, the lever still worked manually, better than it ever had before. When we hit the lever, the toast popped up and went into orbit, flying over the counter and the stove and landing on the floor, almost in the front hall. Like the toaster, I suppose I’ll disintegrate one part at a time and land at the doorway of another world, barely functioning.
Forty-seven years is a long time for anything. No other appliance in our home has lasted as long, and neither has much else. During all those years, we have lived in seven apartments (in five cities) and one house (in a sixth). We have owned six cars and several bicycles. (The motorcycle I had before we married doesn’t count.) We’ve had two cats and two dogs.
Most marriages don’t fare as well as our old toaster. The median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is 7.8 years for men and 7.9 years for women. (And no, I don’t know why women get an extra month or so of marriage. Are we reluctant to let go, even after the divorce decree?) But we’re quicker on the second marriage. The median duration of second marriages that end in divorce is 7.3 years for men and 6.8 years for women. (The second time around it’s the men who can’t let go.)
It gets worse when we look at the statistics for people who have been married for more than ten years. The percentage of married people who reach their 25th, 35th, and 50th anniversaries is 33%, 20%, and 5%, respectively. I’m saddened just looking at the figures.
I’m beginning to get a glimmer of where the idea of planned obsolescence came from. Manufacturers were obviously onto something before the US Census Bureau caught up with them. The men and women who design and make toasters, stoves, sofas, and all the rest of the stuff we fit into our homes knew before anyone else that marriages were getting shorter, so why make products meant to last? Advertisers are now telling people they should be replacing their mattresses and furniture every seven years.
This marketing scheme makes me wonder if changing your home furnishings so completely undermines the marriage by taking away whatever was stable and familiar, and replacing it with something new and, truly, unnecessary. Perhaps it is this practice that nudges couples toward divorce. Perhaps those who keep the old stuff fare better. When I take my daily walk I pass the detritus of this thinking—sofas that barely lasted three years and one child or one dog, bookcases that collapsed under the weight of packed shelves, old televisions bought only three years ago, and all sorts of odds and ends no one wants anymore.
I’m going to miss my toaster. It was a constant in my life, but we knew it wouldn’t last forever. We purchased a backup some years ago, knowing what was coming. That one was white plastic and barely got the job done. So, when the end came, we decided to splurge and bought a two-slice toaster designed for long slices of bread. This one is sturdy but mostly plastic. I won’t be around for another 47 years, but I do hope this is the last toaster I ever have to buy. At this point in my life, I don’t want to be reminded how easy it is to throw out the old and buy everything new. I don’t like contemplating my own mortality. I’ll stick to toasters.