marriage: an investigation

They Told Their Three Sons to Stay Out of the Bedroom When the Blue Light Was On

Photo: Michael E. Northrup

Deane and Arda Bell Northrup, Married 56 Years

Photograph taken in 1993. Deane and Arda Belle Northrup were married 56 years and died, respectively, in 1996 and 2002. Their son, Michael E. Northrup, used them as subjects in his early photography.

What do you remember about taking this photograph?
I was just getting my commercial avenue going, and I thought I’d do a studio-lit landscape-y shot of them in our backyard. This shot is actually an outtake. My mom’s looking at my dad and saying, “Dean, put that cigarette out.” You can see her cigarette on the ground — she’d already put it out, and dad’s just about to do the same. The irony is that my dad was a surgeon. In a town of about 20,000 people, he was a chief surgeon and also a coroner, and loved it. And he was a smoker, who died of lung cancer. It was amazing. I remember my mom quit on her own way before my dad. I think she was told she was developing emphysema and that if she didn’t quit she was gonna have a problem, so she started chewing on these little inserts that would take the tar out. She would chew on that for the next 15 or 20 years. And I remember at the time my dad asked her, “Do you want me to quit so I’m not tempting you all the time?” She said, “No, no, go ahead.”

Did you ask them to wear those outfits?
No, I didn’t direct or pose them like that. Probably I said, “Hey, come on out back,” and they stopped whatever they were doing and came out.  When this was taken my father was in retirement. He played golf and was probably just in his relaxing clothes.

They look really great by any standards, but especially given that they’re retirees…
He played football in college. I remember when he was about 80 we were standing together at the bathroom sink and I said, “Dad, flex your muscles for me,” and he went into one of these poses and I went, Oh my God, he’s still ripped. My mom, I think I saw some saucy pictures of her, nothing more than a tight sweater when she was young, but I knew my mom was kind of a hottie back in the day. She was constantly concerned about her weight, constantly until she died. She always had a figure.

How did they meet?
My dad is from southeast Ohio and my mom was from Erie, Pennsylvania. The met when they were both doing their residencies. My mother was a nurse. The married April 23, 1939. He was a doctor [in the war]. He was stationed in New Orleans. They would talk about how some of the greatest entertainers of all time would come through the nightclubs down there. They liked martinis.

What can you tell me about their marriage?
I think they really respected each other. They were in love for over 50 years, very much in love. They had what I thought was the idyllic marriage, and I always measured that against my own marriage. I knew what a good marriage was, and I didn’t have it. It helped me to know that, and to move on from that.

Were they affectionate?
I’d see them kiss. When they were home and my dad got a call from the hospital, mom was always very disappointed, but she never took it out on him because she was a nurse and understood he had to do it.
You could just see it. In fact, we were told as kids, “If you see the blue light on in our bedroom, don’t come in.” So I’d have a bad dream, and I’d get up, and I’d look through the keyhole into their rom, and see the blue light and go “dang.” I didn’t know what was going on, but years later of course realized they were making love. The light didn’t work all the time! My brothers and I had a window we kept unlocked as teens so that if we snuck out at night we could get in and out of the house without my parents knowing. One day when I was 15 I came home from school and tried to get in, but the door was locked. I thought, What the heck? It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. What’s going on? So I went to the window that we’d sneak in through, and I’m climbing in, and I look up and my mom is running out of the bedroom and down the hall, totally naked, and my dad is coming out of the bedroom zipping up his pants, saying, “Oh hi there, Mike, what are you doing home this early?” So yes, I think they were in love.

It sounds like they had an amazing marriage.
Really, it was idyllic. I think marriages that work are ones with people who are mature and kind. That was them. And I think they found true love.

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

They Told Their Sons to Stay Out When the Blue Light Was On