MARTINA'S LOVE SECRETS

From diamonds to dishes, how she keeps her 16-year marriage red-hot.

"I had just moved into a basement apartment," recalls Martina. "John and I were friends. I was just getting out of a relationship and he was, too. We were buddies - we'd hang out together, watch movies and stuff. So one night he said, 'I'll come by, pick you up and we'll go out - and listen to some music or something.'

"And when he showed up, he had 10 or 12 bags of groceries. There was everything in there, from toilet paper and cookies to peanut butter, bread, milk - staples. Things I would need, as well as a hammer and nails. I thought that was really sweet and thoughtful. It showed me what kind of person he was right off."

It was a kindness she hadn't always witnessed in past relationships . "I'm eight and a half years younger than John," notes Martina, "so I thought that was a sweet thing, he was kind of taking care of me. I'd never really had anybody do that before, especially in a relationship. I was always the person who kept it all together. So I thought that was neat - it was real."

Fast-forward nearly 20 years and the couple is no longer struggling - the basement apartment in Kansas is history. Today Martina and John live in a sprawling Italian villa-style mansion in Nashville that they share with their two daughters, Delaney, 10, and Emma, 6 - and another baby due in June. John owns Blackbird Studio, one of the most sought-after recording studios in Music City. And Martina - well, she's Martina McBride, CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. And likely the only mom in her daughters' classes who has to balance parent-teacher conferences with video shoots and duets with Jimmy Buffett.

Keeping it real is a real challenge. Yet this small-town girl living a celebrity's life not only strives for normalcy, she insists on it - especially when it comes to keeping romance alive. No small feat, given the short shelf life of most celebrity marriages.

"You get caught up in life, kids and school, keeping the house clean and things that everybody does," confesses Martina, who, incidentally, has just returned from dropping her kids off at school.

"Sometimes one of us will think, 'It's time for something romantic,' when the other is just so busy. For instance, John and I haven't been out together for probably two or three months, which is unusual. Usually we try to go out a couple times a month by ourselves, to dinner and a movie. I was craving some alone time with him. So we were coming back from Kansas the other day and I said, 'I want you to take me out this week. I'm not going to say anything else.'

"You have to remember that if you really want something, instead of expecting your partner to read your mind, sometimes you have to just say: 'I want you to take me out this week.' So I did, and last night he said, 'OK, reserve Tuesday night.' I don't know what he has planned.

"You have to keep each other in check," she advises. "If I hadn't said something, we might have gone two or three more weeks without going out, because we're just so busy."

But what about the most romantic day of the year? Even if you're a superstar, it tends to run the gamut - from wearing diamonds to washing dishes.

"Last year we went to New Orleans for the weekend," she explains. "We left Friday after school and took the kids with us. It was the beginning of Mardi Gras. We walked around the French Quarter, ate great food, saw parade preparations. That night we all got dressed up and went to dinner at Emeril's.

"But before that, Harry Winston had loaned me these diamond earrings that I wore for the Grammys [earlier that year]. I had commented to John how pretty and timeless I thought they were. I gave them back at the end of the night, like Cinderella. Well, during dessert at Emeril's, the waiters brought the plates, with silver domes on top. When they took the dome off my plate, there were those earrings, surrounded by rose petals! That was a special night."

Yet for Martina, even diamonds can't top Valentine's Day 2003. It's one of her favorite romantic memories. "We stayed home," she says with a smile. "There was a parents' night out at the church from 7 to 10, so we took the kids to that. John and I cooked this big dinner, had some wine and built a fire. Then he ran me a bubble bath with candles. It was a really nice, quiet night at home."

Martina's daughters also get special treatment on Valentine's Day. "We make Valentines for their classmates," notes Martina, "and they always get a little gift in the morning. One year I got one of them a pink nightgown and the other one got pajamas with hearts on them."

But according to Martina, the biggest gift she gives her daughters is her solid partnership with John. "I think we set a good example as far as communication goes," she declares. "John and I communicate very well with each other. We share our responsibilities. They see that John helps out around the house. He's not afraid to do the dishes after dinner and help get them ready for bed. He's a hands-on dad. We're always respectful of each other.

"Even if it's me asking him to do something, I don't usually say, 'Take out the trash!' I say, 'Would you please take out the trash? It's getting full,' or whatever. Even if we're having a heated discussion about something, and the girls say, 'Are you fighting?' We say, 'No, we're not fighting, we're talking this out.' You have to be honest and work it out. But it always works out. That's part of a mature relationship."

And it's a relationship she's known was special from the moment John delivered the groceries. "You can just tell when you matter to a person," she says. "And with John, I'm reminded of that several times every day, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. I never feel not loved.

"Even if we're going through a spell where we're out of sync with each other - which happens. You know, you get in a bad mood and it might last a couple of days. I do, anyway - not him necessarily," she admits with a laugh. "But I still know that he accepts me for who I am. It's an unconditional kind of love. It's really rare. I feel lucky that I found it, especially at such a young age."

- Wendy Newcomer

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