On January 23rd, 1943, my parents were married. In less than a month, their 80th anniversary will arrive. That seems like such an impossible number. My mother was nineteen and my dad was either nineteen or twenty, depending on which of their documents is correct. A pair of babies. Neither one of them had a great childhood. My mom was the only surviving female amongst her siblings and as such, was relegated to the classic second-class role for girls by her immigrant parents, who were children of the patriarchy. Not much was expected from her in terms of life accomplishments. In addition to going to school, she was responsible for a slew of household chores which included daily floor scrubbing, errand running and bearing the brunt of my grandmother’s rage at her life. The middle child in a group of boys, she felt incredibly uncomfortable as a sexual object amidst her brothers and step-brother. She got little support from my grandmother who lived the barefoot, pregnant life of a superstitious first-generation immigrant, smart but illiterate, socially isolated, as well as frustrated and devastated by the deaths of three children out of her eight who were born alive. She asserted what little power she had over her primary target in the household, her sole surviving daughter. My mother frequently told me that my grandmother never told her she loved her, not even once in her entire life.
My dad was another first generation American child whose very early years started out promising but quickly devolved into depression life. His father, who worked as a commercial photographer toying with ideas of double exposure, died at 39, when my dad was eight years old. He had an older sister and younger brother. In keeping with the idea that boys would be the family standard bearers, he took on the responsibility of trying to take care of his mother and siblings. His first job was pulling a wagon through the streets of Chicago, selling apples. As finances became more dire, he quit high school after his sophomore year so he could work full time. My parents both had powerful native intelligence, but neither had a shred of guidance nor any attention paid to their potential. They were street kids who learned how to bluff and act tough. My mom’s toughness ran deeper than my dad’s. Inside they were still little children, perennially stuck in those spots because their grownups were overwhelmed by life and never understood parenting, beyond making sure there was food and a roof. Neither one of them saw a toothbrush until they were old enough to understand that people actually took care of their teeth.
They were introduced by my mom’s older brother and it was one of those things. They were married in less than a year. I heard their story so often that I can visualize them on their wedding day. My mom wore an ice blue dress with a little jacket and open-toed shoes though her feet froze and were soaked that night. My dad had a suit that he got from somewhere. They received $80 in gift money, had dinner with their families and spent two nights in a hotel. My dad was my mom’s first and only lover. I don’t know about him. He was way too shy to talk about those things with me. After the honeymoon they moved into my mom’s parents’ house and went to work. My mom’s job was short-lived as my brother was born in November of that year. They stayed with my grandparents for over eight years, finally moving to Iowa when I was an eight month old baby. My older siblings were eight and five. My dad was hoping for a new beginning working with his brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, selling farm implements and water conditioners. He was on the road a lot, while mom stayed home and tried to manage the children and the bill collectors. That part of their life helped them feel independent, on their own at last, owning their first and what was ultimately their last house. But eventually my mom, subservient to my dad’s older sister, found life was even less attractive there than living with her parents. We all trundled back to Chicago when I was seven, moving into an apartment on Cornell Avenue on the south side of the city, right around the corner from my grandparents who lived on 78th Street and East End.
Life was always financially bumpy and my mom was sick all the time. I spent a lot of my youth visiting her in hospitals, thankful I looked mature enough to pass the age requirement for getting into her room. My dad held several different jobs before finally getting his toe in the door at the First National Bank of Chicago in his mid-forties. He’d finally found his niche and advanced professionally, despite no education or credentials.
All those years were tumultuous. My younger sister who’d come along almost two and a half years after me, made four siblings who were crunched into a two bedroom apartment with our parents. As I watched from the advantageous third position, I realized that though my parents were truly loving to each other and all of their kids, there wasn’t the expected boundary of adult and child between us. In retrospect, it felt like a mostly benign but often wacky frat house with no one in charge to really steer the ship. My parents were scared of a lot; they trained us to be as afraid as they were of so many life experiences. My older sister ultimately referred to their behavior as life on the couch. They clung to each other amidst the uproar and the scary times. I realized that the best role for me was to always be okay for them and to figure out life for myself. The first time I jumped off a diving board they were positive I’d be an Olympian. For me, finding realism kind of started there. Through it all, their love was palpable to everyone. Despite their frequently childish behavior, I worshipped them and modeled my future desires on having big love just like they did. However, I wanted to make sure I got to be an adult first, and to make sure that I married another one.
Luckily, I got that part right. When my dad died at only 67, my mom soldiered on and made it to almost 92. She never entertained remarrying and was wistful about his absence for the rest of her life. My own path seems a repeat of hers, with Michael having died at exactly the same age as my dad. That part of the story is unfinished. Although, in my heart, I suspect that once you get the big love, there doesn’t seem much point in settling for anything less. Happy anniversary, mom and dad. I hope the two of you are out there somewhere, connected forever and that, mom, you’ll see that dad was never serious about Ava Gardner. I miss you two crazies.