I idealized and idolized my parents.
They were married for nearly 52 years when my dad passed at age 84 in 2008 and my mom joined him in 2010 when she was 86.
For their generation they wed late (age 32) after having met at the party of a mutual friend. My mom had been dating “on again/off again Freddy” for something like seven years. He had stood her up on New Years Eve that year and suffice it to say, she was pissed. Turns out that he showed up at the party as well and when he beckoned her over, she stood her ground and said “If you want to talk to me, you come to me.”
My dad observed this and thought “That girl’s got chutzpah! (Yiddish for guts/moxie)” and he walked over to her himself. They spent the next few hours chatting and he asked to drive her home. When she arrived, she told my grandmother, “Tonight I met the man I’m going to marry.”
Their first date was dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Her fortune read “You’d better prepare your hope chest.” Before my dad asked my mom to marry him, he first asked my grandmother for her blessing. My grandfather had died when my mom was 18. I hadn’t heard the charming story of the proposal itself until my mom was on hospice a few months before she died.
My father was a milkman who delivered to stores in Philadelphia, as cosmically coincidentally, was my grandfather, although they worked for different dairies. The night my father popped the question, he was at my mom’s home. He asked if she could please get him a glass of milk. She walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge and saw that on top of the glass bottle was her engagement ring.
Of course she said yes.
Their wedding took place the next year and although they came from two different sides of the track, they managed to make a good life together. My dad was first generation American born of Russian Jewish working class immigrant parents who were on welfare (‘relief’ is what they called it back then) and lived in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in South Philadelphia (home of the iconic film character of Rocky). My mom lived in the Olney section of the city, which back in the 30’s and 40’s, was a bit more socioeconomically privileged. Although they weren’t wealthy, they had more lifestyle luxuries than did my father’s family. His family was more religiously observant and kept kosher. Hers was more assimilated into American culture and spent summers in Atlantic City in a big house that her aunts, uncles and parents rented together.
When they were about to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and I was preparing to officiate (I am an interfaith minister) at their vow renewal ceremony, I asked my dad the secret to the longevity of their marriage, my father’s winking response was “Your mother’s always right.” and when I asked her how they were able to blend their seemingly disparate lifestyle and upbringing, she responded “We just loved each other.”
The only accommodation she had my father make was “He had to eat his veggies.”
Seems that my dad was a meat and potatoes kind of guy.
That changed later in life when he adopted an almost vegetarian diet and made what my mother called his “concoctions,” that were a mix of fruits and veggies, swirled and whirled in the blender or juicer.
They raised my sister and me with love, affection and attention, doing their best to provide for our needs. They seemed to have the perfect marriage which was a balance of work and play, time for us and time for themselves. I rarely heard them argue and nothing physical was raised in anger at each other or us.
There were no substance addictions; although I realize now that the roots of my own addiction of workaholism was inherited from my father whose desire to escape the financial poverty of his childhood often superseded his need for rest. My parents were loyal to each other and their marriage. Their rule (and the same ironically for us when in stores where there were breakable objects) was “look but don’t touch.” I’m sure there were temptations that they consciously chose to forgo.
I remember my dad telling a story of co-workers asking him to go out with them after work and his response was “Why should I do that when I have everything I need at home?”
As I look through the portal of the past, I see aspects of my parents marriage that I have chosen to emulate, as well as others that I have not managed to live up to in most of my own relationships, including my nearly 12 year marriage that ended in 1998, when my husband died.
Some Loving Life Lessons
Speak from the heart, even it sounds mushy-gushy to other people. My parents had all kinds of silly sweet pet names for each other.
Dance in the kitchen. My parents would take turns leading and following both on the dance floor and life.
Sing goofy songs to each other. Although my mom had a lovely singing voice, what my dad may have lacked in talent, he made up for in enthusiasm. When Hurricane Rita struck South Florida and they were without power for a few weeks, I asked if they wanted to come up to PA and stay with me. They declined and, in their late 70’s, weathered the aftermath of the storm by sitting on their porch and watching people, as well as reading and listening to a battery powered radio.
I would call them daily to check in. One day, my dad told me that they had a problem that I could help them with. “What’s that, dad?” “Well, your mother and I have been singing to each other and we’ve run out of songs. Can you give us some ideas?” We spent the next 10 minutes or so serenading each other.
Maintain an attitude of gratitude (or as is pronounced in Philly: “an attytood of grattytood.”) Once their power was turned back on following the hurricane, they called the utility company and thanked them. The customer service rep who answered the phone was astounded and said that no one ever called to express appreciation, only complaints. My parents taught us to say thank you for all we were given
Leave love notes. My parents would give each other cards for special occasions such as birthdays and Valentines’ Day that would remain up until the next year. My father would write daily affirmations of love for my mother on paper, on bags and napkins. The night of his funeral, the power went out in their condo and my sister went to the circuit breaker to flip the switch and found a yellow post it note inside on which was scrawled in my dad’s handwriting the words “I love you.” He assumed that one day my mom would find it. When she died and I was cleaning out drawers in the condo, I found a small note pad that had even more sweet missives on it.
Curb the criticism. Early on in their marriage, my mom said that they used to tease each other critically; using put downs as a way of communicating displeasure. Catching themselves in the act, they looked at each other and said “What are we doing?” She told me that it stopped then and there.
See the beauty in each other. My father used to say that my mother was the “most beautiful girl in the world.” My mother used to tell people how handsome my father was. This was so for both of them, even as the years brought with them, changes in weight, appearance of wrinkles and infirmity.
Exhibit PDA. My parents were always hugging, smooching and holding hands. This was witnessed by, I imagine, envious friends who weren’t gettin’ what my parents were, both in and out of the bedroom. I am certain that they were lovers to the end, as well as could be managed given their physical conditions.
Keep wooing each other. My parents continued to date all throughout their marriage as they went to the movies, out to dinner, to parties and music events. I loved seeing them get all dressed up to leave the house as we stayed with fun babysitters.
Some Lessons I Wish I Had Learned
Speaking my mind without fear of rocking the boat. My mother would often quote the character of Thumper in the Disney film Bambi : “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” As a result, I held back from saying what really needed to be said and then regretted it.
How to establish and maintain boundaries. Blessedly, there were no overt boundary violations that I can recall from my childhood. The downside of that, was that I had no practice setting them in romantic relationships and would sometimes feel; not just like a doormat, but wall to wall carpeting.
Ways to keep a work life balance. Although my parents seemed to make it look easy to raise us, work their full time jobs and volunteer, I have often felt lopsided in that area, spilling over in one or the other.
How to want a partner without needing one. When I look back at previous relationships, both before and since my marriage, I am acutely aware of how needy I felt at times. Desiring approval and affirmation, I used sell my soul for love. Not no more!
Expressing anger in healthy ways. Since I rarely heard it, it wasn’t modeled for me. Although one of my father’s pieces of wisdom was “Your life is in the hands of any fool who makes you lose your temper,” I took it to mean that I wasn’t to get angry. As a result, I attracted people whose anger flared out of control and I became conflict avoidant.
Letting a man take care of me. One pattern throughout my life was attracting partners for whom I was the emotional caregiver. Paradoxically, I felt taken care of by my father and used that as a model for what I desire, and there were times when he was too enmeshed, telling me “What hurts you, hurts me.” I allowed what hurt partners to hurt me too.
These days, I am willing to take my parents off the pedestal on which I had placed them, knowing that although they are a hard act to follow, pedestals are for statues. They had what I might call a fairy tale relationship. I know that I need to write my own once upon a time and they lived happily ever after story.
Still I know that love leaves a trace.
Author: Edie Weinstein
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: James Morely/Flickr