Illustration by David Sankey

My Mother’s Honeymoon

Catholicism kept my parents’ marriage afloat.

I call it my mother’s rather than my parents’ honeymoon because he’d already had one, though she didn’t know it. Perhaps he was afraid to tell her, fearing that, if he was divorced, they couldn’t marry in the Church. But he was wrong; he married before his conversion, so he married as an unbaptized Jew. But he thought it best not to mention it. I found out when his stepson contacted me. My father had been dead for twenty years. I never told my mother.

Today is their seventy-third anniversary.

October 11, 1947. The war over only two years, but the war has nothing much to do with either of my parents. My father was too old—he was the right age for the First World War, but was deferred, I learn later, because he was the sole support of his mother and sisters. My mother’s brothers were in the Navy, but I don’t know whether they ever saw combat. If they did, it was never talked about. Their service seemed to make no impress on the family seal.

I am looking at their wedding picture, the only one I have, less than half the size of a traditional snapshot, yellowed, faded. Nothing like what one would expect of a wedding photo. Surrounding my parents are my mother’s mother, her sister who is her maid of honor, my father’s friend Jack, his best man, and the priest whom my parents loved perhaps as much as they loved one another.

My mother is not in white; she is wearing what I know to be a blue velvet suit, because it hung in the closet, never worn again. This blue suit rather than the white dress is not sad, as it might have been ten years earlier or later. Perhaps the residue of a military fashion, more women than I would have imagined (at least a few of my friends’ mothers) married in a suit rather than a white gown.

My mother is holding a modest bouquet. Her arm is linked through my father’s. She looks triumphant, ready to take on the world. He looks serene, perhaps a bit too calm. Hard to read his look: it could be many things—proprietary, resigned?

I think they look quite romantic. Because they did have a romance, maybe every couple does, at least at the beginning. He wrote her love poetry “Never in all the annals of recorded time / existed such sweet pretext for a rhyme.” She defied her parents’ disapproval to marry him. They were convinced that he wouldn’t be “a good provider.” My mother’s father refused to come to the wedding. He disapproved of the marriage because my father was a writer and didn’t have a steady job. As my mother got into her car to drive to her wedding, he handed her a card on which he had written, “you will work till the day you die.”

Everything about their honeymoon finds its place in the capacious and flexible shape of their romance. As romances go, theirs was not one of the worst, not one of the least interesting, the least distinctive, the least original. Does it matter that it is legible, comprehensible, to almost no one but themselves? And perhaps to me.

The taking on of romance would have been natural to my father, who created a new identity for himself, made up largely of lies. He told everyone that he was an only child, and that he had studied at Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. In fact, he had two sisters and dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. And there was the never-mentioned first marriage. But my mother’s romance was a triumph of will and imagination, since she came from a family that prided itself on being aggressively opposed to anything not of immediate and obvious use.

 

The country of my parents’ romance was located in the territory whose borders were Rome to the East and Hollywood to the West. That is to say, it was nourished and colored by a particular kind of Catholicism and a particular kind of movie. And I mean to say particular: If you went outside the strict lines, there was no coherence, and nothing made sense.

The stars of the films my mother treasured were not the doomed tragic heroines: Garbo, Dietrich, or the hard edgy humorless Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Her ideal: Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Irene Dunne (a good Catholic, my mother always said with pride when her name was mentioned) in The Awful Truth, Myrna Loy, the perfect consort of The Thin Man. The heroes were hard drinking, ironic. They refused to play by the rules. But they were urbane fast talkers rather than fighters, their suits were well cut, their weapons not their fists or guns but their quick wits.

If there were a poet laureate, or a writer in residence, in the country of their romance it would have been G. K. Chesterton. He combined many of the qualities my parents treasured: a deep, traditional Catholicism, a sense of humor, a dislike of pretension, an abhorrence of Puritanism of any stripe. Perhaps most important for my mother: he wrote detective stories, to which she was addicted. These are the kind of sentences they would have liked: “The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” “Drink because you are happy, never because you are miserable.” “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions.” “The first two things which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.” “To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once.” “Romance is the deepest thing in life. It is deeper than reality.”

Unlike most of their cohort, what was not romantic for them was any kind of success in the eyes of the world. Like the bohemians whom they would have thought of as their antithesis, if not their enemies, they loathed conventional American optimism.

The genteel British anti-Semitism that keeps me from becoming a Chesterton fan would not have bothered my parents. My father was a self-hating Jew, his hatred stemming from the very qualities Chesterton pilloried. My mother, as she did with anything difficult, would not have allowed herself to notice.

They were serious Catholics, serious in that their Catholicism was absolutely at the center of everything they did and were. They devoted time to enriching, deepening, sustaining, and nourishing their religious life. An important part of their romance was that it was for them a protest against the more popular post-war romance: the bad days are over, men can go back to work, women can stay in the kitchen, children will be happy and safe in an America which is the best place that has ever existed in the history of the world. Unlike most of their cohort, what was not romantic for them was any kind of success in the eyes of the world. Like the bohemians whom they would have thought of as their antithesis, if not their enemies, they loathed conventional American optimism. If Chesterton was their hero, Norman Vincent Peale was, if not their nemesis, then the deluded dope who persuaded American boobs that there was power in positive thinking. Outsiders in post-war America, they had an appetite for the mystical, the transcendent, the miraculous.

Only recently I’ve realized that my parents were both part of a movement. the Catholic Revival, which began in the twenties and lasted through the mid-fifties. The Australian-born Frank Sheed and his English wife Maisie Ward were important forces. They aimed to publish in America the best of sophisticated Catholic thought (largely French). The goal was to wean Catholics from simpleminded piety in exchange for a deep exploration of Catholic tradition. Alongside Chesterton and Belloc, there was also a cohort of English women converts: Alice Meynell, Enid Dinnis, and Sheila Kaye-Smith, whose work blended an uncritical and sentimental appetite for a pre-Reformation past with a determination to weave the mystical and traditionally pious into a modern scenario.

I’m happy to think of my parents as part of something. It makes them seem less raggedy, less marginal, less odd, and less alone.

 

They were introduced by a priest, their first encounter at a convent called Mary Reparatrix on 29th Street in Manhattan.

My mother was there because she was making a retreat, which she did often: a central part not only of her religious life, but also of those lives within her circle of friends. It amuses me that the word “retreat,” whose source was religious, has been repurposed by the corporate world. What it meant to people like my mother was a “retreat” from ordinary life, days or a week spent in a convent or monastery, silence punctuated only by prayer and conferences with a spiritual director, at that time always a priest.

These retreats were a great gift to women: married women, who could be freed from domestic responsibility for small slivers of time; and single women, who were given a place of honor where their unmated status was of no import, not even (for once) worth mentioning. The audience for these retreats was surprisingly wide. It included non-Catholics. The internet provides me with a 1952 article from Glamour in which a model who is interviewed insists that retreats are good for the complexion.

It was only by chance that my mother began making retreats. She had attended a business school in Manhattan and her best friend there, a woman named Kathleen Hogan, lived in Jamaica Estates (home, much later, to Donald Trump). Kathleen’s parish was unusual in that it was not just a church, but also a monastery, run by an order who specialized in retreats. They were called the Passionists. I have to tell most of my friends not to laugh—not Passionate, dear, Passionists, devoted to the Passion of Christ. His suffering and death. The center of both my parents’ religious imagination was most importantly a death: it included nothing that was not contained in Jesus’ seven last words, words of anguish, abandonment, consolation, protection, resignation to the unquestionably greater power of the Father. The rest was soft food for those who had not yet cut their teeth.

At this monastery (called Immaculate Conception, whose feast my mother insisted upon for my cesarean birth), she met the priest who became something of an obsession for her—the priest who would marry my parents and accompany them on their honeymoon.

The day he met my mother, my father was at the convent not for a retreat, but to meet another priest, who was the retreat master. He had written the priest a letter in response to an article the priest had written. My father had accused him of being too liberal.

On a whim, I google Mary Reparatrix, and find, remarkably, more than a few entries. I quickly understand that everything about the order would have been up my parents’ alley. Because it had the unmistakable tincture of glamor. Even the nuns’ habits were glamorous: sky blue as opposed to the utilitarian black, white, or navy of most nuns. The order’s foundress, Émilie d’Oultremont, was a nineteenth-century daughter of the nobility. Her father was the Belgian Ambassador to the Holy See. (An inside joke: What did the Holy See see?) She had wanted to become a nun, but agreed to an arranged marriage, which turned out to be very happy, although she was left a young widow with four children. She then decided to follow her early calling to become a nun, which had remained with her through her marriage. Wikipedia tells me that “she had a mystical vision while at a ball.”

In a later vision, the Virgin Mary told her she must found an order of contemplative nuns. Mother Émilie called the order Mary Reparatrix, the idea being that the nuns’ prayers would make reparation for the sins of the world. They would take their place alongside the Virgin Mary, whose job it was to repair: Mary Reparatrix. One of the order’s missions is to be involved in what is called Perpetual Adoration—that is to say, an attention to, an accompaniment of, the Host, the body and blood of Christ, bread not only symbolically but literally transubstantiated: a change in substance. The bread is no longer bread, or—and this is where it gets complicated—yes, of course it is still bread, but equally and more importantly it is now the Body of Christ. This is an idea people have killed and died for. The Host is placed in what is called a monstrance (from the Latin monstrare, “to show”): a gold sunburst on a pedestal, with a window in the center, where the Host is placed for maximum visibility. In joining this order of Mary Reparatrix, you are pledged to be part of Perpetual Adoration. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, two nuns (not just one—were they afraid of loneliness?…of falling asleep unnoticed?) must be kneeling in front of the monstrance.

Adoring. Perpetually. Who would not find this desirable? A life of perpetual adoration. How paltry other goals, other callings. How paltry other ideals: happiness, duty, success.

Perpetual Adoration. No suggestion of the adorer being adored.

 

How did it happen? What was the road from the meeting in the convent to the wedding Mass, to the marriage bed? Did he invite her for a drink? For lunch? For dinner? And then what? I will never know. I don’t even know how long they knew each other before they decided to get married. When did they decide they were more than friends?

Someone who knew them said that she saw them kissing passionately, publicly. Right on the subway. On the way from the convent? Or to it? From where? To where? The dead are mute, determined to withhold their gossip.

The convent was razed in 1984, at which point my father had been dead for twenty-seven years and my mother had disappeared into alcohol-induced dementia.

 

And now the part of the romance whose source was Hollywood enters the story. The part where the romance takes on a comic tone (think screwball comedies), becoming, in the end, nothing but a joke. Whatever else they didn’t share, they both had excellent senses of humor that enabled them to tell the story of their honeymoon (which they enjoyed doing) as an extended joke. The first part of the joke is that they set off on their honeymoon in the company of the priest who had just married them.

The priest was very handsome, with a John Barrymore dash, but without a hint of melodrama. He embodied, not only for my parents, but also for the circle of women who surrounded him, a particular kind of masculinity they yearned for. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm, the middle of seven brothers, in an unlovely part of New York state that abuts Pennsylvania. He was adept at all kinds of heavy manual labor: digging and carrying, climbing ladders, hammering boards. An odd detail: my mother had among her photographs a picture of him and his six brothers, probably between four and twelve years old, standing naked, their heads shaved. He must have given it to her, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why. He was my father’s closest friend, his confessor, his spiritual director, the brother he never had. My mother was in love with him and he was in love with my father. After my father’s death, she wrote to him for solace in her grief, and he replied, remarkably, “Do not speak to me of grief. You at least have a child of his loins. I have nothing.”

He was erratic and distractible, which she put down to his being an intellectual—and intellectuals were in no position to have pride of place when it came to driving cars.

My parents’ wedding took place in Buffalo because the beloved priest was stationed there, and, the marriage being something of an embarrassment, the distance from the family home was a relief. The priest drove with them from Buffalo to Toledo. I like to think that they drove furiously to get to the Palmer House in Chicago, where the reservation was made, for the first time in the name of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon.

The story goes that my father was driving and this was unusual, because her car was a vital possession for my mother. It enabled her to be a peer of the other mobile ones, as she never was when walking. She had been stricken with polio at the age of three and could only walk a block or two.

It was a 1946 black Oldsmobile and the way she got it says a lot about her, her intelligence, her determination, her sense of the weight of her misfortune and its power to get her some things she was due because of it. One of her legs had no strength, and so she could only drive the kind of car that was then called a “hydromatic,” which didn’t require, as did a manual shift, the ability to use both feet at once. But after the war, there was a shortage of hydromatics, because preference was given to wounded veterans. My mother had a hard time getting the new car she needed. She wrote to the head of General Motors, explaining her situation. He arranged for her to get the black Oldsmobile she’d asked for.

When I think about that letter, I remember that I often fail to give my mother credit for some of the good things about me, preferring to assign them all to my father. In my narrative, he is the writer in whose steps I followed. But maybe I was following her too.

The black Oldsmobile was the source of another joke my parents shared, and I’m not sure it was a kind one. My father would say: “This is my wife’s spiritual life. She prays for a black Oldsmobile and gets it.” The tone could be admiring or contemptuous, perhaps it started as the first and changed into the second, or perhaps the tone changed depending on his mood or their immediate situation.

My mother was a very good driver, neither timid nor bold, but certain and never intimidated. She was excellent at parking. So much would have been lost for her if anything had happened to the car, even for a day, so I understand why she was generally reluctant for my father to drive it; she knew she was a much better driver. He was erratic and distractible, which she put down to his being an intellectual—and intellectuals were in no position to have pride of place when it came to driving cars. So, it must have been a kind of honeymoon miasma that led her to allow my father to drive the car, a move she regretted and would not repeat. Was her allowing him to drive the car a kind of pre- then post-coital swoon? The wife, no longer virginal, with a sense of an unpayable debt.

                       

They spent their wedding night in the elegant Palmer House. On one Chicago trip many years later, I made it a point to spend the night there.

As I approach the hotel, I’m disappointed. The stores and restaurants in its immediate vicinity are not elegant: Chipotle, H&M, Wells Fargo, but once inside, I am enormously pleased at how pleased I can allow myself to be. It is a dream of an age of plenty, of excess, of ornament immensely easy on the eye: medallioned ceilings in blue, green, and pink, Tiffany chandeliers. I climb the grand, gold staircase, which my mother could never have done, but I’m sure she stood at the bottom and took it in. My own room, though perfectly serviceable, is nothing special. Certainly it could never be called elegant, and I want to believe that my parents had something more luxurious.

But I discover that the hotel has its own romance, that it was a wedding gift from Potter Palmer, one of the millionaires responsible for developing Chicago’s Miracle Mile. His wife Bertha was twenty-three years younger, also wealthy, cultivated, devoted to all things French, and a friend, the story goes, of Monet. But like many romances, the hotel’s is touched by darkness. Only days after its opening, it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. But there is a happy ending, made happier by the refusal to be defeated by the destructive power of the world. Palmer got a $1.7 million loan, reportedly with nothing more required than his signature. He rebuilt the hotel and gave Bertha carte blanche as to its decoration. Her eye was formed by the Impressionists she had befriended, but there was a place for many forms of extravagant display: a touch of Venetian splendor in the Tiepolo-like ceilings, and a willingness to make use of what was being made in America, like the Tiffany chandeliers. From the thirties through the fifties, all the greats—Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte—performed in the Empire Room, the hotel’s supper club.

Supper club. The word shimmers for me with the kind of glamor my parents found the most desirable. I like thinking of them drinking cocktails in the Empire Room, listening to whoever was singing there in the fall of 1947. Or was that outside their budget? They never mentioned seeing anyone famous, and it was something that would have been part of the story.

The hotel website says that the Palmer House is the American hotel with the longest history of continuous operation. But the last entry says that the hotel is now in foreclosure.

Another romance brought to a close by insufficient funds. I mourn the loss of a way of life that fueled my parents’ dreams.

 

Before I leave them (because to follow them to their bridal bed would be a horrible invasion), I want to speculate on what would have been called the trousseau.

I hope she had a trousseau, also known as a hope chest. What was she hoping for, and what did her suitcase contain? A lovely nightgown? What color? White, to make a point of her virginity, or black, casting her lot in the camp of allure? And what else might there have been? A wrap or kimono for the morning after? One of each, or many?

It worries me to think of what my father made of my mother’s body the first time he encountered it as a lover. Because her body was not lovely in any sense that would be truthful and not wishful thinking. Her polio had left one leg six inches shorter than the other, half its width, and with a pitiful child-sized foot. And my father was a man of experience; not only had he been married to a woman whose photograph I once saw, a Zelda Fitzgerald–type flapper, pert, petite, well-made, but he also published a girlie magazine, the softest of soft porn, called Hot Dog. And someone who knew him in the twenties, when he was briefly prosperous on the earnings of Hot Dog, said he was one of what were known as the Cleveland playboys. But my mother was not without her physical allures. So perhaps these were enough: her matte white skin, dramatic against her jet-black hair, the large green eyes that could be dreamy, wrathful, mischievous or mocking, and what was known as “a million-dollar smile.”

And maybe he never saw my mother’s body unclothed, because she was shocked to discover late in life that married people had sex naked. Only savages, she believed, would separate love making from lingerie. I believe that things went well, as my mother would have said, “in that department.” She was not a Puritan, and had only good things to say about sex in the context of marriage. Of course, outside marriage it was a sin, pitiable, easily forgiven, unlike the really bad sins such as blasphemy or communism. I remember her saying to me once, “You can work out a lot of things in bed.”

At this point in my mother’s telling of the story of her honeymoon, the comic takes over, although perhaps it was always folded in because my father arranged for their first evening out to be in a nightclub where Henny Youngman (“Take my wife—please”) was performing. Everything goes wrong because my mother let my father drive. First, he forgot where he parked the car and they had to enlist the police to find it. Then, he backed the car into a police paddy wagon (The same police? Did they think it was a joke? That he was a joke? That they both were?). And then he came down with whooping cough.

                                                           

And the honeymoon was over, along with most of their romance. Not all of it: the part that had its roots in Catholicism kept the rickety craft afloat. But the Hollywood part was finished. My mother didn’t get to be the wisecracking heroine because you needed money for that. Nothing dissolves romance like money or, rather, the lack of it. And that would be the theme of their marriage, the basso continuo of my childhood: fights about money and my father’s failure to get what we always called a “good job.”

But on the long trip home—she driving, he the afflicted passenger—I think she still believed that they would prosper.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 

Mary Gordon is the author of eighteen books, including Final Payments, Joan of Arc: A Life, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and most recently the novel Payback.

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