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.”