A couple of decades on, my wife and I still find ourselves telling people about our Pre-Cana experience, held at a parish in a Brooklyn neighborhood known then, with implied notoriety, as an Italian-American enclave. The catechist couple spent much of the Saturday session enumerating (in colorful Brooklynese) the ups and downs of their own lengthy marriage, though dropped in among the anecdotes were tips targeted at the mostly very young couples of the community. Girls, admonished the wife, make sure you’ve put on some lipstick and nice clothes when he comes home from work, since the last thing he wants to see after a long subway ride is a tired, washed-out woman at the stove. From the husband: Guys, go easy on your daughter, if you’re blessed with a daughter, because they can’t help but choose losers for boyfriends and they’re going to get into trouble.
Whatever works, we’ve since come to understand.
If up to my adolescence I was convinced that every argument between my parents augured divorce, I was equally reassured of the marriage's endurance by their weekly viewings together of “The Rockford Files” on Friday nights. I was reminded of this habit of theirs after the actor James Garner died last Saturday. It was the one hour they would set aside for themselves after a week of demanding work for my father and the arguably more demanding job my mother had in overseeing a house overrun by four boys. It might not rise to the level of the “date nights” that some magazines today prescribe for the harried-parent demographic, since it consisted only of a frozen eggplant parmigiana and a decanter of Carlo Rossi burgundy, set out on a dinged-up coffee table in front of the nineteen-inch black-and-white TV, the only one the house. But for the mid-1970s, in a rural town twenty country miles from the single-screen movie theater, it seemed to work.
Probably because they worked to make it happen—my mother feeding us early and hurrying us to bed before the program began, my father making sure to get home in time (and to pour the wine). From my bedroom I could hear the show’s famous ringing-phone opener and the unmistakable instrumental theme, if not very much of the dialogue. Eventually, as we got too old to be forced to bed early, we were grudgingly allowed to watch along with them, as long as we stayed quiet and sat far away from their private table. They loved watching James Garner as Jim Rockford—together—and they weren’t going to let their night be taken away.
It was probably inevitable that I grew to love “Rockford,” too, and some of the other things in which Garner appeared (his turn as the white-turtlenecked Scrounger in The Great Escape is a favorite). He not only famously did his own driving in movies and television; he also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. He did Polaroid commercials. He liked to say he met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally, in 1956, and he was still married to her when he died. This last detail stuck out for me, not just because I tend to expect multiple spouses listed in celebrity obituaries. I guess it also seemed sort of appropriate. I've probably long since bored my wife, and more recently my kids, with stories of my parents’ “Rockford” nights; it was a bit of simple modeling on their part, I guess, and even if done unwittingly, has maybe been more valuable than whatever I could have taken from Pre-Cana. In October, they’ll have been married fifty years. Whatever works?