My parents met while changing bedpans at an elderly men’s rest home in Boston in 1974.
They worked the 4 pm to midnight shift. My mom was a nurse’s aid; my dad was an orderly applying to medical school. She was 20. He was 23. She was the daughter of an Italian shipbuilder and grew up with homemade pasta drying on newspapers around the house. He was the son of a psychologist from Nebraska and grew up never having tried such exotic foods like zucchini and avocado before meeting my mom.
They were married 32 years ago today. And they are still married – to each other. A remarkable feat this day in age I realize. And what is perhaps even more astounding is that they are happy. When I was in middle school it used to bother me when my parents would make out in the kitchen. I thought it was gross. Disturbing. Unnatural.
But looking back now, I know that I am extremely lucky. They have set the bar for me and I will never settle for anything less. I love hearing the story of how they met – after their shift ended he would beg her to drive him home because his beloved MG broke down. Again. He romanced her with a Kahlua-based drink called the Sombrero and perfectly chiseled arms.
They married in 1976, honeymooned briefly in Cape Cod before boarding the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship with 350 lbs of luggage. They embarked from New York on a 10-day journey destined for Lille, France where my dad was to attend med school.
“We passed the Statue of Liberty. It was really beautiful to be leaving there passed where my grandfather came into this country from Italy. It was emotional,” my mom said.
For anyone unacquainted with the QE 2, it is an ocean liner that made its maiden voyage in 1969 and was once considered the way to travel overseas. Here is a description published in an article written by David Abel of the Boston Globe yesterday about the ship’s final voyage from Boston.
“She appeared yesterday, in so many ways, a relic of a bygone era, when trans-Atlantic journeys were made on ocean liners, not airplanes, and the cruise industry catered to a landed gentry. The wine-colored velvet seating in the bar beside the main dining room is nothing if not a throwback. There’s a “theatre,” spelled in the British way, bathrooms for “gents,” and a tuxedo rental shop.”
But the grandness of it all was foreign to my parents. They traveled standby. It was the only way they could get all of their luggage across. They had no porthole, no window at all. At dinner, they looked at each other confused by the proper English set up for dining. A steward named Michael took pity on them and showed them the way, instructing them to “work from the outside in” with their silverware.
When the ship arrived in Southampton, England my parents were stranded due to a train and rail strike in France. (Typical.) Their first night they traveled for hours in a taxi searching for a vacancy until the driver took pity on the young couple and turned the meter off. He took them to the only place left with an open room – a brothel. Yes, that is how my parents spent their first night together in Europe.
They lived in France for a year, bonding with the other Americans and forming friendships – some that have lasted over the decades. With little money, they decorated their studio apartment with furniture fashioned from wood and bricks stolen from construction sites and used a blanket for curtains. In need of a desk, my father and his fellow students disassembled a bus stop enclosure to use the glass panels as tabletops. My mother cleaned their clothes in the bathtub with a boat oar and washboard.
“We were dirt poor,” my mother said. “We really know what it is like to be poor.”
For the holidays they hung sugar cookies on the Christmas tree in place of ornaments. They still have a star they crafted of tin foil and cardboard that receives special placement on our tree every year.
My parents have come a long way from their days as newlyweds in France. They can now afford real Christmas ornaments to hang on the trees and drapes for the windows. But more importantly, together they have built their future. They took a gamble on moving to France. They took a gamble that they could come back and it would all work out.
And it paid off. They have three children who adore them. They have a house equipped with both a modern washer and dryer. They retain an affinity for good wine and cheese and an appreciation for hard work. Furthermore, they are best friends. (I won’t mention that fact that my dad still has great arms and my mom still has nice legs.) All in all, I would say they are doing pretty well.
“We’ve been together longer than we lived alone. We’re a good team. We enjoy each other’s company after all this time. So that says something,” my mom said.
Yes it does.