Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth.
This is the story of how my father, Bob, a skinny nerd with thick glasses and commitment issues, convinced my mother, Paula, who couldn't have been less interested, to marry him.
Dad, how did you and Mom meet?
D: It was May 23, 1973. I was running an errand for my then-girlfriend in Harvard Square.
How long had you been dating this girl?
D: That's a good question. You have to understand, my relationships with women were… far more casual then. We were, more or less, casual. But she was living with me.
What happened that day?
D: It was 2:30 in the afternoon. I was twenty-one years old. Walking down the street, I looked to my right, into the window of a restaurant called the Pewter Pot. Through the window I saw a former… it would be hard to call her a girlfriend… let's just say, a relationship of mine.
D: Fine, it was a hook-up. Anyway, I saw her having tea with a girl — your mom — and I was quite smitten. I walked in and I was immediately attracted to your mom. She was petite and blond and pretty, and obviously very intelligent. So I sat down, uninvited, and spent about an hour mooching cigarettes and talking, and trying to get her attention.
Wasn't it awkward to be sitting with your ex-girlfriend, trying to hit on her friend?
D: She wasn't my girlfriend! But yes, it was a little bit awkward.
M: I was having tea with my friend Rebecca. She looked up, obviously saw somebody she knew, and said something along the lines of, "Uh-oh, there's this guy I went out with, and I think he's coming in."
D: I'm sure she didn't say that.
M: Let's put it this way: She definitely didn't look up and start beckoning him to come in. She was more like, "Oh, there's Bob." But that didn't stop him. In he comes, and sits down. I think we did as much as we could without being overtly rude to encourage him to go on his way. We were cool. I don't mean cool like hip — I mean not all that warm. But he stayed.
What was your first impression of Dad? This guy wasn't even a prospect for you, right?
M: Oh God, no. He was the biggest dork I had ever seen. He was as tall as he is now, six feet, but he weighed probably 125 pounds.
Could you tell that Dad was flirting with you?
M: I had no idea.
Dad, did you try to get her phone number?
D: I did not. I walked out and I thought I had blown it. I didn't have much success with making a connection with your mom at that meeting, and I was kind of despondent. Still, I went home and told the girl I was living with that she had to move out. She asked why, and I said because I had met the woman I was going to marry.
Why did you take that risk?
D: Because it was the right thing to do. I was just smitten by the entire package. There are so many things that go into making up a very complicated relationship, and an enduring one, but I had a certainty. It took quite a while to convince your mom, but that certainty was real. I have never been one to talk about love casually. That's not my style at all. I'm very cautious about the concept of love.
How did you know you'd find Mom again?
D: I didn't have much doubt that I'd find her again for several reasons. First of all, I'm a fairly determined guy. Plus I knew Rebecca, so I thought I could track your mom through her. What I didn't anticipate was that Rebecca wasn't exactly going to be forthcoming with your mom's phone number. She wasn't that easy to get ahold of.
M: She just wasn't returning your calls.
D: So I was despairing.
How did you find her?
D: My senior year, I was doing my thesis, and Mom was doing a teaching internship and wound up having an office right below mine.
M: It turned out that our departments were in the same small building.
D: Almost the first day of school in our senior year, we ran into each other. September of 1973. I was thrilled! Mom was less thrilled.
At this point, after the whole summer had gone by, was she still on your mind?
D: Oh yeah! I spent the whole summer thinking about her. I remember seeing her in the entryway of the brownstone as I was on my way up to my office and I remember saying, "Paula!" but I didn't ask her out right then. Later though, I was very persistent in asking her out, and she was equally persistent in saying no. She didn't agree to go out with me until October, but even then I had things to do before we actually started dating.
What did you have to do?
D: I had to break her up with her boyfriend.
There was a boyfriend?!
M: Well, there was more than one. I had started going out with a guy from Brooklyn over the summer who I really liked, and I was also going out with a guy at the Harvard Business School. Your dad had been asking me out and I had said no over and over. I kept giving him excuses. Eventually, he invited me out on a proper date, as opposed to a college-kid type of date. He was on a full scholarship and work study, and he was driving a cab to pay for his education, and he invited me out to dinner.
Why did you say yes?
D: Probably because I made such an enormous pest of myself.
M: He had just bothered me enough. I had to. At this point, we had had enough conversations running into each other at the department where, I liked him well enough and thought he was interesting enough to spend time with him, but I was not interested in him romantically. But he wouldn't leave me alone. We enjoyed each other's company when we went out. At some point though, I had to tell him that I just wanted to be friends. He was spending money on me, and I said, "Look, this is not going anywhere romantically. I really like you and enjoy spending time with you, but I have other boyfriends and I'm not interested."
When Mom said that, what went through your head?
D: It became a mission at that point.
M: He was very smart, actually, because he didn't push the romantic issue. He accepted the relationship completely on my terms. So we studied together, we hung out together during the week. He'd come over, we'd meet in the library. We started spending a lot of time together as friends and talking a lot. I felt like he was one of the few boys I could actually be myself with. I had other male friends at this point, a lot of them. But he seemed really interested. Let's face it: college-age boys, how often do you feel they're really listening? It's an age when everyone is me, me, me. Here was somebody who was genuinely interested in my thoughts and my feelings.
D: She went home for Thanksgiving, in November, and I broke into her apartment building and decorated her door with a big "Welcome Back!" sign.
M: Oh yeah! Aw.
D: It was stuff like that.
M: He wormed his way into my heart.
Wow, that's romantic, Mom.
M: He grew on me. I would go out with other people on the weekends, and I still had this long-distance relationship with the guy from Brooklyn, but over a period of months I became more attached to Dad than I was to anyone else. The guy I was dating in Boston, Adrian, was older, and one night I was having dinner with him. He was Irish.
Is this the guy with the bathtub in the kitchen?
M: No, that was Jimmy Sullivan! Who lived on Sullivan Street. I forgot about him. He was in there too, somehow.
D: I was never that concerned about the others, but Jimmy Sullivan gave me problems, because he was the only one who sounded enough like me to make me worry. He was the only serious rival. The others were just shmegegges.
M: So, I was having dinner with Adrian and I remember thinking to myself, "I don't really belong here." At the end of dinner, he wanted to go somewhere else.
D: Yeah, like his place.
M: No, no, no! Maybe a bar or something. But we didn't even finish the meal. I said, "I have an exam I need to study for, I really need to go." And I got up and left and I took a taxi to Dad's apartment, and told him that my feelings had changed.
D: She showed up at my apartment that night, and from that point we were a couple.
Dad, this girl was a lot of work. Before you met her, you were dating up a storm. What made you decide to change your entire lifestyle for this impossible girl?
D: Sometimes you come away from things with a conviction. You don't have to have a rational basis for it. I can tell you this much: even though I wondered about the amazing discontinuity of it all, I never really felt I had made the wrong choice.
Mom, did you feel like you got suckered into this?
M: No, I never felt like that. When we got together though, we were kids. I was twenty. We've gone through a lot together, some of it not so attractive. Over thirty-four years I've had my doubts, but we've also learned a lot about ourselves, we've grown, we've changed, we've compromised. Looking back on it, it was an unusual situation, because it really wasn't love at first sight for me. It was a love that grew from really getting to know somebody.
D: It was sort of a storybook romance, but it didn't involve storybook characters. You're talking about two pretty complex people and an overwhelming set of emotions and circumstances. We fight a lot, but we work it out.
M: I think it's a sign of a healthy relationship, because we don't always agree, but you have to learn things together over the years.
Dad, what if it hadn't worked out? Was there any option for failure?
D: Plan B was never in my mind. People say that life happens when your plans don't work out. Well, sometimes plans do work out. I committed to it, and I wasn't about to give up. I fought for her!
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