Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: Two musicians fall in love. The catch is, he's already engaged to someone else.
My parents were both musicians, and when my dad spotted my mom at a trumpet player's birthday party, he instantly knew he would marry her. The catch was that he was already engaged. From that inauspicious beginning, their path to legally recognized marriage was a bumpy one. I sat down with them recently and got the whole story.
So, Mom, you were both in the New England Conservatory, right?
Mom: We didn't meet at the Conservatory, even though we were there at the same time, because he was in the back of the orchestra, and I was in the front. He was in the brass section, and I was in the violins.
Dad: You had graduated from Tufts, and I was an undergraduate at the time.
M: I decided I did want to be a violinist. I had put the violin away, but I kept wanting to practice and play. Your dad and I ended up playing in the Portland Symphony together.
D: I was living in a rented house with two trumpet players, Steve and Will. Steve and I were in a brass quintet together, and we were under management — we were playing all over New England. He and I were really good friends, and eventually we were both hired to play in the Portland Symphony, which was made up of about seventy-percent freelance musicians from Boston. Your mother was one of the violinists who was in the orchestra, but we were brass players and were like "phhbt, violins, who cares." Your mother dated a lot of musicians — mainly brass players.
You have a type?
M: I did.
D: Your mom and the guy she was seeing, Paul what's-his-face, came to this birthday party for Will. A ton of people showed up at this party, and everything was great. Then your mother walked in, and I remember seeing her and thinking, "Oh my God. She is gorgeous." It was like a movie. Eventually everybody was leaving, and your mother left with this Paul guy. So we said goodbye, and they were going out to their car — I can still picture it. There was snow on the ground, and they drove away, and I turned to Steve and I said, "This is going to sound really weird, but I'm going to marry that girl." And he just looked at me, and he was like, what? "I can't explain it," I said, "I just feel it. It's going to happen." And, uh, it did.
M: But you left out the romantic part!
D: I was engaged at the time, which is a little bizarre. What was the romantic part?
There's a more romantic part than that? I find that hard to believe.
M: Don't you remember that we ended up lighting the candles together on the cake? It was in the room outside of the living room with the fireplace. We lit the candles, and we were looking at each other over the candlelight. That was the romantic part.
M: Do you remember that?
Dad, are you lying? Never mind. Was the fiancé there?
M: I didn't even know him, or that he had a fiancé.
So what happened after that party?
M: It mostly involved him. Trying to date me.
D: I made it all happen. I was just obsessed with finding out more about her. Since we were both playing in the Portland Symphony at that point, I could get to know her a little. I knew she really loved music, and I had this nice stereo that I'd bought from my paper-route money before I got to college, and your mother had no way to play music in her apartment. So one day when your mother was out, I showed up and I set up this whole stereo with your mom's roommate, and I had it all set when your mom got back to her apartment.
M: I was totally freaked out, because one, it was his only system, so I knew he was giving it up, and two, it wasn't like we were "going together" or anything.
How well did you know each other at this point?
M: Not well! I don't remember how I found out that you were engaged, but I did, and I was totally freaked out, and I said, "You know, I can't go out with you, because you're going to be married."
D: The way you found out was I told you.
Well, that's good.
D: Once we started talking to each other and hanging out, and I told you my story, you were like, "Well, that's just not going to fly."
Um… what were you thinking?
M: Not thinking.
D: Not thinking. I'm a guy. Not thinking.
Like, when was that going to be something that you addressed?
D: I dunno — it was just all going to work out! Well, here's how it worked out: one day I came back to my fiance's apartment, and the picture of me that she had on the bureau was on the floor, smashed into a thousand pieces. It turned out Debbie had found out about your mom. [laughs] So that pretty much ended it.
M: She found out because she called you and you were at my place helping me hang curtains.
How long had you and Debbie been together and engaged?
D: Less than a year.
So you met at school?
D: We met maybe halfway through my sophomore year. I had met her parents, and the whole thing was, um… it was all… it was wrong. Her parents didn't like me — I was not their picture of who they wanted their daughter to marry. For one thing, I didn't have a job, and I was a musician. But more importantly, they were Jewish, I wasn't. And I actually had said, "Okay, I will convert to Judaism." Debbie and I went to this rabbi at BU and we sat there and told him the whole story. This was actually phenomenal — we got all done, and the rabbi just looked at me and he said, "You're just doing this for her parents, aren't you?" I was like, "Wow." You've just got to go with the truth, so I said yes. And he said, "I don't think it's the right thing to do." It was so impressive, because he was exactly right, and I knew he was right, and she pretty much knew he was right, but didn't want to admit it.
He probably saw that kind of thing a lot.
D: Yeah, absolutely. So, that's how the whole thing started to unravel. By the time I met your mother, things had been slowly deteriorating in my relationship with Debbie.
Did you feel guilty?
D: Well, I think that Debbie was also not sure at that point that I was the right guy for her, so even though she exploded — justifiably, I might add — when she found out that I was interested in someone else, I think she also knew that we weren't really right for each other. How's that for rationalization?
You never actually lived together, so you didn't have to separate your stuff and move out and find a new place.
D: We each had our own apartments still. So it never got to that stage. But, we were engaged, technically, and I'm sure her parents were the happiest people in the world when they found out this wasn't going to work out. What's ironic is that Debbie ended up being a born-again Christian.
Did you give her a ring?
D: Yes, my high-school graduation ring, and she still has it.
Well, I wear the ring that she gave you!
D: Oh, the green one? Yeah. Good.
I wore it the other day. "With love, to my love. Debbie."
M: That's creepy. You should have that erased.
D: Melt that baby down!
So, after she smashed the picture, what was the timeline with you and Mom?
M: After that we started going out on real dates. And I'll tell you, he always made me laugh. I laughed nonstop.
D: We eventually moved in together. We lived together for a year, and that's when I graduated from the Conservatory, and then this opening came up for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. There was a French horn opening and a violin opening, so we were like, "Okay, we'll both take the audition, and if we both get it, we'll move to Birmingham, and if only one of us gets it, we won't." So we gathered up our pennies, flew down there, and took the audition, and we both got it.
M: That's how we ended up going to Birmingham.
D: So, we're in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra telling everyone that we are married, because it was the Bible Belt in the mid-'70s, and you couldn't live together if you're not married. The funny part was going to get our driver's licenses in Alabama. They're like, "Okay, your name?" And she told them she wanted to use her professional name, her maiden name. They said, "Oh, but you're married?" And she said yeah. They said, "Well, you have to use your married name." And we weren't even married, but she said, "Okay!" And they go boom, and stick my last name on her legal ID. Didn't ask for a marriage certificate, nothing!
M: They didn't ask me for anything.
Isn't that a felony?
D: We just did what the Alabama Registry of Motor Vehicles told us to do!
You had to lie about being married. Did you have to lie about being Jewish?
D: Kind of.
M: The one time we were freaked out about talking about me being Jewish was when we were getting married by a judge, but he actually didn't care what our stripes were. He just wanted us to believe in God. We finally told him we both believe in God, I'm just Jewish and he's, whatever… Congregationalist. The real truth was your dad was totally agnostic! But the judge was a lovely person.
D: He was a scary guy! Right is right and wrong is wrong, but his right and our right lined up, and his wrong and our wrong lined up, so it was okay. But you could just feel, if you crossed him? Oh, forget it.
So, describe the wedding.
M: Well, we decided that it would be small.
D: We got married in our apartment.
M: We got married in our apartment, sent out invitations, and it turned out my parents came, his parents came, and his aunt and uncle. We had about eighteen people in all in our apartment with the judge.
D: The thing was, we had negative two billion dollars to our name. It turned out there were a ton of summer shows going on, musicals and everything else, so I would work a construction job all day and then come back and play these musicals, and that's how we eventually made enough money.
M: I started freelancing and playing on pop records.
D: Yeah, there was a lot of recording stuff. There were also a million church gigs. But to give you an idea of how little money we had, the first thing I did after we got to Birmingham — you know, they take the truck away and we're in the apartment — I looked up where the Red Cross blood-donor place was, gave blood, and with whatever the money was, bought gas, and bread, and milk.
M: And peanut butter.
D: And peanut butter. That's how bad it was. That's how we started.
So weren't you terrified?
D: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
M: We both were. But I always felt that together, we could do it. That was always the feeling.