Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: An Irish Catholic and a Scots Presbyterian try to break the news to their parents.
I remember hearing when I was younger that my mother, a nurse, met my father, a doctor, at a party in South Africa. They got engaged after dating for only six months, but there was a problem: my dad grew up Scots Presbyterian and my mother was Irish Catholic. What would they tell their parents?
So you met Dad at a party the weekend after you arrived in South Africa. What was your first impression of him?
Mom: I remember he was wearing a white dinner jacket, and he had just come back from Oxford. I thought he was toffee-nosed.
M: Stuck-up, impressed with himself. And then, you remember, I met you in the corridor the weekend after the party.
Dad: And I didn’t recognize you.
M: I said, "Hello. How are you?" And he looked through me and I said, "Tu ra lu." [waves]
D: When you were in your nurse’s outfit you looked different from when you were dressed for a party. And this was before I was wearing my glasses.
But then you started dating two years later. What changed?
M: He'd come down to earth. He came to my birthday party and he gave me a birthday kiss. And I invited him to a second birthday party, and after that we saw each other almost every day. I had dated a number of people, so I knew what I was looking for. He was someone that I could admire. He was honest, you know. You can see integrity, and he was charming too.
D: We both had already had many relationships. I saw how your mom related to your cousins when they were tiny, and I just saw that she would fit in. She was totally selfless and it was refreshing to see that.
M: It was in the evening. We were at the beach, and we were having a picnic. Your father had been swimming and I had been sunbathing, because I couldn't swim.
D: She had this boyfriend from Oxford that she was going to meet up with in Australia, and she wasn't quite sure if this was now a better bet than the one that she had.
M: Not true! I was feeling a little sad that your dad and I were going in different directions.
D: She told me, "I have to make my final payment for my trip to Australia on Tuesday." And I said, "Nah, I don't think you should do that." And she said, "What do you mean?" And I said, "I'm going to the States. I want you to come to the States with me." And she said, "Well, I'm not going as your girlfriend." And I said, "I didn't mean that. I think we should get married."
M: I don't remember him mentioning the word "marriage."
So then what happened?
D: We went up on the farm to tell my parents. My family was Scots Presbyterian, and to them, the Catholics were the anti-Christ. But the great-aunts had all died, so there was less drama.
What about Granny?
M: I told her over the phone. She was a little surprised because I don't think she even knew I was dating Brian. She was happy for me. When I told her that he wasn't Catholic, she said, "Ah, maybe he'll turn." That's the expression people use in Ireland for changing their religion.
D: And I said, "I am not sour milk."
So then you had to tell Dad's parents. Right?
D: We went up from Cape Town together to my parents' farm in Wolmaransstad in late January.
M: I remember when we got to the farm initially, the first thing your grandfather said to your father was, "Is this the one?"
But when you arrived at the house, he didn't know that you were already engaged. He just thought you were bringing a girlfriend home.
D: Yes, that's right.
M: I knew it was going to be a little bit of a shock to them to hear that I was Catholic.
Had they had bad experiences with Catholics?
D: No, it's just Scots tradition. Scotland is divided into Presbyterian and Catholic, and there was a definite difference of opinion as to what was right and what was not right. You were either Catholic, which is mostly Glasgow, or you were Presbyterian, and they didn't cross the lines much. My great-great-grandparents emigrated from Scotland to South Africa, but…
M: There probably weren't any Catholics in Wolmaransstad.
D: There was one Catholic that I know of, a Lebanese who ran this little restaurant. There may have been some Portuguese who ran another food shop but that was it. These were foreigners. All the locals were basically Calvinist.
And Mom, did you know any Protestants in Ireland?
M: There was one family, but we didn't really have much to do with them. My mother would say, "They're Protestant, but they're nice people."
So what happened?
M: I was chatting with your dad's mother and I told her there was something she needed to know. She was quite shocked, when I told her initially. She said to your dad, "You'll have to tell your father." She wasn't going to do it for him. So your dad went out for a walk with his dad, and he told him. They walked around the garden, and I said my prayers while they walked.
So then what did Grandad do? Did you have to charm him?
D: Your mother doesn’t have to work on being charming. She was just naturally that way.
M: He came back and we had prayers, and then your grandad produced all these rings. So he accepted me. He was letting me know that he accepted me, even though he had some misgivings, I guess.
D: The one that she chose was a dress ring that my great-granny had. She died in 1935. For my father to offer that or one of my grandmother's rings meant that he expected this to last. And afterwards, he wrote you a letter.
M: He wrote me a lovely letter. I still have it. My own father had died when I was thirteen; your dad's dad told me that he hoped I would consider him as a father.
D: My father was a very special guy. He was a man in a man's world. He ran everything. He was in charge of everything. But he also had a lot of sensitivity and was not afraid to show it, and he wrote beautiful letters.
M: I was very touched by that letter.
I'm going to include Grandad's letter with this interview. So wait, Mom, didn't you have to write to the guy in Australia and tell him you weren't coming?
M: I think I wrote a letter to him and said I was engaged, and I wouldn't be coming. And he wrote back and told me he was engaged too.
D: You never told me that!
How did your parents feel about you leaving South Africa and going to the States?
D: There was always this concern about what would happen in South Africa when the revolution came, and my parents did not feel that they had any hold on us to keep us in the country. If we thought that our lives were better served somewhere else. They absolutely did not think that they should make our life decisions for us.
And Mom, was Granny worried about you moving to the states?
M: Oh she just wanted us all to be happy wherever we were. I mean she loved for us to visit, but she never said, "Oh why don't' you come back home."
So, getting back to the wedding. If your families were divided on religion, where was the service?
M: The wedding was in a Catholic church with both Episcopal and Catholic priests.
D: We also had a Jewish opera singer. We covered all the bases.
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Read Shannon's grandfather's letter:
(12, February, ’78)
My dear Margaret,
Your most unexpected letter came as a very pleasant surprise yesterday. Many thanks for it and for the spirit in which it was written.
I have read and re-read your letter and I have come to realize that only a very sincere person and a person with a lot of courage could have written it as you have and I appreciate it all the more.
It is a great pity that we have not had more time in which to get to know each other. You can understand that under the circumstances I feel I dare not barge in where angels fear to tread!
I am glad to know that your mother is pleased about your engagement to Brian. She is taking an awful lot on faith as she has not even met B. and must be relying largely on your sound common sense.
I feel sure that we are going to love her when we meet her.
You will possibly never know how glad we are that B chose your type of girl. I feel that in time you will grow into one of the family.
I am learning fast to appreciate your many sterling qualities and I can assure that I will gladly welcome you into our family.
Margaret, you do me a great honour by asking me to accept you as a daughter especially as your own father was called home when you were very young. This is placing a great trust in me. And giving me added responsibility. It will require much real trust and confidence and much real understanding. I promise to do all I can to give you a sense of security and to make your future a happy one.
Please do not let the fact that mom and I have been richly blessed materially worry you. I think Brian can explain to you that we have always considered ourselves as nothing more than trustees for the children of whom Brian is one.
It is only the good that money can do that really counts.
I am very glad to know that you have been able to make something that pleases you out of the rings. May the wearing of the ring just act as a bond between us all.
Brian does not see many things in the way that we do, but he means a great deal to us nonetheless.
I can only thank you very sincerely for the fact that you will try to make him happy. It means a great deal to me.
Again thank you for your very nice letter. Please feel free to write to me and allow me to share in your joys and especially your troubles and frustrations.
Love to you both,
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