Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: Sometimes it's best to just jump in with both feet.
My mom and dad started dating in the early '80s. Dad spent the '70s driving around Chicago in a black van painted with flames, then went out West with nothing but his motorcycle, friends — and, judging by a photo I found from that time period, a decent amount of marijuana. Meanwhile, Mom was putting herself through nursing school and had a reputation as a party girl. She'd borrow her roommates' dresses and hem them shorter before a night out dancing — but she'd only do a false hem, and afterward return them to the closet, roommate none the wiser.
When Dad was struck by a car on his motorcycle, he decided to "clean up" and go to forestry school. One of the only forestry programs in the country was located in the same small town where Mom lived. Dad noticed Mom around town, but when they finally had their first date, a whirlwind would follow.
So, Dad, despite your wild past — painting your teenage bedroom black, doing hallucinogens out west — you were suddenly shy about hitting on Mom?
Dad: I had moved to go to school, and after nearly dying in a motorcycle accident I was bent on getting my life together. I wasn't partying as much anymore. But I would see your mom around, and I knew this was the girl I wanted to go out with. Yet, when it came to talking to her, all of a sudden, I was a weenie-boy. I just admired her from afar.
Mom: We first met at a wedding.
D: The first time we met, she sat close to me and kissed me on the cheek, but she had this boyfriend around. I was happy nevertheless and told my sister, "She was smoochin' on me!" My sister just said, "Oh, she kisses everyone like that, even the guy who sells bagels from a cart at two a.m.!"
M: I liked your dad and was flirting with him, but my old boyfriend was there. We just had chance meetings from then. Later, I saw him in the grocery store. I asked about Christmas trees, then invited him to a New Year's Eve party, but I was engaged to that same boyfriend by then.
D: I didn't go. I remember saying to my sister that I really liked this girl — why would I go to the party she and her fiance were throwing?
So, Mom, who was this guy you were engaged to?
M: He was an artist and photographer. He was very cerebral and it felt stable, but sort of conservative or cold. He wasn't one to dance or party. We had intellectual conversations, but we didn't really laugh. One of our major problems was that he was very insecure — I was outgoing and a big flirt, and his insecurity about that just made it worse. At a party, if I knew he was watching me, I would really put on a show.
So what happened?
M: We got into a fight one night. Our fights were more like debates, very democratic, taking turns. I finally said, "This isn't working, I'm done." I didn't give him back the ring — but that night he came over and took it off my finger while I was sleeping! That was the only time I'd seen him angry or dramatic. Later, he apologized and said he wanted to stay together but, really, it wasn't working. After that, I vowed to stop dating guys just because they seemed like stable husband material or had a good job. I decided to just go with my heart and instincts.
From family dinners where everyone's had a little too much wine, I know that at one point, Dad sort of slept with one of your friends. What happened?
M: It was November, ten months after I invited him to the New Year's party, but by then I had broken off the engagement. I walked into Cherry Street, a disco, and there was my friend, dancing with your dad. I thought, "Wait, I'm supposed to be dancing with him!" So, I asked him to dance, and he was a great dancer, and really witty. Afterward, I gave him a little kiss on the cheek, tore off a deposit slip from my checkbook with my phone number and address on it, handed it to him and said, "Call me."
D: I thought, "Oh man, this chick is a professional." I called and called and she was busy, every time. I figured she was blowing me off.
So, how did the first date finally happen?
M: He was a little younger than me. He was a student, and I was busy with a new job. I had all these excuses, but then he stopped calling. So, I called him up and invited him to my office Christmas party, but since that seemed so formal for a first date, I had him over first.
D: She invited me to her apartment and made dinner. We spent the entire night together on the couch just talking. I had to tear myself away! She begged me to stay, but I had a rule about not sleeping with people I liked on the first date.
M: [Laughs] I did not beg him to stay. And that rule only lasted for the first date.
So you guys got pretty hot and heavy after that?
M: Before this, I always knew deep down my relationships weren't going to work out, because guys would stay over and I'd think "I wish he'd just go home now." Even with my fiance, it felt like he was a guest, and I had to be on my best behavior. But when I woke up with your dad, I thought, "Oh, you can stay forever." I was just comfortable. I could be goofy and relax. He made me laugh so much, and we had great conversations. I knew he could handle my crazy family, and it would just be okay. He was gregarious and outgoing like me. He would fit in with everyone I knew.
D: I couldn't believe she was interested in me. It was a high that lasted for months. She was so gorgeous and smart and accomplished. I was just smitten.
M: He went home for Christmas, but he bought me the most beautiful Christmas tree and an ornament with the inscription "Our first Christmas together."
D: When I came back, we decided to throw a New Year's Eve party to announce our engagement.
So you guys had been dating less than a month before you got engaged? How did this happen?
M: We were cuddled up on the couch, talking about how crazy we were about each other. I said, "If you want to marry me, you have to do it fast, or I'll back out." And he said, "I accept!" He called his mother right then to announce it. So we had an engagement party, and as people were coming in, it was like, "Hey! Meet so-and-so! We're getting married!"
How did people respond?
D: I answered the door, and it was her sister. I introduced myself and said, "I guess I'll be your brother-in-law!" She just walked past me and said, "We'll see about that!"
M: My sister pulled me aside, and said, "I don't know this guy — how could you say you're going to marry him after two weeks? You just broke off another engagement." Then, your dad's sister said, "I want to talk to you, in the bedroom, alone." I went into the bedroom, and she sat down and said, "You've been a friend, but you are a flirt. If you break my brother's heart, I will kill you." No one wanted us to get married. They were all in shock. But the craziness of it didn't register for us. We just felt like we could make a life together.
So how was the wedding?
M: Since he was a student, and I had a pretty good job as the supervisor for the hospital's obstetrics department, I bought our rings and even his suit. I was crazy about him. But then I got cold feet. I tried to back out. Your Dad said, "My great-grandmother is traveling all the way from Ishpeming, Michigan! You are marrying me!" I just thought, "Okay, okay, I can do this." The day of the wedding, as I was getting ready, I poked my head out and saw my future father-in-law walk in, and I said, "Hey! I'm the bride!" He just said, "Yes, I gathered as much." But the wedding was great. It was a fun party. The next day, we drove straight to Florida and toasted champagne at the state line. We camped and went to Disney World and a topless beach, sort of by accident.
So, did your family start to come around after the wedding?
M: They still didn't know what to think. Everyone decided they were just going to watch and see what happened. I just thought, "Damnit, we know it's gonna work — why can't everyone see that?"
Going straight into marriage after such brief dating must have been intense.
D: That first year, we were really dropped into the marriage, without knowing each other's darker sides. Before we were married, we really hadn't fought. But we just trusted our instincts, and were able to work through whatever came up.
M: Now, being dropped into marriage, there were heavenly moments and there were storms. We've had hellacious fights. I know some other couples don't yell and get mad, but your dad and I quickly learned that that's how we both express ourselves. But we could accept that about each other. Just like we were so fiery and passionate in our love, we were fiery and passionate in our fights. We found that we could do that and still be okay. In a way, the fights are just as integral to our relationship, because they define us too.
And it doesn't seem like Dad is insecure about you being outgoing and flirty, unlike your past boyfriends.
M: Luckily, your dad doesn't have a jealous bone in this body, so we never fought about me being too flirty.
D: You are a flirt. But I know you're harmless!
And twenty-nine years later, you guys are still married.
Dad: Younger couples we know sometimes come up to us and say, "We want to be like you guys when we get older." It's because when we're out, we're engaged with each other, and it's genuine. The secret is making time for each other, whether it's a date, or swimming in the pool late at night, or dancing in your back room.
Sometimes, in high school, I would come home at midnight and you guys would be slow dancing in the living room. That wasn't a rare occurrence.
Mom: You want to marry a man who can dance. There's still always a night or two that he puts on some Motown and we dance in the living room. About a year ago, we were out dancing, and when I came off the dance floor, a friend came up and said, "I just love that when you two dance, you really look at each other." Those same moments of passion we had early on are still easily stirred for me. It's not constantly there, but when it is, it's just wonderful. It's so much better than the initial butterflies, because it has depth.
I'm glad to hear you guys are still dancing. Do you have a song?
Mom: "Into the Mystic," by Van Morrison. Or maybe he would say "Crazy Love," by Van Morrison. Even back when we first met, those were our songs.
Dad: And we always dance to "Brown Eyed Girl," but I sing to your mom, "You're my blue-eyed girl," loud enough for everyone to hear.