Love & Sex

Before You Were Born: “We both had weird families…”

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Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: happy families are all alike.

I often tell people that my parents met climbing the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, and my father shielded my mother from the oncoming tear gas. In truth, the forces arrayed against them were more familial than political. Without support from their families, the two leaned on each other to navigate post-college life. I recently interviewed them about these trying times, and how they beat the odds to maintain a loving partnership, forty-four years later.

So how did you meet?

D: We met at the big March on the Pentagon in Washington. Then back at school, after finals, I drove Ayn home to East Northport, because we had a break for a couple of weeks. And that's when I met her family — her parents and her lovely brother.

What was that like?

D: It was okay.

What does that mean?

D: I think I had dinner there. That's it. They were fine.

When did you realize they weren't fine?

D: The first time, they were fine. But before the first time I met her sister, I knew that there was something off about her. Very mean-spirited.

M: This was around the time birth-control pills came out. They were hard to get — you'd think they were illegal, but they weren't. I had to go to this doctor in Brooklyn and make believe I had a sore throat, and then tell him I was really there for birth-control pills. That goes to show you where things were at. But I told my sister, and then she told my mother.

D: I said, "Why would your sister do that?" She said, "That's the way she is."

M: And that's the way she still is. You can't tell her anything.

Mom, when did you first meet Dad's family?

D: The first time you came to the house, the table was upside down. My mother and my brother had had a fight.

M: They used to fight, and I mean fight. I mean throw things at each other. Once we came home from a date, and the police were there because of Johnny. That's when Johnny moved in with our friends the Newmans.

And that didn't end well.

M: They couldn't stand him.

Mom has a schizophrenic brother, and you have an unstable brother —

D: So they canceled each other out.

M: But your father's parents were divorced, so then I had to meet your grandfather separately. I remember your Aunt Gladys and Uncle Henry having a giant fight over [laughs] what a Waldorf salad was. I'll never forget that.

When did you get engaged?

M: April 1969.

Why only four months between getting engaged and getting married?

M: I didn't have anything but debts. I needed someone to move into Manhattan with me to share an apartment. So we had to get married.

Why didn't you guys just live together?

M: Because your father's mother was against it.

D: None of the parents would have been too happy about that. So we got engaged, and the wedding was in Mom's parents' backyard. My father was not invited, because Grandma would have killed him.

M: And Johnny was supposed to be the photographer, but he didn't show up. He threw a tantrum. And it was really hot. And they didn't have air conditioning. And Grandma brought petits fours, and they were melting [laughs].

D: Why am I not enjoying this?

M: Aunt Shirley threatened to leave because the rabbi was running late. And Uncle Irving was the bartender, and he got drunk.

D: Everyone got drunk. It was hot.

Was there any point before the wedding when either of you thought, "Never mind?"

M: I think it was about an hour before. Daddy ran away.

D: I peeled off and went down to A&W to have a root-beer float.

Why did you freak out?

M: Go ahead, tell her.

D: Well, these friends of your mother's family, they were florists, and they made this thing for Mom's head that looked like a crown of thorns [laughs]. And I didn't like it.

M: Flowers. And he didn't like that I had makeup on. Like, I might have had a little eyeshadow or something.

D: So I had my root-beer float and I came back and I apologized to Ayn and her father.

So you got married, and you moved to the South Bronx, and everything was fine?

M: No! First, our honeymoon. We were supposed to stay at the Plaza, but we got stuck in traffic, so we weren't going to make it. And it was really hot and it started to rain. There was a Howard Johnson's off the Expressway, and we got there and Daddy said — there was some sporting event —

D: It was Jets football.

M: So he asked for a color TV so he could watch the game. That was our honeymoon [laughs].

D: Then we wound up going back to our apartment, and we realized we had cockroaches, and we had no mattress.

M: So we slept at Uncle Bob's apartment, which was right down the block.

D: I'm not enjoying this.

M: And prior to this, there was the whole thing with the apartment on the Upper West Side. We found a great place, but we weren't married yet.

D: Grandma threatened to kill herself if I moved out.

Why did she do that?

D: So I wouldn't move out.

M: She was Grandma. That's what she did.

D: And like an idiot, I fell for it.

M: We had weird families. Johnny used to just hide in the corner. I remember once I went to your house and he was in the living room on the floor, and it was the summer, and he was in sweats with the hood on, and the smell was… I don't know how to describe it.

Early on, weren't you thinking about separating?

D: The first year was tough.

M: Daddy's mother was very intrusive. I wasn't used to that. Calls. A lot of calls.

D: Calling, yelling, and hanging up.

M: It was a horrible year. And then my father died, and we had to relocate my mother and my brother. That was the hardest. I remember saying to myself, "If you can get through this, you can get through anything." My father really loved me.

D: We were twenty-two, and we wound up inheriting a big responsibility, taking care of your family.

M: So that was the first year of our marriage.

Why didn't you get separated?

D: Couldn't afford to get a divorce.

Did you ever have a conversation where you said, "I don't want to be married to you?"

M: Many times.

But you literally couldn't afford it.

D: Well…

M: I think we also had an old-fashioned notion. Most of the people we know who got married at that time are still married. We never had friends who got divorced.

D: We tried to work it out, and I think we did. The second year was better than the first. Within a short time we decided to have a child together, your sister, Addie.

I remember being little and you guys saying when I went to college you'd get a divorce.

D: Who said that?

You said that!

D: I said that? I never said that.

Then Mom said that. Why didn't that happen?

M: We never had a lot of savings. When people get divorced, one person gets an apartment, and the other person stays in the house. There was no way we could ever have done that.

D: If we'd gotten divorced, you would have gone to Queensborough Community College.

M: Money gives people options. That was a lot of it. And we also were very dependent on each other in different ways. We didn't have an identity, outside of college, of being a single person — having an apartment and paying your own bills. That's the difference between us and younger people. It's very different now. It's better. It doesn't have to be so symbiotic, like everything is we, we, we. We were together a lot more than other couples. We had the same kind of job. We came home at the same time. We left together. Daddy would drop me off. We'd come back and share the horrors, have a snack, watch soap operas, and take a nap.

It sounds like the first couple of years sucked.

D: It got more difficult after we had your sister. I remember that.

M: A lot of people got help, and we didn't have that. My mother was already very sick with dementia, I did not have a reliable sister. I was always hustling, selling paintings, and subbing. Other people's parents came over and babysat. We never had that.

Because you didn't like Dad's mother.

M: We had different values.

So you really think it was lack of money that kept you together?

D: It was a big part of it.

What about love?

D: We had that too. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow.

M: That's what people don't understand. There are waves. It's not like this romantic love all the time. And Daddy's parents' divorce was very traumatic for him. He wouldn't leave, even when I asked him to [laughs]! A lot of this was because his father left the day Kennedy was assassinated.

He did? That's some shitty timing.

D: I guess he had planned it the day before. I came home from my after-school job and I was shocked over Kennedy, and my father's bags were packed. He was leaving.

M: It was like losing two fathers. Thus his feeling about divorce.

D: It ain't happening.

M: He doesn't really believe in it.

D: But here's the good news: things got better, and we decided to have you. This explains why you and your sister are nine-and-a-half years apart.

Are you glad it worked out the way it did?

Both: Yeah!

D: It's just going over all this stuff — it isn't fun. This has been very wrenching.

M: And this only was like chapter one.

If you think about your whole marriage, all forty-three years, what was the happiest moment?

D: The day you were born. Don't tell your sister I said that.

M: No, I think it was after you were born, when it was the four of us. I just wanted to go home. The hospital made us stay six days. I had a little post-partum depression, and I remember a nurse saying, "Why are you crying?" And I said, "I want to go home." And Daddy snuck Addie in, because kids weren't allowed, and they came in with a stuffed white seal. I wanted to go home. And then finally I did.

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