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Why My Mom Broke Off Her Engagement to Marry My Dad
In the summer of ‘82, my mom was engaged to her high school sweetheart. Then she met my dad.
By Kathleen Garvin
In the summer of ‘82, my mom was engaged to her high school sweetheart. Then she met my dad at their shared beach rental.
My father lived in an Irish-Catholic, working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, and my mother resided nearby in a pretty suburb. At 25 and 23 years old, their respective friends rented units in the same house "down the shore," which is Philly speak for a “beach town in Southern New Jersey." By vacation’s end they hit it off, but there was one problem: my mom was getting married in nine months.
From my youngest brother to my childhood best friend, everyone knows the story of my mom, dad, and "Todd," the ex-fiancé. Just how did he manage longevity in their romantic tale, and why do we still talk about him today?
Where did you meet?
Dad: In Avalon on 21st street.
Mom: We shared a duplex. My girl friends were on the top unit, and your father and his friends were on the bottom.
How did your summer down the shore begin?
M: My friend Marie rented the top unit with her cousins and a few acquaintances. She didn’t really drive, and our other friend Pat was newly single, so she kind of served as the chauffeur. We went down for a couple weekends that summer.
So you were more of a casual weekend warrior, while dad was a seasoned vet?
D: From ‘78 to ‘82, I rented a place in Avalon with my friends. I went down every weekend and stayed a week for vacation.
Did the two units befriend each other early on?
D: Yeah, we were friendly guys.
Do you remember the first time you saw each other?
M: Early in the summer, in June.
D: The Sixers were playing the Lakers in the Championship. My friend Jimmy asked if I wanted to watch the game. I told him, “Nah, they’re choke artists, I don’t want to watch them.” Then my friend Joe called down and said there were two nice blondes watching the game upstairs. I walked up.
Being one of two said blondes, what did you think when dad came into the room?
M: I don’t remember talking to you.
D: You didn’t.
Mom, at the time you were newly engaged. For background story purposes, can you recall how you met your fiancé, Todd?
M: We’d been together since my senior year of high school. I knew him from the neighborhood, and my parents were friends with his parents. Todd asked me out after Mass one Sunday.
And you were together for six years?
M: Yep. We got engaged in, I think, March of ‘82. It felt like the next thing to do in the relationship. …But, I also remember going to church every Sunday and praying, “Please God, give me a sign.”
That’s heavy! Didn’t you know something was wrong just by having those thoughts?
M: In retrospect, sure. But at the time…
Did your friends say anything?
M: They weren’t big fans of Todd, but they also didn’t really know him because we never went out. He was three years older than me and had a “been there, done that” attitude. We always did things alone. We went to the movies every Saturday night and would come home in time for Saturday Night Live. That was our routine. On a more serious note, when we did go out, he had a habit of drinking too much. I didn’t really drink then, and it was not something I wanted to be around.
Dad, you met Todd mid-summer. What was your first impression?
D: He was shorter and stockier than me. He seemed all right. I didn’t pay too much attention to him, but he thought I was hilarious. Todd was cracking up at all my one-liners.
Mom and Dad, you saw each other a handful of times that summer. When did the first conversation take place?
M: I drove down the Thursday before Labor Day Weekend with Pat and Marie. They talked about how “outrageous and funny” Bob was, and I thought, “Who? One of the guys?” We went to Jack’s Place for happy hour and I saw your father, but again, we didn’t talk. The next night we met up with everyone at the Shelter Haven in Stone Harbor. We talked then.
D: Mom told me she was the Secretary of the Navy. She was a secretary and worked for the Navy, but she phrased it like she was the Secretary of the Navy. Like a high-ranking officer. I thought that was funny.
So you conveniently overlooked mom’s engagement ring?
M: I think at one point I said, I’m engaged,” and your father said, “Oh, I didn’t notice.”
D: I thought, “Wow, she makes so much money at the Navy she keeps herself in diamonds!”
M: Weirdo. I do remember thinking, “This guy might like me,” but more so, “These people are really having fun!”
How did you stay in touch after the summer?
M: Pat started dating one of the guys in Dad’s unit, so I’d go with her into the city. There was also a Holiday Inn near my house where oldies bands would play Sunday night, and that became a recurring hangout.
Todd never went with you, never thought anything of this new group?
M: Not really. He didn’t want to go out. I remember him always saying, “I’m too tired.”
So it’s autumn, you’re hanging with a new group, and you’re having a good time. You were also set to marry the following May.
M: Todd and I were looking at houses together. I remember having shared CDs, and we had enough to put down a decent deposit. He could save money like nobody’s business.
D: (snicker) That means he was cheap.
What finally made you break off the engagement?
M: It was early October, and Todd got really drunk around his birthday. I just had it. I remember he came to my door with roses, and I finally woke up and said, “No.”
You’ve said you’ve thrown your engagement ring at him before.
M: I remember taking off and throwing my ring at him…probably a few times. Ending the engagement was difficult. I loved his family, and they loved me. But we would’ve ended up divorced.
Did you put the word out to Dad you were single?
M: My friends actually tried to set me up with another guy in their group first. Somehow your father and I ended up settling on a movie date, and I drove to meet him.
D: Your mother got a flat tire on the way. (Making a screeching tire noise) People saw a pretty young woman on the side of the road and kept stopping to help her before I got there.
When did you know your budding relationship was something special?
M: After the fire. (My mom’s family home burned down a week before Christmas in an electrical fire). I lost everything, and your dad picked out and bought tons of clothes for me. Right after, I went away for a weekend and your father drove to my house to be with me when I got back.
D: This sounds corny, but I thought your mother was vulnerable and needed me to rescue her.
After four years of dating, you got engaged and married less than eight months later.
M: I didn’t want to be “boyfriend and girlfriend” forever. I told your father, “It’s time for me to move on if this isn’t going anywhere.” Suddenly, we were at Jewelers' Row.
Dad, you make Mom homemade cards and are very thoughtful in general. You proposed at the King of Prussia Mall. Was that…the plan?
D: It was the Plymouth Meeting Mall, and no, I didn’t have a plan. I guess it was kind of clumsy. I didn’t know what to do then since we already picked out the ring together.
M: It was Black Friday, and I remember walking around the mall and your father just dropping to his knees.
D: We were at the blood pressure machine, and I put the ring on your mother’s finger while her arm was being squeezed.
Is that true? I never heard that.
M: I don’t remember that.
D: Yes, it’s true.
Mom, how was this engagement different?
M: I don’t remember feeling terrified.
D: Like in Cape Fear? (Starts reenacting scenes with Robert DeNiro’s character).
M: (Ignoring him) I was excited!
Dad, were you nervous to get married?
M: I remember you saying, “I just don’t know what it will be like!” and then saying, “It’s not so bad!”
Just about everyone in our lives knows about Todd, even those, like me, who’ve never met him. Why do you think this is?
M: Probably because he and your father shared an interest in music. When Dad was teaching you kids about music, I must have mentioned he knew a lot about it too.
D: Eh, I don’t think so. The kids probably heard your girl friends and you reminisce. Or maybe I started teasing and it became a running joke.
Definitely the latter. I think my earliest memories are of you randomly saying Todd had a big forehead.
D: Yeah, I was probably meaner about it than I should’ve been.
You’ve been together for more than 30 years now. A marriage, a house, and four kids later, what would you tell someone in a similar engaged-but-feel-stuck scenario?
M: If you have any questions or doubts, don’t go through with it!