Grand Rapids, Michigan. A couple months ago my car broke down in Bayonne, New Jersey, and some of you were privy to the story I wrote about the fiasco. As it turns out, my grandmother has a story of her own about the little town South of Manhattan. She wrote to me, “I just read your story about Bayonne. Did you know that Grandpa and I lived there for awhile when we were first married? Grandpa was a sailor and worked there in ‘dry dock.’ Will have to tell you about it sometime!” And so I sent a quick reply and found myself at lunch for an ‘interview’ the next day. As it turns out, Bayonne was one of the first steps on their sixty year love story, a tale that is as refreshing as it is surprising.
My grandpa was sitting on the couch sorting through a large yellow envelope of newspaper clippings when I walked in. “Janet sends these from Florida every week. It’s probably not the best way to get news anymore.” I smiled. Rifling through an envelope of news articles sounds more relaxing than opening the floodgates of digital media every morning. My grandma had prepared a lovely lunch of chicken salad sandwiches, and as we ate, we talked about family news and I answered the usual questions about jobs and boyfriends and studies. We finished off with some sweet banana pudding, and headed into the living room for the impromptu interview. My grandma placed a fat old album of photos on my lap, and I leafed through the laminated pages of black and white memories dated as far back as the mid 1940’s, before my father was born.
“Well, I want to know about your love story,” I said.
They looked at each other and smiled. I thought my grandpa might be put off by the idea of a long question and answer session about his love life and marriage, but as I asked the questions and coaxed a conversation along, he seemed to float back easily into memories of those times, the early days.
In 1950 my grandfather was a sailor in the United States Navy. Originally from a small town in Indiana, he considered a military career a good option for a single man of his age. He traveled around the world on the USS Midway, the leading aircraft carrier of its class at the time, first commissioned after the end of World War II. He said he loved being on that ship, especially during storms when the “tin cans” or Destroyers were being tossed around violently on the high seas.
His sister Janet was my grandmother’s high school classmate. Janet insisted that my grandmother, Shirley, meet her dashing young brother sometime, and eventually she was afforded the opportunity, although not what she considered an ideal one. “I was canning tomatoes outside and was a barefoot mess… and then I saw Charlie (my grandpa) walking toward me in a crisp, white uniform.” She looked down and started shaking her head and smiling, “I was just a mess.”
As my grandpa says, she was indeed something of a mess, but a beautiful one, and soon thereafter they were corresponding by letter and going out on dates when he was on leave. It only took a few of these meetings before he was smitten and my grandma was convinced about what she wanted to do next. Their engagement is my favorite part of the story.
“We were sitting in my car outside her house – no hanky panky (he waves his finger in the air and looks me in the eye)— and she just up and asked me if I wanted to get married.”
My grandma chimed in “That’s right, I did. I said – What do you think about getting married? I liked him quite a bit, I wanted to get married, and I think I must have been pretty unhappy with my life there in Indiana. I was looking for a way to change things and marriage sounded like a good plan.”
“Did you say yes right then?” I asked.
“Of course I did,” he said. “I said yes right then. That’s exactly what I wanted, a pretty wife and eventually a family. After I said yes I asked when we should do it, and she said, ‘How about now?’ So I suggested this town in Indiana because it was close and it would be easy to get married there. Not too much bureaucracy.”
The simplicity of their engagement is refreshing. They liked each other, they thought marriage was a good plan, and they didn’t hesitate to act on it. Perhaps it was impulsive, but with the privilege of knowing the wonderful success of their marriage these sixty something years later, I applaud their quick decision making. Maybe they just knew it was going to work out. Do we still have that instinct? Maybe it just took a lot of work and commitment. Are we still up to that today?
“Well my mother wasn’t happy with me,” continued my grandmother. “She thought I was foolish to marry this man I barely knew, and she didn’t think I understood the hardships of married life. She went on about how life wasn’t going to be a bed of roses, and that she didn’t want me to come crying to her when it all failed. I didn’t listen to her, of course.”
Their fate was sealed. They were to be married.
My grandfather continued, “Shirley's brother Al gave me $10 to buy a gold wedding band, and we went back to Michigan (where my grandpa’s family lived) to get married there, that afternoon. When we arrived, we went to city hall and they informed us that it was going to be three days until we could be married…”
“Oh great, you had time to make a few preparations then!” I said enthusiastically.
“Sure,” he said with a smile. “Our preparations consisted of hopping back in the car and driving to Indiana again where they would marry us that night. I didn’t have three days to wait. I was on leave and the Navy isn’t very lenient about taking extra vacation time." So they drove back to Indiana and straight to the Justice of the Peace.
“Was it like a city hall marriage you see in movies?” I asked. I was trying to create the situation in my mind. “Well, when we walked in the guy was sitting there having his dinner,” my grandpa said. “There was no hand holding or standing up in front of a small audience in the room or anyone saying ‘You may kiss the bride.’ We had blood tests, the guy signed the paper, I kissed my new wife without anyone’s permission and we were married.”
“That’s quite a story!” I said. I pictured them in that room with a man of the law sitting there eating his dinner and signing a paper that would legally bind my grandparents to each other for the rest of their lives. No church bells, no big white dress, no guests by the hundreds, no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no hassle, no stress, no keeping up with the Joneses. They wanted to be married to each other, and that’s all.
“One more question about the engagement and wedding, grandma,” I said. “Did it bother you that you didn’t have the big wedding and everything that comes along with it?” She thought for a minute. “No it didn’t bother me at all. I just wanted to be married to this man, and anyway, people we knew didn’t have big, fancy weddings back then,” she said.
They looked at each other sneakily. “Is there something else?” I asked. “Ohhh yes there is," said my grandpa with a grin. “Thing is, you weren’t allowed to get married unless you were 21 back then.”
“You weren’t 21?” I asked in mild disbelief. Recall, I’m 26 and not thinking about marriage at all, not to mention the fact that I never thought of my grandpa as a law-breaking rebel.
“More like 20,” he said, chuckling. “I put 21 on the license. I guess we’ve never been legally married! Maybe that’s why it worked out so well.”
After their wedding. . . moment, my grandpa had to go back to his post and so my grandma went back to Indiana. They were away from each other for a short time, but by Christmas of that year, they were both on their way to Portsmouth, Virginia where my grandpa had been re-posted. He was happy about the transfer because he was assigned to shore duty and didn’t have to ship out to sea. Apparently having a wife comes in handy now and then.
Northerners by birth, the south before desegregation was a new and frightening place for my grandmother. She recalls seeing water fountains side by side labeled “Whites” and “Colored.” Her reaction was one of fear.
“I just didn’t want to do something wrong. Back in Indiana I knew black people. Granted, they lived across the tracks, as they say, but we talked – they were just people and I considered some of them my friends,” she said.
She continued, “But in Virginia, there were laws keeping us apart, and I didn’t want to make any mistakes. I was afraid I might be punished for talking to a black person in the street or on the bus.”
They lived in a tiny apartment in Portsmouth, and since she was pregnant by then and wanted to get out of the house, they spent their first Christmas dinner together out at a little restaurant in town. “It was a nice enough place,” my grandpa said, “But we were convinced that the chicken we ordered was actually seagull. On our first Christmas dinner together we had seagull. Now that’s memorable.”
After working some months on a docked ship in Portsmouth, my grandpa was transferred to that fair city I mentioned before, Bayonne. They stayed there for about a year and a half, and though I didn’t find it such a pleasant place in 2010, my grandmother was thrilled to be there in 1951.
She explained, “We rented a room from a Jewish family for $15 a month. That was a lot of money for us then and it was a very small room. There was the big bed, a chest of drawers, and a tiny table. I was very pregnant at the time, and I would go to the Staten Island hospital quite often for check ups. I just loved to walk around that huge building. I really enjoyed it there; everyone was friendly and I liked to chat with the doctors. I took the ferry to Staten Island nearly every day, and when it finally came time to have the baby, our landlord took me there.”
“But the best part was New York City,” she said. Ah you see, love for the magnificent NYC runs in the family. “We got to see Dean Martin live at Radio City Music Hall before he was big. We went up to the top of the Empire State building and had a magnificent view of the city, and one time we even went up to the Bronx Zoo. There was so much to do and see, and living in Bayonne put us right there,” she said.
In late September of that year, my grandma received word that her brother had been killed in the Korean War. She remembers sitting in the park across the street from her apartment in Bayonne, and enduring the terrible pain the news caused her. “It was just overwhelming. You don’t expect that kind of news. It really upset me,” she said, and understandably so. She took a coal-powered train all the way back to Indiana for the funeral and then all the way back to Bayonne. It was a time in America’s history when industry was booming, wars were raging overseas, and people were suffering and celebrating the ups and downs of a growing nation.
Five children, sixteen grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren later, I look back at my grandparents’ love story and count it as remarkable for its simplicity and endurance. Despite hardships, they have led happy and successful lives together while growing a lively and loving family. We live in different times, to be sure, but take my grandparents’ story as evidence of what happiness is possible when we throw our expectations and fears to the wind and dive right in to life.