Like most people, I’ve spent my young adult life navigating the murky waters of building my own identity while keeping hold of the threads that tie me to my family. My husband and I definitely stepped outside the box when planning our own wedding; I remember wondering what our parents and grandparents would think of a secular wedding ceremony in which we made statements about feminism and marriage equality. It’s not always easy to be a force of social change in your own family, full of people whom you love and respect despite your value differences.
What struck me most when talking to my grandmothers about their weddings was not their dresses, cakes, or flowers; rather their wedding day memories really centered on family politics and the scary feeling of making one’s own choices without family approval. They both married in the early 1960s, a decade known for the wave of political resistance that lifted a younger generation away from traditional family values with strict gender roles. Both of my grandmothers were living at home with their parents when they met my grandfathers, both of whom were impressive high school athletes from poor families.
My maternal grandmother lives in the Midwest with my mom. I sit in her bedroom, asking questions about the details of her wedding: Did you see each other before the wedding? What did your bridesmaids wear? Did you have a first dance? Her answers are often foggy on the details and quickly turned into stories about her family and their participation (or lack thereof) in the wedding. Four times, she tells me “don’t write this in the magazine” before divulging a juicy detail. Eventually she agrees that I should tell her story honestly, as long as she remained anonymous. Let’s call her “Jane.”
It was the summer of 1958, and Jane was about to be a junior in high school. She was driving with her neighbor, and they stopped for gas. And who was pumping the gas, but my Papa. Let’s call him “John.” The owner of the gas station said, “Why don’t you take these gals for a ride in your car?” It wasn’t just any car; it was a purple convertible. Jane says, “My neighbor was very involved with a young fellow who she later married, so I got put in the middle.” A week later, John called Jane: “We went out, and that was the beginning of it all.”
I ask both Jane and my other grandmother (let’s call her “Ruby”) when they knew “he was the one.” Both give me a funny look. Jane says, “I never gave that an actual thought. He was out of school, and it just evolved. By the time I graduated, there was nothing left to do but get married.”
They had dated for two years by the time Jane graduated from high school. She says, “We went to the local movie theater, and it wasn’t a special day or anything. When we came out and were getting in the car, he had a ring. I was very surprised. My reaction to it was, well, of course we are going to get married.” John didn’t ask her parents for permission, and there was no proposal down on one knee; they were just two kids in a purple convertible agreeing to something incomprehensible.
When I ask her about the wedding planning process, she says, “I wish I could say it was wonderful, but it was awful because my parents were being very difficult, and I don’t look back on it as a pleasant time.” Jane was the oldest in her family. When her father and uncles went to fight in World War II, she was the baby left at home with all the women, resulting in what she felt was an overprotective family. “I think my mother never thought I would go to school because women didn’t go to college, and she was disappointed Papa worked at a gas station.” The facts of his employment didn’t occur to her: “I never gave it a thought. I just assumed it would all be wonderful.”
Jane and John dreamed of a spring wedding, but Jane’s mom was pregnant and therefore requested that they move the date up. The only date left at the church was Thanksgiving Thursday, so they planned their wedding in less than six months. She says, “When I got married, the Catholic church didn’t have anything later than noon, you know. We got married at nine o'clock in the morning.” There was no morning yoga, no first look. “I was very consumed with getting everybody ready so we could get to the church, and it was pouring outside—I mean pouring. I probably never slept.”
The reception wasn’t until six that evening, so they spent the day driving around in the rain to visit with grandparents in their homes. She says, “By the time I got to the reception I was totally numb from the waist down because my dress was so heavy.” There was an open bar, and her mother-in-law cooked for nearly 100 guests. “I think saving money dictated everything that happened that day. His family was very poor, and I wasn’t poor, but I didn’t have much money.” But even so, when they got to the reception, she says, “We both started to relax. Up until that point I don’t think we enjoyed anything because the big concern was my mom and dad were upset and his mom was cooking.”
At the reception there was a live band, dancing, a bouquet and garter toss…My grandpa interjects: “That little garter was on the best-looking pair of legs you ever saw.” We laugh. That may have been my grandpa’s take-away from their wedding, but it wasn’t my grandma’s. She says, “I never got over that with my mom and dad because they took so much of the joy out of us being engaged and married. It should be something you look back at as a happy time, and it was awful.” Upon reflection, she thinks her parents didn’t believe they were ready for all of the adult responsibilities that would dominate their lives from that day forward. “I was 19 and Papa was 21, but we were mature. [Our forgiveness] was a gift to my parents, and I don’t think they ever appreciated it.” She adds, “That just shows you what a good heart Papa had from the beginning. He was so willing to let bygones be bygones.”
The following summer, in 1961, Jane would learn that she was pregnant with my mother. Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, Ruby, was in college, studying to be a teacher. A year later, she would meet her husband, “Lee.”
I sit across the table from her at a noisy restaurant in a suburb of a postindustrial Midwestern city. She tells the story: “We were at the bowling alley. He was with some friends, and I was with some friends.” While her girlfriends abandoned the bowling game to “sit around and chit chat,” my grandmother decided to bowl alone. Lee said, “I’m going to bowl with you.” And she said, “Okay, if you want to, but I’m going to beat you.” She smirks. “And I did.”
Dating over the course of the next few months was quintessentially 1960s: “We went to the movies. We bowled. We played a lot of miniature golf, where I also beat him. (And he was so competitive he hated that.)” When I ask her how she knew he was the one, she says, “We got to laughing more and having more in common. It just worked out, and we knew that was it.”
Like Jane and John, they too got engaged in the car on a date. They had gone to get a vanilla milkshake from the ice cream truck in the neighborhood. She says, “He threw a package into my lap and told me to open it, and there was a ring box in the sack. And I told him I wouldn’t wear the ring unless he put it on me. So he put his milkshake cup between his teeth, took the ring, and put it on my hand. That’s how we got engaged.” Once again, there was no permission from Ruby’s family to propose and no romantic speech down on one knee.
Like Jane, Ruby had grown up in a home surrounded by aunts and uncles, and she knew “there is no way I can have a wedding the way I want it because I live in a house with all these people expecting to be there, and Aunt Hilda would be reading me the proper etiquette on how to do everything.” She had known since the seventh grade: “I didn’t want that.” So she told Lee, “If you want to marry me, we are not going to have all that fuss.”
And so, about six months later, she says, “We just went and got married.” They drove about an hour away, crossing state lines. It was a Sunday, and the churches were letting out. She says, “We went to this church and asked if the minister was available and if he would marry us. He agreed to that, and we had the minister’s wife, their baby in the punkin seat, and the janitor of the church. So we had the minister and the two witnesses.” She recalls, “The ceremony was just the regular, usual vows. I had my best dress, a light blue one. Grandpa wore a suit.” That night they enjoyed dinner together, and then they drove home returning to their parents’ separate homes.
She didn’t tell her family. When I ask why, she says “I would have had to come up with the explanation, and I wasn’t ready for the explanation yet.” But four months later she knew she was pregnant, so she told her family. She says, “I don’t think they were surprised at all. My mom cried because she never got to see my wedding. She was disappointed in that, but she had done the same thing.”
Both Ruby and Lee were already working, so they got an apartment together, and five months later, their son was born. Between the time they met and married, it had been just over a year. She was 25, and he was 20. At the very end of our interview she laughs, saying, “I was a cougar.”
My grandparents are now in their seventies, and neither set had a particularly easy road to walk together over the last 50+ years. I am struck at the end of our interviews by how young my grandparents were when they made the decision to marry after just one or two years of knowing their spouses. I had always vaguely known the stories of how they met, but I had never really put myself in their shoes. I remember when I got married, my Grandma Ruby said a couple of times, “I always think these kids who are getting married have no idea what they are committing to when they say those vows.” At the time, I remember thinking she was commenting on my wedding. Now, I know she was reflecting on her own.