It is their second date, and already she loves his imperfect hand.
[This piece was originally in the League of Ordinary Gentlemen; it was later featured in Longreads.]
So the way my father used to tell it, my parents’ second date went something like this:
My father was positively smitten after his blind date with my mother, and wanting to spend as much time with her as possible made sure that the activity for date number two was an all-day event. This being Salt Lake City in the 1950s, a day of skiing was just the trick. He picked her up, and together they made their way up the winding Wasatch switchbacks in his new Ford Crestliner. At some little town along the way, probably Solitude or Brighton, my father pulled off the highway for gas and got… well, let’s just say he got turned around.
He was trying to impress this young woman with whom he was already falling in love, and that made his directional incompetence all that more frustrating. He felt himself start to get angry. His anger only grew worse when, turning down a small side street, he found all the other cars going the opposite direction and not letting him through. A sedan pulled up next to him until both drivers’ windows were about a foot away from one another. The driver motioned for my father to roll down his window while he did the same. The man was huge, build like an offensive lineman, and had an enormous walrus mustache.
Leaning out of his window, he proceeded to inform my father that the small street they shared was one-way and my father needed to turn around. That might have been the end of it, except that he ended this explanation with a few words that one simply was not allowed to say in the company of a lady back in the 1950s. So my father did what any self-respecting gentleman of the era would do.
He reached out of the car window, grabbed a side of the man’s walrus mustache in each hand and pulled as hard as he possibly could, pulling much of it right out of the follicles.
My sister and I must have heard this story a thousand times when we were growing up. It was one of our favorites. So often was it told, and so much did we like listening to it, that it wasn’t until I got engaged myself that I ever really stopped to think about it.
I had flown to the East Coast to meet my then-fiancée’s family for the first time. Over dinner they were asking me to tell them something about my own family, and I chose this story. I got to the end, and saw some very real horror in their eyes as they connected this story to the family their daughter and sister was about to marry into. It was at that moment that I went back in my own head and replayed the events my father described — not from the eyes of the child that asked to hear it over and over, but from the eyes of an objective adult.
And the question that for years kept coming back to me after that night was, why in God’s name had my mother agreed to go out on a third date with someone that must have appeared to be just a little borderline psychopathic?
In its kid-vision cartoon form, the second date story is hilarious. In a more real-life perspective,though, it’s violent and bloody and sickening. It’s something you might expect from a Tarantino movie, but not from your father. (One would hope.) My mother was pretty intolerant of violence when I was growing up, and after seeing the story with new grown-up eyes I couldn’t figure out how they ever ended up getting married. I kept this question to myself mostly, asking it out loud over the years only to my wife. I never brought the subject up with either my mother or father, because it occurred to me the answer might be something I didn’t want to ever know.
My father passed away six years ago after a long string of battles with cancer, having come out of each battle victorious until at last it finally got the upper hand. Two days after he passed I picked my sister up at the airport and we went to visit my mother. We all talked about Dad for a while at my parents’ kitchen table, sharing stories about both his last days and our earlier life together. At some point we reached a lull in the conversation, and we just sat there silently for a long while. And then, without really knowing why, I heard myself asking my mom the question I swore I would never ask her.
“Hey Mom, can I ask you something?”
“You know the story of your second date with dad? When he lost all control and pulled that guy’s mustache partially off?
She nodded again
“I can’t figure it out. Since you didn’t know him at all really, why did you ever agree to see him again after watching him do something like that?”
My mom smiled.
“Oh, that never really happened,” she said. “Your father made it up one night when you were both so little, and you laughed so hard and asked him to retell it over and over, so he did. It was something you kids never got tired of hearing, but it was just make believe.”
I laughed, a little relieved; this made more sense, and fit better with the man I grew up with. We all sat there quietly for a while longer, and then after a bit my mom broke the silence again.
“The real story of our second date was actually a much better story, I always thought. Would you like to hear it?”
My sister and I just looked at her, too surprised to even respond.
It is not winter, but spring in the Wasatch mountains. The young man and woman have been hiking amid the trees and wildflowers all day, and they have hardly said a word since they left the car.
It will be a while before either gets up the nerve to confess this to the other, but each of them had the same realization the previous evening on their first date. That realization, its truth hard and crystal clear as set diamond, is this: Each knows they have just met the person with whom they are going to spend the rest of their lives.
A prolonged silence with others they have known would have felt uncomfortable, would have demanded unimportant words to fill the awkward spaces. For some reason, though, this silence feels right. Everything, everywhere suddenly feels right.
The young woman reaches out to hold the young man’s right hand, and knows immediately that she has transgressed. For one thing, the hand feels wrong. Somehow the muscles in it don’t react in the precise way muscles in a hand should. She doesn’t know this empirically; her knowledge is instantaneous and born of instinct. Besides, there is no way she could know that his right hand was a victim of childhood polio, or that he has spent a lifetime cultivating ways to use it that make it impossible for an observer to tell that it lacks full functionality.
Worse than the lame muscles, however, is his reaction. She somehow knows, in the same way she had known that his hand was wrong, that he is ashamed and wants her to let go. Wants her to forget whatever she might or might not have felt. Wants to leave. She feels him trying to pull away, shaking off her touch.
And then the young woman does something unexpected, something that no one has ever done with the young man. She doesn’t let go. In fact, she strengthens her grip. She will later remember pouring everything into that grip, willing him to know without her speaking that she knows his secret, and that she doesn’t care. That even if she still lacks the courage to say it out loud, her feelings for him have already taken root.
It is their second date, and already she loves his imperfect hand.
And after a panicky minute he seems to know this. She feels his hand slowly relax, and then grip back just as tightly. He says nothing out loud, but she hears him nonetheless: “If you’ll really take me as I am, then I am yours for as long as you might have me.”
It will be years before they ever discuss or even acknowledge these events to one another out loud. But it will always be the defining moment of each of their lives.
My parents’ anniversary is today, or at least it would be if they were still here. My mother never really recovered from my father’s death, and fell victim to her own bout with cancer a couple of years after he passed away.
My parents were never the kind to take pictures, so our house was never filled with framed family photos the way my friends’ houses were. I was surprised when my sister and I found boxes of amazing photos of their early lives when we were dealing with their estate. There’s a picture of them that now sits in my bedroom, an 8×10 black and white photograph of them posing atop a Wasatch mountain. It seems unlikely it would have been from their second date, but I see that day in this picture anyway.
In this photograph they both look so young, so impossibly good-looking. On some level this is to be expected. My father spent his youth after WWII and college playing jazz for a living and learning to become a pilot; he had earned a reputation as a Playboy back when that was actually a thing. My mother was brash and independent, and did the very thing Salt Lake City ladies of her era did not do. She went to college, and then moved for a few years to San Francisco to explore the world and date bohemians. She dated Martin Milner for a bit just before he moved to Los Angeles to start work on Route 66. Then she got tired of that life and moved back home, as should would later say, “so I could be there to meet your father.” I’ve always known these things about them, but the photo in my bedroom makes that time before my sister and me somehow more real. It is an odd thing to see your parents in a photograph like this. It’s a mixture of amazement that someone that looks like you could have come from two people so beautiful, coupled with the dull ache of resignation that of all the wonderful gifts they left you, those movie-star-looks genes were not among them.
They were many things, my parents, and most of those things were good. But in this picture, as on their second date, they are perfect.
Forgive me if I have chosen to switch from the meta to the personal today. But I wanted to find someway to say to them both, Happy Anniversary.
I miss you both terribly.