08 May 2007

The Diamond Anniversary

On May 8, 1932, a 35-year-old woman prepared for her wedding. A wedding she never expected to have, which resulted from a love story she never expected to be living. Her intended was 28 years old, a Canadian who had moved to her small Maine town eight years ago. You could say they were a study in contrasts: Fred was 5-foot-9, the very definition of strapping.

Whereas Theresa (always called Tut) was 5-foot-2 in her shoes. Even in her 30s, she was as adorable and diminutive as a doll.

Tut's temperament was doll-like, too…cheery, loving, and devoted. Fred--well, Fred was devoted to her, there was no question of that. But impatient! oh, never could anyone become exasperated like him. Not angry, not mean…just sputtery and annoyed. Tut smiled to herself whenever she thought of it. This man endeared himself to her with every fluster, every bluster. She calmed Fred, soothed him, and humored him. He had never smiled the way that she made him smile.

But married, she never expected. Fred started courting Tut when he was barely 21. How many times had she shaken her red-haired head and redirected him to a younger single woman in town? She thought Fred charming and insistent, but just a little misguided. Because Tut's devotion was to her parents. As their youngest, she had pledged that she would never leave home. Six siblings had left before her, married, and produced some two dozen children among them--all of whom cherished their Aunt Tutty for her uncomplicated generosity and young spirit. But really, Tut stayed behind for an unspoken reason that caused her pain, alarm, and concern in a mixed jumble: her parents' relationship was frayed, if not ruined completely.

Mama had always relied on her four daughters for house-tending and chores…even for cooking. With Mama now in her seventies, Tut was left to manage the household. What's worse, Mama held a seething grudge against her husband for the loss of their first home to foreclosure, two decades before. Tut adored her papa, who was temperamentally more like her than anyone else in the entire family. Papa was a peacemaker, an oasis of calm. Mama's fiery Irish ways may have drawn him irresistibly in their youth, but now she threatened to overwhelm him with spite. Tut served as their bridge, and for love of both of them, she would never leave.

Fred knew all of this. Years prior, he had heard it in conversation with Tut (as well as her friends, who privately mourned the spinster path she was on). Then, Fred gradually got to know her family. He saw the jagged dynamics in person. And he made a simple statement to the beautiful woman he wanted to marry: "I will never take you away. If you want to live with your parents, I'll do that."

Tut let herself fall in love with him at that moment. But she didn't let on, right away. Fred's desire, his adoration was almost too much for her to bear. Whenever she looked in the mirror, she saw a woman eight years his senior. What kind of existence would this be for a young man in his twenties, the prime of his life? Why, at her age, she probably wouldn't even be able to bear him one child, let alone the many that her sisters had borne.

On May 8, 1932, Theresa adjusted her hair nervously in that same mirror. She wore a modest dress, not fancy wedding attire. Fred was a Methodist, and Tut was devoutly Catholic. For this reason, the wedding was to be held in the rectory of the church: a non-event, meant to deflect attention. Her sister and brother-in-law would serve as witnesses. No guests, no rice, no toasts, no extravagance. Just two people--opposites, attracted--in a small town.

Make that three people. Inside her that day, Tut nurtured a new life--the hidden fact of a pregnancy. Her lifelong modesty makes it impossible to imagine the moment that she gave in to Fred's advances. In a boxy old car? Unthinkable. In her parents' house? Never. In the rooming house where Fred lived sparsely? Doubtful. The place is not important, anyway. Somehow, in the winter of 1932, Fred had convinced Tut. And at the age of 35, she must have asked herself, what was there to lose, really?

No one in Millinocket, Maine, would have been surprised at the subsequent wedding of Fred and Tut. There was nothing abrupt about it; they had been dating for four years solid. Surely their acquaintances rejoiced, having known for years what a perfect couple they made. And her nieces and nephews clung to Fred's lanky frame as though he were already their uncle. Therefore, the baby that Tut carried on May 8 remained a closely held secret. Instead, a few weeks after the priest pronounced them man and wife, Tut and Fred shared joyful news with family and friends that made sense in the timeline: now, they were expecting.

Tut's parents allotted the newlyweds the upstairs of their old, austere house. Tut, who had worked all of her adult life as a gregarious telephone operator, gave up her job and took an even more active role in her parents' daily lives. Fred worked long hours as a railroad telegrapher to support them.

Some months later, the trees were bare, the winds grew cold, and the birth of their baby was nearing--substantially sooner than anyone would have thought. In a masterstroke of plotting, Tut was sent south on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad to visit her sister Nellie in Augusta. There, Tut awaited her confinement, which came "prematurely" (Fred told the folks back home). Her sister was undoubtedly in on the ruse. In Augusta, on November 27, 1932, Tut delivered a full-term baby girl.

Perhaps Tut would have been better off delivering a preemie. Her tiny pelvis struggled with the birthing, and in the days afterwards, she experienced intestinal difficulties that threatened her life. At one point, the doctor admonished Fred: "Don't ever get her pregnant again." He visibly blanched, nodding his assent.

These events of 75 years ago are part of my DNA. The baby girl was my mother, Maryann. Tut and Fred were my beloved grandparents, from whom I learned about marital love, attraction, respect, and cooperation. It is nearly impossible to explain how safe and cherished I felt in their company--it was beyond a parenting relationship, into something spiritual, a glow that suffused me.

It wasn't until my young adulthood that I learned the full story surrounding this wedding day, and the secret they harbored throughout the years. As the puzzle pieces fell into place, I understood why they never, ever celebrated their anniversary, why they had no wedding pictures, no wedding memories. And as I contemplated all of these events on this year's anniversary--which I choose to commemorate, despite the fact that both Fred and Tut are both deceased--I couldn't help but wonder at the contrast between their surreptitious wedding day, and their lifelong, deep-rooted, inspiring love for each other. In my life, I've met maybe a dozen married couples whose bond and friendship is immediately, tangibly obvious. I compare all of them to my grandparents, who showed me that first.

How sad that the day these loving people were married brought them guilt and shame. How triumphant that they stayed together for life, and never let that submerged secret spoil what they had. My mother's birth, after the complications were cleared, fulfilled both of them in a way I don't think they had anticipated. And while I know they ached for more children, Fred would never have risked losing his sweet wife. Instead, when their two grandchildren arrived, they shared all of that long-held parenting energy with my brother and me. For that, I owe them everything.

Through all of the tumult and nerves, 75 years ago, I can see a moment in the rectory--maybe when the priest was droning from a text in front of him, maybe when the plain gold bands were exchanged--when Fred looked at Tut, caught her eye, and smiled that mischievous and satisfied smile that only she could elicit. And at that moment, I know she smiled right back. Her misgivings had been foolish. He was the one.

An important footnote to this story: up until tonight, I had never seen a photograph of my grandparents' wedding day. I decided to flip through my digital archives to illustrate this story--I have many images of them, just not of their wedding.

Two years ago, my cousin Earle e-mailed me some images, and those were among the files I looked at tonight. I'm very fond of one of them, which appears below. Ever since Earle sent it, I've puzzled over it: why are Nana and Grampy standing there so awkwardly, on the right? Who are the two people with them? Where are they, anyway?

In a bolt of clarity that any genealogist will understand, I suddenly realized tonight that this is the only surviving wedding picture. They are standing on a hillside: that's right across the street from Millinocket's Catholic church. I know that hill like the back of my hand. The two people on the left? That's the witnesses, Eugene and Essie.

First I felt driven to write about their wedding day, and then, I saw it. The ancestors speak to us, that's all I can tell you. And tonight, their diamond anniversary, they led me to this.

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