I have always been a bit obsessed by the love story that brought my parents together. There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I am a bit of a romantic, and my parents had one of those whirlwind romances that saw them married after only knowing each other for three months. I sort of love the idea of living in a world where people do completely irrational things in the name of love…in a world where people meet and spark and just take a jump together, hoping for the best. My parents did quite literally take a leap together—off a bridge in our town at night into the river (more on this later). And since my most foolish cinema-worthy moment of fated love was considering, but turning down a marriage proposal when I was 16 in Central America, I adore the thought that my parents were that delightfully reckless.
Long-term it didn’t exactly work out with my parents, in the sense that they are no longer married, but it did work out in the sense that I exist (phew!)—and in that my parents wouldn’t be who they are if they hadn’t met and married…and they are both completely amazing people.
Admittedly, however, I think that at least some of my obsession about my parents’ romance has something to do with the fact that I can’t really remember them being in love with each other. Intellectually, I do know that they were wild about each other at some point. I have been told this in whispers over the years. The people who told me loved me enough to think I should know, who understood that my parents’ love was, in some way, part of a legacy that should be mine…but one that had been all but erased by pain and anger and the effort to move on with life. On some level I understood that their togetherness lives in me—but so much of it felt like a legacy of friction and anger, with the tiniest highlights from the deep recesses of my memory where I can still feel what it felt like to be with them when they loved each other.
I haven’t ever really had any hard evidence of their love. There is only one blurry photo of my mother at their wedding—because the friend who was to take photos forgot to put film in the camera. And many of their stories of early marriage—like them running out of money on their honeymoon in Bermuda and my dad finding a restaurant that would give them free fish to cook—have been colored by later experiences. I’d asked my father a few times about their engagement, and he’d only said, “Your mom proposed to me,” which seemed like he was making a joke I couldn’t understand. And there were none of the traditional items—a engagement ring, china patterns, or flatware—that often stand as symbols of a marriage.
Even their wedding rings, the most symbolic evidence of their marriage, have both disappeared in what I cannot help but imagine was an epic spontaneous combustion upon the signing of their divorce papers.
…that is, I haven’t had any hard evidence of it until recently.
A few weeks ago I was at my mother and step-father’s house digging through old photos that my mother had pulled out for me. Among the photos was a box of letters that my mother said should be mine. It was primarily filled with cards congratulating my parents on my birth. I’d seen this pile before, but had never taken the time to read through all of them. In there, in addition to the congratulatory cards, I found a few cards from my dad to my mom—like one for her first Mother’s Day, when she was pregnant with me. This felt so very special and it is something I will treasure…but what I found next made me feel as if I had discovered the Titanic or King Tut’s tomb or a new planet.
In that pile I discovered a postcard addressed to my mother at her parents’ home, where she lived before she married my dad. The town was small enough that the card is addressed with the street name, no number. It was postmarked September 22, 1980. It showed the railroad trestle and bridge in town on the front. And the back read, simply, “With a two-fold, wondrously exuberant, positively affirmative YES.” It had no signature, but the writing is my father’s and the “yes” was written in the familiar bubble outline letters that dad uses for emphasis…the same lettering he used on the postcards he sent me at summer camp and on the front of my birthday card envelopes.
I took it to my mother and asked what it was. She said she wasn’t sure—but then looked at the front of it again and said “Well, your father and I jumped off of that bridge together in the dark one night…that must be it.”
I delighted in that bit of knowledge…imagining the conversation on the bridge, my father, strong and self-assured, telling my beautiful 23-year-old mother that, yes, it would be ok to jump. My mom, feeling safe next to him, trusting him. Them, holding hands as they leapt into the dark and splashed into the cold water below.
I soaked up the idea of it, and then moved on.
Later that night, after I was home, I continued digging through the pile of cards and came across another postcard. This one was addressed to my father at the house I grew up in—where, in 1980, when it was postmarked, he lived with my sister Kristin, his daughter from his first marriage. There was a newspaper cutting taped to the back…with a few lines that mention love and marriage underlined in red. Written below it says, “Mr. Brown, will you do me the wondrous honor of marrying me? (Ask Kristin first).”
I reread the card a few times before I understood what I was holding. My mom had proposed to my dad…She had proposed via postcard to a man she barely knew.
And I had the evidence in my hands 36 years later.
I dug back through the pile and found the “YES” card. I held them side-by-side, tears welling up in my eyes, and saw that the postmark was the same day…meaning that in that tiny little town, the card got to my dad quickly, and he responded, immediately. Because, love. Irrational, silly, ridiculous love.
It was evidence of something that it so fleeting, so intangible, but so real—at least at the time. And those moments—the leap off the bridge, the immediate response, the ridiculous proposal—are the reason I am here. They are part of the reason I am who I am…the reason my parents are who they are.
And I can hold these things in my hands.
Both of my parents have confirmed that I am, in fact, correct about the cards, about the proposal. They both agreed that I could write about this very personal treasure…perhaps in part out of curiosity for what I might have to say. Perhaps because it has been so long that it feels like it happened to someone else. But also, I know that they know how much it means to me to understand how gladly, how exuberantly they took each other’s hands and leapt into the darkness and swam, for a time, together, side-by-side.