April 17: One Day, on a Street Corner

Seventy-one years ago today, my parents met for the first time.

I know the story of their meeting as well as I know any part of my own life story, because my parents have shared their memories, in stories and photographs and in writing, throughout my life.

So I know about how my mother was sitting with her friend Margie that night on the front porch of Margie’s house at the corner of Fenton Street and Wood Avenue in the small town of Niles, Ohio where my parents were born and raised. A fire truck went past, and Mom and Margie ran after it. On their way back to Margie’s, the girls encountered a trio of boys, singing under a street lamp. One of them was my father.

He was 19; my mother, 16. According to my father, the song the guys were singing was “The Lost Chord.” Dad and his buddies were returning from choir practice, and had stopped on the corner to harmonize—they were trying to get a handle on this 19th century hymn by Arthur Sullivan, which they’d just learned at the church up the street where, five years later, my parents would be married.

My parents met here, under the street lamp on the right. I took this photograph in June of 1976.

When they met, the story goes, my father was immediately smitten. My mother always contended that she “didn’t like boys yet,” but she thought my father was very nice. He pursued her for months, until she agreed to go out on a date with him.

I am the keeper of my parents’ memories, these days. My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease has affected her ability to remember; my father, now 90, lately seems less interested in dwelling in the past. But I asked them recently to talk to me about the day they met.

“It was me and Gino Campana, and my cousin Jimmy Donadio,” my father told me. “We were coming home from singing, and there was your mother.”

That’s interesting. I thought it was John Chance and my Uncle Louis who were with my father that night. That’s how I remember hearing the story, all these years. I asked my mother if she recalled who Dad was with that day, but of course she can’t remember. “They were walking home from the church,” she told me. “Dad was one of them.”

According to Mom’s diary entry of April 17, 1941, the song the boys were singing wasn’t “The Lost Chord,” but “The Rosary,” a hymn that contains the lyric, “O memories that bless and burn, O barren gain and bitter loss.”

I’ve lived my life believing that memories formed who I am; that my ability to tie the past to my own present made up the ongoing experience of my life. Knowing the details matters, I thought, because it means I care enough to recall them. But watching as my mother’s illness strips away her memories, I’m seeing that memory is a source of knowledge only so long as it’s useful. And I’m discovering that the memories I’ve carried—my own and those shared by people close to me—maybe aren’t all that important, after all.

Maybe I’m placing too much importance on the past, and on the importance of memory. My parents are no longer all that interested in how they got to today. Seventy-one years later, all that matters is that they’re here, and they’re together.

This essay originally aired, in a slightly different form, on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” (91.5 on KJZZ-FM in Phoenix) on April 17, 2011.

 Thing I Hate Today: The phrase “back in the day.”

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4 Responses

  1. Beautiful, Robrt.

  2. The most embracing pic I’ve seen of them…lovely!

  3. Lovely. It is interesting to think that the accuracy of memory is based primarily on perception and ego. What we think happened is probably a weird mutation of what actually occurred. How much do you really remember about yesterday? And even less about two days ago not to mention years gone by. Strange. No wonder you hate the phrase “Back in the day.” It’s the preface to fiction.

  4. This sounds a little like an identity crisis for you, and I don’t mean anything catastrophic by that — a person could have an identity crisis every day and it would be no big deal, necessarily. Just a kind of redefining adjustment.

    Caring about the details (and having so many in common) is certainly one of the things that makes you both personally and professionally fascinating to me. But you’ve learned it’s only one part of you, and one part of a relationship, and maybe even an optional one. Still, this thing you thought was a big part of the essence of Robrt (maybe, the way you looked at it, of everyone), this being the Texas Memory Repository, as it were, is still a big part of you, even if the reason is different. You are Story Guy. That’s not going to go away.

    I remember not long after we started getting to know each other, we discussed whether anyone in my family is recording or writing down the stories of the older people, and I remember thinking it seemed so dreadfully important to you (which I didn’t think was either good or bad). Now I know there are questions I will never get to ask my mom, but even if I’d been working at it, they wouldn’t have crossed my mind at the time.

    Sometimes I’m absolutely floored by something Matt remembers. Things I apparently told him that I don’t remember ever having remembered or experienced or told him. Not to mention almost every parody Christmas carol lyric I’ve ever written.

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