My Parents’ Story

So much more than happily ever after

This weekend I went up to visit my parents, as I generally do if I’m not driving down to see my fiancé. It’s a three-hour drive in Friday afternoon traffic, but compared to living clear across the country from them for nine years, it’s not so bad. I spent a lot of time this particular weekend talking with my mom and dad about our family history and their past.

My dad described the paradox that while parents know their children for their entire lives, by the time children come around, the parents have already been changed from who they were, just by their children’s existence. The only way we can know who our parents were are through the stories they tell. Hearing the stories of my mom dating as a teenager, or my dad goofing off during high school, is like being introduced to a stranger. I can’t reconcile them in my head with the calm, levelheaded people I’ve always known. The stories from their wedding are a litany of things going wrong, all hilarious once you’re thirty-four years removed.

My dad has this way of telling stories that draws you in, leaves you hanging on his next sentence. He has a measured way of speaking, combined with a flair for storytelling—for pacing, for when to reveal that crucial tidbit of information. He writes fiction, but his best stories are the ones that actually happened. Some of my best family memories are of sitting around the dinner table, enthralled as my dad tells one funny story after another about his and my mom’s past, or about my relatives.

This time, we talked about family members I never had the chance to meet, or to really get to know. I heard the story of how my great-grandfather (dad’s side) was known as a great pianist, but by the time my dad was around, he never played anymore. My dad wishes someone older from his family were still around so he could ask them why. I heard about how my great-grandmother (dad’s side) thought that she controlled her children’s lives, especially her daughter, my grandma, and that they owed her obedience. My parents told me that the way they raised me and my two younger sisters stems from my grandma making a conscious decision to not raise her son in the same way she was raised. She would raise him to think for himself, to question, to learn, and to follow his own path.

My parents live in the house that my father grew up in, so there’s a lot of memories swirling around us as we stand in the kitchen and chat (always the kitchen—only Trouble conversations happen in the living room). We took a walk after dinner on Saturday, the first pleasant evening in months. There’s old things on this road: long stone walls, pieces fit together without any mortar, built a hundred years ago and still standing; a springhouse with the doors knocked down that used to connect to a hotel, long abandoned; our hundred-year-old house; my father.

My dad is close to retirement, while my mom is nine years younger. The story of how they met and got together is ridiculous, and awesome, and tinged with a sense of luck. My dad was my mom’s eighth grade teacher (yeah, I know), during the single year in which he taught in Ohio and the single year her family lived there. She was his “Shadow” because they hung out during school and talked; I think my dad was the first person to encourage my mom’s love of reading and learning. After her family moved away they lost contact, until my mom sent a Christmas card to my dad during her first year of college. The rest, as they say, is history.

Actually the rest, as my dad says, is me and my two sisters. When I was a teenager we visited the school in Ashtabula, Ohio, where they had first met. Dad looked directly at me and said, “This is where you begin. If I hadn’t taught here for one year after graduating college… if Mom’s family hadn’t lived here for eight months… you wouldn’t be standing here right now.” When I think about the chances of my parents meeting, just at that time, just at that place, I feel a little thrill of awe, and fear. There are so many ways it could have ended up differently. It’s the same for me and my fiancé—we met at a summer internship on the opposite coast from where we both grew up and attended school. I had been offered the internship the year before, in a different location, and if I had attended that year instead…

On each side of my family, it’s an exponentially growing set of stories of chance, of meetings almost missed—like my great-grandparents (mom’s side) who met on the boat to America as they left their homes in England and Scotland. It goes further back in time to encompass hundreds (then thousands) of stories about two people who had to meet in just the right way to end up with me, here, and with him, now. Of course if it had happened any other way, some other person would be writing right now.

As the weekend wrapped up, I left my parents’ house to make the drive back, and I wished my dad a good drive as well. See, he only lives there on the weekends, as two years ago he took a job eight hours away, in another state. My parents planned for my mom to follow him, but life is complicated and circumstances changed. Now my mom and dad are long-distance-married, each of them trying so, so hard to get a job in which they can be together again. It’s really tough on my mom. My dad makes the drive nearly every single weekend to come back and visit her. I don’t know how he does it.

In fairy tales, when you get married, it’s supposed to be happily ever after. The story ends, because there is nothing more of interest to say. The trials have been overcome. Even in the real world, weddings signify an end to a certain kind of trial (waiting, wondering, hoping). I know I view my upcoming wedding, and the ending of my own seven years of long-distance, as the pinnacle of happy endings. We’ll finally be together—what more could we want? But of course, there are so many hardships we could face in the future, and some of them we will. The story doesn’t end after you meet and marry.

This part of my parents’ love story is very hard—no one could say it’s a “happily ever after” scenario. But through it they still giggle like kids at each other’s jokes, and treasure the time they have when they are together. They take their joy when they can, and wait patiently for the trial to be over. When my fiancé and I face challenges in our marriage, I hope we will look to my parents’ example and work through it with the same grace, kindness, and patience with each other. No matter what, I know we’re going to have some great stories to tell our kids.

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  • What a great post! High-five to awesome stories & wonderful parents!

  • Emily

    I love this! It’s amazing the chance encounters that can alter one’s life trajectory…

  • Sara P

    Lovely! My parents are also long-distance married, these days, and the story definitely hasn’t ended. Thanks for this :).

    And congrats on your own upcoming marriage!

  • Sarah E

    Thanks for sharing your story! My grandparents also had a chance meeting. . My grandpop, fresh from the Navy, spent weekends with his buddies at the bus station at the beach, watching for chicks getting off the bus. Well, my grandmom stepped off the bus and caught his eye. He offered to carry her bags, and the rest is history :-) I only recently learned that story when my grandpop passed away. Kudos to you, Jenni, for diving into that family history while you can!

    • swarmofbees

      Was this a skill taught to young men years ago? My dad met my mom when he went to the train station to meet/pick up the new freshmen women arriving for university. He picked up her bag and began the process toward a going on forty year marriage.

      • Class of 1980

        It was called “chivalry”. ;)

        • Sarah E

          The irony in that is immense. Good observation.

      • Lauren

        Boyfriend’s parents also met in a train, although according to the story, his mom just wanted that weird guy who kept grinning at her to leave already. But it turned out that they were getting off at the same stop, so that was that ;).

    • Lisa

      My paternal grandparents met when my grandmother happened to pick up a hitchhiker (my grandfather) on her way home from college. They were married for more than 60 years when he passed away a couple of months ago.

  • Wow! What a beautiful story. One of the great things about getting to know your parents as an adult is finding out those little incongruous tidbits, things you never would’ve expected. Getting to know my parents as people has been one of the most rewarding parts of adulthood. I feel really lucky that we enjoy each others’ company and work to spend time together.

    • scw

      I couldn’t agree more about getting to know my parents as people. it has actually been maybe the single most rewarding part of my adulthood.

      • as someone terrified of “ends” and time passing and my parents getting older, I am holding on to that part as hope that adulthood is not an “end” but a beginning of an even more rewarding and new relationship with your parents.

  • MC

    Beautiful, lovely essay. A few years ago I took an oral history class in college and interviewed my mom for ~3 hours for my final project. It was easily one of the best experiences of my life – I learned so much about her life and now I have a recording of so many great stories. Even though my parents are divorced, I loved hearing her talk about the beginning of their relationship and marriage. Now I want to interview everyone in my family about their lives.

  • Sara

    My dad and I were just talking about his life before my mother on a drive this weekend. He was telling me that he went through a sales training program at the company he got hired at immediately after college, and there were 8 spots around the country. He desperately wanted one of the 7 spots around the country – in New York, Texas, California, Seattle, Chicago… but he got the one an hour from his parent’s house in Cleveland. And a couple years later, met my mother at a bar in Cleveland (where he said he was being wingman for his best buddy trying pick up her BFF. He says he’s still waiting for Joe to call and say stop :)) and they moved out of state after I was born.
    If he had gotten his original wish, he would have been in Texas and as he said “you would have had a Southern accent”. I enjoy the fact that he imagines that I’d exist with him as opposed to with my mother in this alternate universe.

  • Rachel

    What a beautiful story! I was teary eyed after reading it. I hope your parents’ situation resolves itself soon.

  • Daniella

    I love this! I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s just a beautiful short story.

  • guest

    The Grimm version of fairy tales end, “and they lived happily together. Until one of them died.”
    Much more realistic.

    • Sarah E

      That’s awesome. I’m glad I know that now.

    • Really!? Tell us more about this!

  • How great is this post!

    Learning about your parents as people and not just parents. Learning how your their stories start your story long before you, and your story in turn is the start of so many others. I love how connected things are.

  • Eh

    I wish I knew more about my parents’ story. I have heard a few stories about when my parents first met (my mom’s brother/my uncle and my dad were friends and my mom would tag along) and when they were dating (my parents were high school sweet hearts, and my dad moved away for college and they almost broke up but my dad couldn’t stand being away from her so he got a job and dropped out of colllege). I have seen the pictures from their wedding (my mom wore a very 1970s dress with a huge hat and she changed into a red dress when they left the reception). Some of the traditions we chose to include in out wedding were because my parents had them (one of my dad’s relatives from Scotland gave my mom a horseshoe to hold with her bouquet and they had a bagpiper – both traditions that my brother and I have continued, my something borrowed was my SIL’s horseshoe that she recieved from a relative in Scotland at their wedding). And I know that my maternal grandfather didn’t like my father. The biggest question I had (after my own wedding – I was too engrossed in wedding planning to think about it before our wedding) was how did my mother honour her mother at her wedding (if at all) since her mother passed away when she was a teenager. My mother also passed away when I was a teenager. I did a number of things to honour her but it just makes me think. I know how much I missed my mom that day and I wish she had shared how much she missed her mom that day with me. As my husband and I take the next big step (children?!?!) I miss my mom and wish I knew more about my grandmother and how my mom dealt with her grief at major life events.

  • lady brett

    late, but i love this, and these details of family history that turn the people we know only by their relation to us into real, whole people (or fragments of, as is often the case as the history gets older).

    (plus, it makes me think of my folks’ story – how they met when my dad came home in the middle of the night and scared a peeping tom away from my mom’s window in the same apartment complex – which they loved to tell, despite seldom sharing other stories from “before us kids”)

  • “The only way we can know who our parents were are through the stories they tell.”

    Beautiful, true.