Today is my father’s 68th birthday.
It’s also the anniversary of my mom and dad’s first date.
I’ve always known that my parents met in a grocery store and that my father was shy and my mother was outgoing. I knew that boys warned my dad not to get involved with my mom, that she was a heart-breaker, and how on their first date, my father couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
But what I’ve realized recently are all the things that I don’t know – what they wore on their first date, where they went, how they felt about each other, when they knew they had found “the one.”
So on the eve of Valentine’s Day last week, I spent my Friday night on FaceTime interviewing my parents, asking them all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask.
My parents will be married 45 years on Feb. 21. It’s hard to think of my parents as anything but my parents, as if life before my sisters and me didn’t exist. But during our three-hour interview, I saw them as more than my mom and my dad but as two people who fell deeply in love almost 50 years ago and couldn’t stand to be without each other.
The first time my father saw my mother, he was weighing bananas.
It was 1967, and my dad was working at the neighborhood ACME grocery store, stocking shelves and running the cash register. And then one day, my mom walked in.
The ACME was about three miles from her house, but she only shopped there occasionally for two reasons: her mother’s favorite brand of coffee and their ice cream. But that day in the grocery store, she added a third reason: to get a date with my dad.
Mom: “When I saw him, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s really handsome. … I wonder how I can go out with him. I knew when I saw him, he saw me.”
Dad: “She was really cute and bubbly – nice figure. She had everything put together.”
My mom and dad were from different worlds. She was outgoing, talkative and popular; he was shy, reserved and introverted. They grew up in separate towns and knew nothing about each other. But that day they made a connection. A few visits later, my dad asked for her phone number and wrote it on a piece of cardboard torn from an empty carton of Kool cigarettes. It’s now pressed between the pages of my mom’s scrapbook.
Dad: “I don’t know if I called her right away or whether I delayed.”
Mom: “So now, I’m waiting, waiting, waiting. When is he going to call me? And he’s not calling me.
Dad: “I was busy. That’s all.”
To prepare for their first date, my mom bought a new two-piece, green paisley dress with long puffy sleeves and lace – she saved that sales receipt, too: $19.98.
Mom: “I never did that with any guy I went out with – saved things. I knew, I guess.”
On a cold Saturday night in February, my father walked into my mother’s house wearing a navy blazer with gold buttons, grey pants and a burgundy tie. His presence and politeness struck my mother in this moment, while my grandfather was amazed by my father’s 6’ 3” stature: You’re tall enough to be a basketball player. And my intuitive grandmother, perhaps realizing the significance of the moment, snapped a photo of my parents in the living room.
Dad: “I was petrified. Maybe that’s why I was nervous. Nonne took our picture on the first date.”
Mom: “I was excited. I wasn’t nervous. I was just excited to be going out with him.”
That night they sat in the last row of a downtown Scranton movie theatre, watching “Quiller Memorandum,” a spy movie starring George Segal. Afterwards, they drove out to the Stagecoach Inn, a restaurant and bar where they met up with my dad’s friends to celebrate my dad’s 20th birthday. My mom ordered chicken and a whiskey sour. My father ordered shrimp and a Budweiser.
Certain details from that night stand out in my parents’ minds. My mom remembers how he held her hand during the movie and couldn’t stop looking at her all night. For my dad, it was the end of the night on my grandmother’s back porch where they shared their first kiss.
Dad: “We had a hard time saying goodnight.”
When my mom walked in the house, my grandmother was downstairs waiting up for her, anxious to hear how it went. My mother gushed, “Oh it was wonderful.” My grandmother didn’t tell her then, but looking at my mom beaming, she knew her daughter had found “the one.”
The next night, my dad took her on a second date to see the Scranton Miners basketball game.
Mom: “The whole game, he was staring at me. It was like cupid got him.”
And by Tuesday, my father returned to my mother’s house after work with a Frank Sinatra record that they listened to in my grandmother’s living room. My mother was more into Frankie Valli, but that night she fell in love with Frank.
Mom: “Every song had meaning because I was listening to it with your father.”
That moment went in the scrapbook, too.
Mom: “From that time on, that was it. It moved fast after that. We were seeing a lot of each other. … He was very affectionate, very caring, smart. He had a calming effect on me.”
Dad: “I didn’t want to spend time with anybody else … friends in school, family … I just wanted to be with your mom. That’s when I was the happiest. … She was full of excitement and fun to be around, loving and caring and a good kisser. And I was proud to have her on my arm.”
Mom: “He taught me how to love. I couldn’t love him anymore today than the day I met him. I would marry him all over again. If you can say that, then what else is there?”
At this point, my mother begins to cry, and my father rubs away the tears in his eyes with his index finger. What I haven’t told you yet is what’s behind those tears, how my mother almost lost my father, not once, but twice. He’s survived cancer, an aortic dissection and a stroke. And my mom survived going through it with him: the radiation treatments, her husband being airlifted to the hospital, holding his hand after open heart surgery not knowing who he would be when he opened his eyes.
Mom: “We’ve been to hell together and back. The strength and courage that he had to get up every day and go through the day after what he’s been through is amazing to me. I look at him sometimes and I think, ‘I don’t know if I would be able to do what he does.’ He’s lost a lot.”
Dad: “I am forever thankful for how she’s taken care of me and how she takes care of me every day. It takes a lot of courage, love.”
Mom: “It’s hard. … But I think that today, you asking these questions, it’s making me realize how lucky we both are to have each other. When he was sick, I kept telling him, ‘Don’t you leave me.’ I don’t know how we would survive without each other. I need him and he needs me. He’s my rock. He’s my best friend.”
The day I asked my parents to interview them my mom wanted to know why. I was never able to give her a good answer because deep down I honestly didn’t know. I just had an unexplainable drive to do it. But sitting there in my office on that Valentine’s Eve, gazing at my iPad propped on my desk, I realized the answer was right in front of me. On the screen were my mom and my dad, leaning across their chairs, locked in a long embrace, and a deep silence in the room broken only by the muffled sound of their weeping — and mine.