Once Upon a Thanksgiving
Arranged marriages are not the norm in modern Western society. Yet, there can be times when either with full intent and by accident, a parent can help “arrange” a marriage for his or her child. My mother-in-law, Mary Brophy Ward by a simple act of kindness, inadvertently nudged her son into a deeply committed relationship with me much more quickly than had been his intention.
In early November 1962, Jay and I had just resumed dating. We had met the year before on a blind date, but nothing had sparked between us. Jay thought I was the kind of girl he hoped to marry someday, but he was a long way from such a serious undertaking. As for me, I was in the midst of falling deeply in love with another guy to whom I would become engaged within a few months.
My engagement shattered the following June. After a long, lonely summer, I returned to college and invited Jay to a party on campus. I’d been on his mind. So, it was a welcome call. We began to see each other every weekend, usually to walk from St. Mary’s to Notre Dame and join dozens of other couples dancing to the sound of crooners the Huddle DJ preferred. Cheap, pleasant fun, it was a good, nicely-paced way to get to know each other. We both liked what we discovered.
Meet the Parents
Jay’s parents had tickets for all the Notre Dame football games. Routinely, they drove to South Bend from Chicago, attended the game, met Jay after ND lost (it wasn’t quite the same team in those days), and took him and a bunch of his friends to dinner.
The first week of November, Jay invited me to meet them. His sister Maureen was a freshman at St. Mary’s. She and her roommate, another Maureen, would be joining us as would Maureen’s parents, who were visiting from Oregon. In those days games always started at noon and ended around three-thirty. So, after the game, we all met in Jay’s small single room in Dillon Hall for soft drinks before going out. We barely fit in the small space, which was already jammed full with a twin bed, desk, desk chair, bookcase, and lounge chair (still one of Jay’s stables). In order for us all to fit, a crowd that had grown to include Jay’s best friend Jack and his former roommate Phil, I sat on top of his desk (oh, to be that slim and nimble again).
Jay’s dad, John Francis Ward, was a member of Mayor Richard Daley’s cabinet and a no-nonsense guy when he was around family (though we had heard he could be quite a cut-up when out with friends). Mr. Ward was perturbed.
Jay had entered Notre Dame three years before as a pre-med major. By the end of his junior year, he had completed all his pre-med credits – and decided he didn’t want to be a doctor! His senior class roster was filled with Russian Lit and Political Science courses. His dad must have been brooded over this for a few weeks because suddenly in front of everyone he confronted Jay. “Well, son, if you aren’t going to be a doctor, then just what do you plan to do with your life?”
The whole room hushed. Jay turned white. His freckles stood out against his pale skin, and then he gave a slow smile. “I’m going to become a priest,” he said. His timing was unfortunate. I had a mouthful of Pepsi just sliding down my throat. It caught there. I choked and sputtered and splattered Maureen who was sitting on the desk chair with a spray of sticky soda.
When I got my breath, I realized all eyes were on me. I could feel the warmth of my blush start on my neck and flush up to the roots of my hair. I switched the focus to Maureen. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Here I have a hanky.”
A Simple Invitation
As things calmed down, Mrs. Ward came over and engaged me in conversation. Something must be happening between her son and this girl, and she wanted to know just what. In the conversation, it came out that I wouldn’t be going home for Thanksgiving because the trip to Minnesota was too long for the short break. She immediately invited me to come and have Thanksgiving with them.
It wasn’t until we were married that I learned that Jay was horrified by his mother’s invitation. He felt it defined a certain seriousness about our relationship that he had not quite come to accede to yet. But he couldn’t very well take back his mother’s invitation.
Our first Thanksgiving together was beautiful and seemingly uneventful. I came in on the South Shore electric train in the morning, enjoyed a day basking in the warmth of his large family, stuffed myself as people do on Thanksgiving, and took the last train back to South Bend that night.
As low-keyed as that Thanksgiving holiday was on the surface, at the fundamental level it marked a turning point. I spent my first holiday ever with a family not my own, moving a little further into life away from my origins. Jay, for the first time, actually saw me in the midst of his whole family, celebrating with them in their traditional way. And it felt just right. After that weekend, he knew he could never again imagine “family” without me.
So many times Love’s Lessons have come to me during life’s celebratory seasons. It seems that the heightened sensitivity to human connection that is integral to the holidays helps to forge new bonds as well as to cement older ones.
Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie
Tell us about your first Thanksgiving with a significant other.