Many Ways to Arrange a Marriage

Road between Autumn Trees
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.

Couple walking in woods
Photo by Tom the Photographer

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.

Model heart on med book
Photo by Robina Weermeier

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?”

Priest with Chalices
Photo by Shalone Cason

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.

Thanksgiving meal
Photo by Stephanie McCabe

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.

Defining Moments: Losing JFK

Woman mounting dark staircase
Photo by Ali Yahya
The Shock, The Tears

Cold November winds rattled the tall windows of the St. Mary’s College dining room, but I was hot and sweaty that Friday as I rushed to complete setting the tables and loading the dishwasher racks with dirty lunch dishes.  I had a train to catch. The next Thursday would be Thanksgiving, but I would be working that day.  Instead, I had the coming weekend free from Friday through Sunday evening. My excitement mounted as I ran out the kitchen door and up the five flights of stairs that led to my dorm room.  When the staircase opened into the small lounge at the end of the fifth-floor hall, I paused to catch my breath.

At that moment, I realized that although the room was packed with other girls, a weighty silence filled the room. Everyone was gathered around the radio in the corner. Many girls were crying.

“What?” I asked.

My roommate Carrie disentangled herself from the cluster, holding her finger to her lips. Tears slid down her cheeks, causing rivers in her make-up. “The President’s been shot,” she whispered.

My stomach roiled so brusquely that I had to cover my mouth to fight back nausea. “But he’ll be okay, right,” I said.

“No one knows,” Carrie said. “He’s on the way to the hospital now.”

My elation drained away. I glanced at my watch.  I still had to catch that train. The guy with whom I’d been going steady for over a year was waiting for me in Chicago. With leaden feet, I trudged back to my room, tossed my soiled white uniform on the floor, quickly washed my face and applied some lipstick (the extent of my make-up in those days). The clothes I had picked out lay ready on my bed, navy turtle neck, bright red and navy plaid wool knee-length skirt and block heel navy pumps. It had taken months to acquire that outfit, but it no longer gladdened my heart.

Lugging my suitcase, I trudged through slush across campus under the barren trees to the bus stop.  Other girls waited there and queried me.  “Have you heard anything more about Kennedy?”

“Only that the governor of Texas was shot as well.  No more news than that.” It was frustrating. On the bus ride into South Bend, the usual girlish chattering was hushed. Some girls openly prayed the rosary. I stared at the bleak November cityscape wondering how such a brilliant and bright leader could be the target of such hate.  It’s a question I’ve asked myself times past counting since then.

I couldn’t really feel joy but was so very relieved that happenstance was taking me into Chicago on that day of all days, that I could be with Jay at this difficult time.  Passengers on the South Shore train didn’t know much more than my classmates except that journalists reported that Jackie’s dress had been covered in blood as she cradled her husband’s head in her lap. It became harder and harder to hold on to the little hope I had.

Girl looking out train window
Photo by Jassir Jonis

Jay was waiting beside the track when my train screeched into the Randolph Street.  His face, which I could see through the window, was ashen. I stepped out of the train car and into his arms. From the way he clung to me, I knew we had lost our hero.

That’s who John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to the post- World War II/pre-Vietnam conflict generation. Handsome, charming and blessed with a radiant smile, he seemed a new kind of politician, dignified and intelligent, bold and brilliant in world affairs, and forward-thinking in his domestic policies.

Kennedy at Cape Canavril
Photo by History in HD
Shared Bereavement

For my cohort group, the question “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” would remain a bonding conversation starter for years to come.  We would learn that like any hero he was flawed, but that didn’t mitigate our sense of having lost one of our brightest and our best.

Kennedy’s death was a turning point for me is another important respect. As soon as I first learned of the attack, I immediately knew that I needed to be where Jay was to ride out the mourning the loss would bring on. When the worse possible things happen, knowing who it is we must be with is one of the most important of Love’s Lessons.



November Blues

Remember Me Tonight
Photo by Aldo Delara

November’s dreariness often drives me to salute it with an equally bleak piece of writing.  The grey skies, the disappearance of October’s brilliant foliage, and the consistently misty mornings followed by damp, rainy days trigger my saddest memories.

As it is, I expect, with a lot of you, ruminations on failed romance and loss of love are frequent contributors to these blue moods.

While I can’t claim that my past is littered with love affairs gone awry, there were relationships that when they fell apart, ripped my heart in half and left me filled with such a depth of remorse, regret, and guilt that I couldn’t see any reason to keep living.

As this year’s somber November squats in my soul, I remember Ed. Edward was my last great love before I met my husband.  Even though Jay and I have been appreciatively married for fifty-five years, there’s still a piece of my heart that belongs to Ed.  It’s his forever.

Never Quite Prepared

Following high school, I attended St. Mary’s College on what was called the “Staff” program.  It was a wonderful opportunity created by the Sisters of the Holy Cross to help young women in financial need to earn their bachelor’s degree.  In return for thirty hours a week of dining-room service, we received room, board, and tuition.

Photo by Chuttersnap

At that time, meals at St. Mary’s were a very formal affair.  A nun sat at the head of every table and those of us who served set the table beforehand.  Once everyone was seated, we served breakfast, lunch and dinner family style.  When “sister” rose from the meal, the girls at her table were free to go – and we could begin to clear the dishes to take them back to the enormous dishwasher in the kitchen.

And that is how I met Ed.

Ed worked the dishwasher. This floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall contraption ran on a conveyor belt that poured out enormous bursts of hot steam.  To clean the dishes, you fed trays loaded with dirty plates, glasses, and cups in one end and lifted the steaming, spotless dinnerware out from the other. The nuns firmly believed that working the dishwasher was much too demanding for young women in their “CB” (the sisters’ delicate way of referring to childbearing) years. Mind you, they would have been horrified if any of us actually became pregnant!

The school administration hired local young men to run the dishwasher. Ed, the son of a local family with five boys to raise, had started working on the dishwasher in high school, which was before I entered St. Mary’s.  With his big, blue eyes, curly, sandy hair and wide smile, he quickly became a favorite with the older girls with whom he worked.

Photo by Hunter Bryant

For them, he was more a little brother than a romantic interest. When I started at St. Mary’s, Ed who graduated from high school that same year, left South Bend to go to the University of Indiana in Bloomington. So, it was nine months before I walked into the kitchen one morning to find all the seniors very excited that Ed was back for the summer.

Something Is Starting

I’ve written before about “love at first sight,” and I’ve tended to play it down.  But that June day it happened to Ed and me. Cupid not only shot us with his arrows, Venus smiled on us as well because I had already decided to stay at St. Mary’s for the summer.  Thus, Ed and I were thrown together daily and soon getting together as often in the evening as my curfew allowed.

Couple sitting by river
Photo by Justin Groep

Romantic was Ed’s middle name. He brought me daisies for breakfast.  He bought me books of romantic poetry and inscribed poems to me on their inside covers. We spent long hours sitting on the banks of the St. Joe River, discussing our philosophies of life.

He loved jazz and gave me one by one an enormous collection of jazz records to play so we could talk about the artists.  Sadly, there was no place we could listen to music together.  Guys were forbidden entrance to dorm rooms.  His mother wouldn’t hear of him entertaining me in their home.  His school was 400 miles away.  And jazz clubs only seated the over-21 crowd.

Still, our affection for one another grew steadily and our sheer happiness in just being together blossomed like a wildflower garden.  Summer ended, but our love did not.  We wrote one another almost daily. We phoned each other weekly despite how outrageously expensive that was. Whenever Ed came home, we spent every spare minute together.  We plotted a future – living in New York City.  He would be a poet and I would be a journalist. We’d live in Greenwich Village, true Bohemians. Perhaps, we’d even move to Paris or Barcelona. Our dreams had no boundaries.

In January, I took the bus to Bloomington to bunk with a girlfriend there and spend the weekend with Ed. It was then I met his roommate Phillip.  Phillip was a dedicated philosopher and something new to the naïve Catholic girl I had been until that time – an atheist. Phillip expounded at length on the reasons God couldn’t exist and the foolishness of religion.  He frightened me because I could see Ed really admired him.

Ed came to St. Mary’s for Valentine’s Day – with a ring.  It wasn’t a diamond.  He and I would have disdained such a bourgeois tradition.  The ring’s stone was a lovely oval opal that shimmered like a rainbow.  It had belonged to his grandmother. When he asked if I would accept her ring and be willing to become family with him, I, of course, vowed I would.  Suddenly I was engaged.  There was so much excitement in the dorm and the kitchen the next morning.  All our friends were elated.

Blow the Whole Thing Up

At Easter, the ax fell. Home for the spring holidays, Ed joined me that Sunday after his family dinner.  He led me to our favorite place by the river. There, he explained to me that he had become convinced that Phillip was right.  God didn’t exist and only fools believed such nonsense.  If Cupid’s arrow had pierced my heart sweetly, this arrow hit with such pain, I almost doubled over.  I tried to convince him he was wrong.  He couldn’t throw away a lifetime of faith.  I mounted every argument I could.  (I had after all received an “A” on my paper, “Proof That There Are Angels.”)  He remained firm.  We parted uneasily.

For the next week, I brooded over our encounter.  Could I marry a man who didn’t believe in God? I talked it over with some of the girls who’d known Ed for longer than I had.  Some thought he’d change again someday.  But I wasn’t sure. Others didn’t believe religious differences were important enough to trouble a loving committed relationship.  I, however, felt this went deeper than “religious differences.”  But I yearned to be with Ed.  I loved how I felt when I was with him.  He made me feel like the most special woman who had ever walked the earth.  He was kind, affectionate, passionate, and smart. That should count for more than this question about God.  Shouldn’t it?

But, in the end, it didn’t.  When I thought about having children with a man who would refuse to allow them to live a life of faith, I could not fathom such a future. My claim to Bohemianism fell apart in the face of my rock-solid Catholicism.  I give up not only on a relationship, but on a version of myself.

I called Ed and said I was coming to see him.  The bus ride down to Bloomington seemed like the longest trip of my life.  He was stunned. He begged me to reconsider. But after weeks of arguing with myself, my heart and mind were set.  Only Phillip understood – and that was no consolation.

The trip back I cried the whole way. I had broken two hearts.  I had ruined a beautiful relationship, and maybe for reasons that didn’t make any sense.  My heart still aches when I remember that journey.

Couple letting go of each other's hands
Photo by Brooke Cagle

Some of life’s heartbreaks I chose and had to live with. It didn’t make them any less shattering.

“How I wish to fly with the geese away from dreary November days, the “freeze-up,” and cruel winter. Away from loneliness, isolation, and anxiety bred by blizzards. . . . The geese contaminate us with this strange depression on their southbound flight and cure us with their northbound. In between, we try to tolerate winter, each in his or her own way.”
 Anne LaBastilleWoodswoman I: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness