Sorting through some papers after my grandmother died, my mother found her parents’ marriage certificate. But there were a few strange details about it. First of all, it had been torn down the middle and then taped back together. And the date of the marriage was November 29, 1952: two years and a day before the date the family had always celebrated as my grandparents’ wedding anniversary. It had always been easy to remember, because that day, November 30, was also my grandmother’s birthday.
Understandably, my mother proceeded to have a small crisis. What did this certificate mean? When did her parents actually get married? If the wedding date was wrong, did that mean her birthdate was wrong, too???
Only one person knew the answer. When confronted with the certificate, my grandfather smiled. “I was wondering when you’d find that.” Then he sat my mother down and told her the whole story – a story that he and my grandmother had kept secret for more than fifty years.
My grandparents had known each other since their early high school years. My grandfather’s younger sister and my grandmother went to the same school, and my grandfather was the handsome older boy whose picture was sighed over by the other girls in their class. They each dated other people, but by the time they were in university, they had fallen deeply in love and knew they wanted to be married.
However, my grandmother’s father was very strict, and they were afraid that if he discovered their attachment, he would never allow them to marry, and even try to keep them apart.
So, aided and abetted by a priest my grandfather knew, who performed the ceremony, and by my grandmother’s best friend and my grandfather’s young uncle, who acted as witnesses, they married in secret on November 29, 1952, one day shy of my grandmother’s 20th birthday.
They tore their marriage certificate straight down the middle, and each kept one half. It was their insurance against the negative reaction they expected from my grandmother’s father, in case he found out about their union before my grandfather was in a better position to formally ask for my grandmother’s hand in marriage.
Fortunately, the next two years went according to plan. My grandparents both graduated from university, and my grandfather found a steady job. At last he was able to make his intentions known to my great-grandfather. That formidable gentleman was not pleased, but – amazingly – did nothing to stop them from being married.
Why was another church wedding necessary? Why not just reveal the original marriage certificate?
My grandfather explained, “We didn’t want to hurt our parents. Besides, our families were well-known in the community. Imagine the scandal! How could we have explained it? Married in secret, but without being together as man and wife for two years? Who would have believed us?”
Who, indeed? Who would have believed that a young man and woman, very much in love, and with every right to be together as husband and wife, could wait for two whole years before consummating their marriage? Was it possible? Was it even necessary?
“Absolutely necessary,” my grandfather said. “If she had gotten pregnant…”
Of course. An even bigger scandal would have ensued. They both wanted to “do things right” – to save their families a lot of heartache, and above all, to do nothing that might risk losing each other.
“So you mean I was really born on my birthdate?” my mother said in relief. “I’m really the age I am now? I’m not….older?”
My grandfather laughed. “Yes! You were born a year after our big church wedding.” He shook his head, remembering. “All that fuss…the guests….and everything.” And then he smiled. “Every year Mama and I would have a quiet little celebration…just the two of us…on November 29.”
November 29, 2010
There’s a little postscript to this story. For as long as I could remember, my grandmother’s wedding dress was kept in a big old carved trunk. Before my grandfather moved to Montreal with my parents, we opened the trunk, and for the first time I got to examine every item in detail. The lace and beads on the dress, the yellowed lace. The tiny silk flowers on the head piece that held the veil. They were pale pink, cream, and pale blue….but there was one rosette nestled among them that was a deeper blue than the rest. It seemed out of place until we realized that it had served as her “something blue.”
Sadly the dress had to be burned because most of it was stained beyond repair. But I did get to keep the silk flowers. And her gloves. Her hands weren’t that much bigger than mine, but her arms were so slender, the gloves unbelievably narrow.
Oh, and I inherited her engagement ring. My grandfather had to save up for a year to buy it. I wear it every day, as a reminder of that faithful and generous love – their most important legacy to all of us.