If you want the perfect marriage, go to a Doris Day movie. Actress Rita Wilson learns a big fat Greek secret from her mother.
It's a sunny, Sunday California morning. My husband is driving my mother, father, and two of our four children to church. This is the same church where I was baptized with my brother (two for the price of one!), where my sister was married and I was her maid of honor, and where my husband and I were married 20 years ago and both our youngest children were christened in the same baptismal font where, lo those many years ago, my brother's and my cries were applauded and celebrated.
Driving on the freeway, my mother, who is vibrantly curious after 86 years of life and 56 years of marriage, tells us about something she heard on the radio. She had been pondering this question, thanks to the airwaves: If you knew at 25 what you know today about your spouse, would you still marry the same person?
Since it is already a beautiful day, my husband and I add to its beauty by responding instantly, that, yes, we would marry each other knowing what we know now. My father, although not usually available to this sort of discussion, generously engages and answers that, yes, he would marry my mother all over again. My mother, always interested in good discussion, responds delightfully in her thick Greek accent as if she knows the question to the "Double Jeopardy" answer: "Not me!"
Now, please understand that my parents are Greek and Bulgarian. The idea that this is a subject that one would only discuss after five years of therapy never enters anyone's mind. (When you are Mediterranean, you just speak now, argue later...or maybe you eat now, argue later.) Certainly, these two people, who are sitting with their arms brushing against each other, are not about to announce they are splitting up. I'm pretty sure that after nearly six decades, three children, and six grandchildren, they have the marriage thing down. But I have no idea where my mom is going with this.
Before we go anywhere, though, let's start at the beginning. In 1946 my Bulgarian dad "jumped ship" in Philadelphia, making his way to New York City, eagerly learning English while working at the St. Regis Hotel. My Greek mother had escaped from her ethnically Greek but geographically Albanian village during the war, arriving in New York via Athens with her mother, sister, and two brothers.
My parents met in 1950 in New York City at a Greek-Bulgarian dance. My dad eyed my mom across a crowded room and asked her to dance. He wooed her briefly and then asked her to marry him. My mother, still new to the United States, thought maybe she should wait a bit before she got married—sow some oats, or sew some coats, really, because that was her job at a factory. After a few dates, and no acceptance of my dad's proposal, they amicably parted ways.
A year later, they met again. A friend of my mother's saw my handsome dad across the dance floor and declared, "If you don't want him, I do. He's nice." There is nothing like someone else's recognition of a good catch to wake you up. My mom, now another year older, realized that she missed my dad, and that she'd only sewn coats, and had sown no oats. So she pushed her friend aside like some desperate contestant on Dancing with the Stars and box-stepped the night away.
My parents didn't have a sweep-you-off-your-feet sort of romance. They were both too practical for that. But they loved each other and saw the goodness each possessed. Soon they found themselves planning their wedding, their lives, and their future. About three weeks before the wedding, my dad had some concerns. He worried he might not be able to live up to my mom's expectations. My dad and she spent a few days apart and then talked about their expectations, which weren't major. My mom asked him to be baptized Greek Orthodox. No problem. My mom knew Dad wasn't the most romantic person in the world. Fine. Once they realized that they did want the same thing, they had a double wedding with my mom's brother and his wife on June 10, 1951.
After a few years in New York City, they got a call from my mom's sister and her husband, who'd moved to Los Angeles. So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly...I mean, Hollywood. Swimming pools, movie stars, and the beginnings of a family. My mom was pregnant with my sister soon after arriving. Three and a half years after that, I was born (so I could spill the beans on my parents in a national magazine), and then, two years later, my brother.
On the weekends, my dad would pile us all into the Batmobile, a 1950-something black Plymouth convertible with a push-button transmission, which resembled Bruce Wayne's very car, and take us to Griffith Park, in the shade of the Griffith Observatory, for his weekly volleyball game. My mom would wrangle us to fill jugs of water from a spout emerging from a stone wall that was supposedly "spring" water. Hey, in Greece water came out of a spring, why not in Hollywood? At home after the game, my dad would barbecue, Greek-style (no Southern barbecue sauce for us, only oregano, garlic, and lemon), and as the sun set, we kids would watch TV as my parents cleaned up.
I never remember my parents complaining. I never heard either of them say they were tired, or bored, or mad. I remember my dad saying, "God bless America" practically every day of my life. I remember my dad and his brother building an addition to our house one summer while we decamped to Oceanside to be near the beach and away from the dusty construction. I remember my mom sewing our bedspreads, curtains, and clothes and cooking Greek food but also making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in an attempt to assimilate. I remember my parents laughing together.
Not only did my parents laugh, they cracked us up, too. Get this: My mom would do impersonations of all the kids in the neighborhood. You haven't lived until you've heard a Greek immigrant lady say "bitchin'." My dad had his own special talents, as well. On one outing to the zoo, as we came upon the hyena cage, my dad started howling like a wolf and made the hyenas howl back at him. We could not believe that there, in the middle of Los Angeles, my dad was making hyenas talk to him. So, my mom could impersonate kids and my dad could impersonate animals. Go figure. We were like a Disney movie with an accent.
And now I'm here in the car on a Sunday, thinking, "Who knew? My mom not only impersonates teens but can also pretend she has been happy all these years. Because now she is saying maybe she made a mistake?" I remember something else she recently said about relationships. She announced, in her imitable Greek accent: "You know how they say, 'Opposites attract'? Well, later on, opposites attack!" I'm about to find out either that after 56 years of marriage my mom has been the Best Actress Ever or that the "opposition" has been attacking for some time unbeknownst to me. I tell my husband to make a left, not follow the car in front too closely (not that I'm bossy), and ask my mom what exactly she means.
She says, "Don't get me wrong. I love your dad. I always have. We created a beautiful life together and I wouldn't change a thing, but now I know that I like to talk. When I was younger, I didn't know how much I needed that. Back then, people married for life. I didn't really think about things like 'Will he watch The Ed Sullivan Show with me?' We both just wanted to have a good life and healthy kids. Do I wish we had long, soulful talks? Sure. If I had known then that I needed that, I may have chosen a different kind of person, but I also knew he was a very good man."
My parents didn't demand from each other what we seem to demand today from our relationships. My dad loved sports but didn't insist she be on the golf course handing him his driver. Instead, he taught my sister and brother to play. My mom didn't complain about his lack of conversation; she found other outlets. She had us kids, her friends, and her extended family.
My parents knew it was all right if not every single one of their needs were being met by the other, because commitment to the life they shared and created was a bigger reward than anything else. So what if my dad wasn't clued in on the latest gossip? Or that my mom was perfectly okay never learning to ride a bike or swim? (A side note: I venture to say that my mom never exercised because she had to escape from her village during the war by hiking—at night, by herself—over some seriously steep mountains. I think she just thought, "That's pretty much it for exercise for the rest of my life.")
As we pull up to church, my parents are laughing and humorously harassing each other. My dad is helping my mom out of the car. The boys are helping my dad help my mom. I let my parents walk ahead, and, as Dad guides Mom toward the church, ask myself, "Would I ever want two other people as my parents?" The answer is immediate: "Not me!"
Read more relationship stories in Love, the Great Adventure
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013
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