This is a story of remarkably small proportions. Of steadfastness and intermittent joy. Of people who should never have met. Of memories that have slipped away from view since they were of no particular significance to the world.
This is the brief story of my parents’, Helen & Hal, first meeting. The black & white photo shown by the title is their first as a couple – a photo booth shot.
Two young people who fell in love during a disagreement. A tug of war over an overcooked hot dog for a stray cat. My father was a smart-aleck and my mother could stand her ground. He loved a fearless wit and she had one.
No, this encounter was not a big event; although if you lean down and peek through time you sense the importance for these two, stranded by world events. They wanted love and certainty, camaraderie and friendship even as the cup of fulfillment was tipping on its side. But for this moment, a portal to their private oasis opened…
I barely recall when this convergence happened since I wasn’t there. Not in person, you see, but in memory. My father enjoyed telling this story and I enjoyed hearing it. My mother, not so much. She did, however, add emphasis to the story line, “Harold, that hot dog had been on the grill for hours! I wouldn’t serve it to anyone!”
My mother was best at tracking the present tense, leaving conjugations of the past for others. My father could vivify events that were dingy from too many washings.
The story of my parents’ first meeting followed me down the years. I began to remember what I never experienced. The memory image was the experience. But my internal memory was only augmented by knowing my parents through the years of being with them as a family.
The meeting took place in the 1940s on the US Naval Base on a barrier island called Squantum in Massachusetts. Except for mid-summer, the weather on the New England coast was cool with improbable sunshine and constant wind. Weather forecasters called for drenching sun; others rain. Typical of New England forecasts; always in dispute.
My father chose to expect rain so he wore his Naval cap. My mother wore a short-brimmed hat to fend off freckles more than droplets.
War was raging in the world which meant it could be any decade, any century. It happened to be the Second World War and Europe had been bleeding for two years. In the US, the citizens were waking up to the horrifying need to participate. The young man, my father, chose to enlist in the Navy. It was the ‘cleanest’ of the military services, he reckoned. Fate placed him in submarine service. A claustrophobic’s delight.
The gal, my mother, was barely of an age to permit hiring. She was 16, young in her years but sure in self-confidence. She was ready to be in the world after growing up with her grandparents, visiting with her mother on weekends and fending for herself in between. Her job at the naval air base (defunct since the 50’s but vital then for that worldwide struggle) merited an ID badge with photo image. The girl, Helen, walked from home to her job at the base where she ran a lunch stand.
Hal was born to Irish immigrants. The healthiest of five, Harold ran errands, fetched bags of food from the rectory, fought street battles with tough kids, and pranked with the horse-drawn ice delivery wagon with his co-conspirator, Leo Francis Xavier O’Toole. Hal improvised each day to make the most out it. He was a bit too smart, too restless, too clever for his own good. The parochial school’s principal knew him all too well.
Long after hearing this story, long after these dear participants had retired costumes, played their parts, I found a small, two-inch diameter, ID pin. A button with a half-remembered image of a smiling face and name, Helen Renshaw. The pin couldn’t say much since it was inanimate. But it had survived decades of interference from decay, loss – from days of war, peace, packing, dust mites, carelessness. The person whose blouse wore the ID pin, kept it layered in a top dresser drawer. It lived with scraps of bills, orphaned earrings, canceled postcards – the undigested items saved to be sorted – later.
The photo on this tin-backed pin is a miraculous survivor of time’s indifference. It revealed a girl, calmly smiling, her hair full of wavy, unruly curls.
I found the pin by emptying the drawer’s contents onto the bed. It was a week or so after her death. After the funeral. After that lacquer of first-born grief had worn off. We’d sorted thru papers that the law and banks would need to close a life. It was picking up this pin that pricked my memory.
I have this wild notion that when we hear someone’s tale, part of the reality of that story dusts our senses, lodges there and grows moss-like around the bric-a-brac details only half-described by the storyteller. Call out a name of something, anything, and that dynamic presence hops onto our inner stage for full disclosure. Or, you may say, such is the fanciful workings of our imagination. So be it…
The story of my parents’ first meeting gave me respect for the magnetic power of the individual heart. I choose to see their meeting in this way – the universal divine caretaker minding every soul’s sparrow-like travels.
The day they met, the young submarine specialist 1st class, was with fellow naval buddies. They’d found a stray cat, skinny, hungry. My father asked the gal at the foodstall if she would give them the last hot dog on the grill. It had been grilling for a while and looked too tough to be eaten. My mother refused to even donate it. She “wouldn’t give it to a person never mind a cat.”
No, the cat wasn’t fed the over grilled dog. The conversation concluded and dating began. Their backgrounds were very different. He was from an impoverished, Irish-Catholic, rather combative, family. She was raised by strong-willed, no-nonsense New England Yankees of the Congregational bent.
In the decades that I enjoyed their company, I heard mostly laughter, good-natured, respectful, and clever. Every card they exchanged was signed, I.L.Y.H. – I Love You Hal – I Love You Helen.
Photo taken in front of “Star of the Sea” church in Squantum where my parents were married in 1947. My cousins, Carol and Frank, along with my husband, Kevin, visited Squantum in celebration of their 60th anniversary. Hal passed away 9/4/2008 and Helen 8/23/2010. Still, and always, missed.