There can be happy endings

Fifty-one years.

It’s hard for me to believe anyone can be married that long. As a person who did not get hitched until I was 38, I realize it is unlikely (though not impossible) that I will ever celebrate my 51st wedding anniversary with my wife, Kathleen. But this week my parents, Bob and Phyllis, will once again mark another year of marriage, 51 years in all.

Legend has it they met at the Eastwood Gardens dance hall on Detroit’s east side. My mother, being the youngest daughter in a large Italian family, must surely have sneaked out of the house or, at least, fibbed about where she was going. Parents, especially Italian parents, were much more strict in those days. She was with a group of other Italian neighbors and friends. She has said the Italian boys used to come along to “protect” the Italian girls from, I guess, non-Italian boys. I can imagine… My dad was from the west side of town, an area called Delray. His community was mostly Armenians and Hungarians. He was into big band music and sometimes played a trumpet. I suspect he was more into listening to music than dancing to it. I doubt he intended to find his future bride that day early in the summer of 1942 when he and a couple of buddies traveled crosstown to Eastwood Gardens.

My mom was sitting at a table up front. Dad was standing near the band. I don’t know if it was love-at-first-sight but it must have been something close to it. My dad is more a man of action than a talker. And when he sets his mind to do something — it happens. He didn’t really ask my mother to dance. What he did was look at her and kind of twirl his finger in the air. She must have understood this as an invitation to dance and she accepted. Being an Armenian, my dad looked Italian. I guess everyone with my mom, including my mom, must have figured him to be Italian so it was no problem getting the unspoken “permission” from my mom’s little group for dad to dance with her. However, not wanting to go into a long explanation about where or what Armenia is, my dad said he was French.

I’m not sure when my mom was made aware she was dancing with an Armenian named Popkin (Americanized to Robert). They courted that summer and fall and things must have been going well because mom said she bought him a birthday gift for his 21st birthday, November 16, 1942.

On December 14, my dad got a letter from Uncle Sam — he was being drafter into World War II. Like many other couples at that time, my parents decided their romance wasn’t going to be separated by any war.

Besides, mom said recently, “He didn’t want to let this Italian girl go.” They got married before a justice of the peace Dec. 16, 1942. My dad survived the war because, fortunately, the war ended before he got close enough to smell burning gun powder. A church wedding followed his return. And then children and then a move to the suburbs, bigger and better jobs, and more children — four in all.

As a youth, it was good sport to find fault with my parents’ generation. Now, at mid-life, I’ll say this much for that bunch: They had confidence and they had guts. My generation has not fared so well when it comes to marriage. We might have done well to listen more and criticize less. Last year we celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a big dinner for family and friends. My brothers and sister and I thanked mom and dad for bringing us into the world, taking good care of us and giving us the guidance we needed as we set out on our own. This year, I won’t be with mom and dad — who are still healthy and spry — as they celebrate 51 years of marriage.

And though it would be nice if all their children could gather around them for the special occasion, in a way, I think wedding anniversaries really need only two people present.

In this case, it’s those two people who met so long ago when the world was young and lay before them like an unexplored land. Just like a 1940’s black-and-white Hollywood movie: A handsome man and a beautiful woman meet at a dance. They fall in love and get married. He goes to war. She has a baby. He returns. He gets a job. They build a house and fill it with more children. At one point he says: It ain’t easy. Then a little later on, when the house is filled only with photos of children and grandchildren, she wonders: Where did all the time go? And then she sees that one special photo of her, young and smiling, and her youthful husband, beaming confidence. She looks at him no as he naps on the sofa, older but still dashing, and she knows life can be sweet and — just like her favorite old movies — young lovers can live happily ever after.

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