Right then and there, the country boy fell hard for a small town girl. When they talk about their high school romance, the story plays out in my head like a scene out of Footloose – all pink carnations and pick up trucks. My Mom, a woman who has never had a speeding ticket in her life, would spend every morning keeping my Dad company as he sat in the hallway outside of the Principal’s office, serving a perpetually renewing detention. And my Dad, a rebel in red-flannel, would spend all of his graduation money on a little diamond ring that still graces my mother’s left hand.
A year after they graduated, they got married. The pictures of that sweltering June day show two young kids, one in a long sleeved lace wedding dress, the other in a brown tux, madly in love and ready to take on the world. It was 1980, and long, feathered back hair was in style for both men and women. What I’m trying to say is that my Mom and Dad had matching haircuts on their wedding day. That’s either real love, real funny, or both.
Six days before their one-year anniversary, they had me. We spent the early years in a tiny apartment, devoid of many creature comforts but overflowing with love and warmth. My Dad drove truck and my mom worked as a secretary, so there wasn’t a lot of expendable income. One year, we couldn’t afford to buy a big Christmas Tree, so we found a two-foot tall Charlie Brown Christmas Tree look-a-like. My mom and I made paper decorations at the kitchen table and proudly displayed our homemade creations on its branches. A few hours later, we heard a knock at the door and my parents’ best friends were standing in the doorway, beautiful six-foot blue spruce in hand. I can neither confirm nor deny if said tree was cut down from an out-of-towner’s beautifully landscaped yard. Either way, the statute of limitations has surely run out by now, so ignore the misdemeanor and enjoy the heartfelt sentiment behind the gift. This was my life growing up. Limited means but unlimited love.
When my sister was born a few years later, the family moved into a trailer placed on a cement slab on my grandparents’ wooded property out in the country. To the untrained eye, it probably looked like a hardscrabble existence. But, to my sister and me, it was paradise. Sure, the “deck” that my Dad built was crooked and, yes, farm cats would randomly pop their heads up through the vents in the floors looking for food. But, the epic wiffleball games in our front yard would bring country kids from miles around and, in the winter, all of the uncles and cousins would spend Saturday mornings shoveling off the pond below the hill to play a helmetless game of ice hockey. I’m not sure how many broken bones and broken noses came off of that ice, but I do know that the frozen playground produced a lifetime of campfire worthy stories. In the days before “helicopter-parenting” and sunscreen, we roamed the woods with our gangs of friends. We climbed trees, played kick the can, made homemade weapons from branches, and stayed out after dark. And in the evening, we would sit around the fire and listen to my dad and his buddies tell stories about the good ole days while my mom made sure we had warm food in our bellies and soft pillows to sleep on. It was a simple life, but a charmed one.
Before my fifth grade year, my parents loaded my sister and I into our old station wagon and drove us into town. They stopped at a small little green house, parked the car in the driveway, and told us to go take a look at our new house. When I think about the pride that my Mom and Dad must have felt in purchasing their first home, after years of saving and planning, my heart almost bursts. And so the country mice moved to the suburbs. We became part of a neighborhood and created friendships that last until this day. We had lemonade stands and sleepovers and even bigger wiffleball games in the side yard. My best friend and I drove the riding lawnmower between our houses before we were old enough to drive our own cars. Our home was, once again, the gathering place. My Mom and Dad spent their hard-earned money paying electricity bills and feeding the hungry teenagers who managed to take over their couches every weekend.
The tradition continued years later as I left for college and my parents moved back to the country, surrounded by woods to hunt in and a river to fish in. They welcomed an ever-growing family to their old farmhouse and hosted Fourth-of-July parties and Halloween trail walks. They also welcomed my little brother, nineteen years after they first became parents. When I think back to those days, my mind always pictures a three-year-old boy hiding behind a tree in the backyard, wearing nothing but his underwear and yellow rain boots, surveying the land with his pretend hunting gun, hoping for an unsuspecting turkey or buck to cross his path. And I can still see our Dad, sitting in a lawn chair, softly chuckling at this sight of his mighty hunter with our Mom sitting next to him, eyes sparkling with love for her last-born baby. If you ever get a chance to meet this little boy, now a fourteen year old freshman in the same high school where his parents first met, it won’t take long to see that he has his mother’s kind heart and his father’s love of the great outdoors.
Today marks 35 years since those two crazy kids exchanged their vows and drove off in a red Trans Am with cans hanging off of the back bumper and “Joe’s Daughter” written with white paint on the window. They’ve defied the odds and quieted the doubters. They’ve created a safe haven and a foundation for countless members of their tribe. They’ve raised three children and spoiled five grandchildren. They’ve proven that you can build a life on a little bit of money and a whole lot of love.
So here’s to young love everywhere. To the high school sweethearts and the hometown honeys. To letterman jackets and brown tuxedos. To the girls-next-door and pink carnations. To sharing a slow dance at the Senior prom that turns into a waltz down the aisle. To rocking by each other on the front porch fifty years after sitting by each other in math class.
Here’s just a little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane…or Paul and Joann. Theirs is the kind of love that people write stories about. Or at least blogs.