February 12, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
(Harper’s Magazine, 1861. Library of Congress.)
I didn’t realize that Valentine’s Day was this weekend until late this afternoon. The fella and I don’t have anything planned, except we might have lunch with an out-of-town friend who’s flying into Ann Arbor to visit his long-distance girlfriend. For Valentine’s Day.
My blog has lately suffered at the hands of a story I’m putting together for the weekly about accordions in Detroit, so the chance to take advantage of an easy editorial plug-in would have been really appealing, had I not completely forgotten that it’s happening in like two days. And everyone knows that despite our 24/7 communications-saturated society, no one really reads blogs on the weekends.
So, in between checking Facebook and not working on my story, I thought about some lesser-known famous romances. Mary Vining and Mad Anthony Wayne? I don’t really know enough about that one to know if it even happened.
Captain Frederick and Maria Pabst? A handsome couple, magnanimous citizens, upstanding Germans and good parents, but I don’t really know anything about their love. Just their beer. There’s an arcane story that delights me about Frederick saving Maria from a shipwreck when he was still a Great Lakes captain, but chances are better that Maria’s father, the brewer Philip Best, just wanted Frederick in his camp.
Mostly I’ve been thinking about love affairs that are a little closer to home.
(Family photos courtesy my mom.)
This is my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Bill in 1963 or 1964. They met on a blind date when Margaret was 19. Uncle Bill used to tell me that Margaret wore all blue on their first night out: a blue dress, blue stockings, blue shoes, a blue handbag. I bet she looked incredible.
Bill and Margaret got married seven years later, at a hunt club in Farmington Hills. They spent the rest of their lives, as far as I could tell, marvelously in love.
My mother was nine years old when they were wed, so she grew up with Bill and Margaret as much as I did. They were like grandparents to me in a lot of ways: Margaret picked us up after school, cooked us fishticks and frozen vegetables or macaroni and cheese for dinner, read to us. But more importantly, she tended to the small, real people growing inside of us. We had conversations with her. We shared ideas, defended convictions, talked about books we liked, boys we liked, places we wanted to see. She was honest, and joyous. It’s hard to even write about her without stooping to tripe; I can walk my brain through every corner of her house, but the influence she had on my life and the incredible love I still feel for her really overpowers any constructive details I can remember about her besides the last three agonizing weeks of her life.
So thank god for old family photos; I can see them like this, 20 years before I was even born, when they were gorgeous and adorable. Even when they were aging, Margaret grey and papery from decades of cigarettes, Bill bald and permanently sun-leathered, both of them losing their teeth, their love for each other was radiant, and together, they were a pretty beautiful thing to behold.
When Margaret died of lung cancer in 2001, Uncle Bill was permanently wrecked. It took years for him to cut his trips to the cemetery from twice a day to once. When we buried him in 2008, we arrived at the mausoleum to find the flowers he’d taped to the marble wall of her crypt the day before he died, peacefully, while he was napping on the couch.
I have a fiancé now, and it tears my heart out that Margaret and Bill don’t get to meet him — and that he has to settle for an occasional teary (and usually sad-tipsy) monologue from me about how great they were. On our first date, we went to the opera. I tried not to think too much about it, but my favorite vintage shopkeeper talked me into a stunning wool shift dress, with sheer mesh netting at the neck, dotted with tiny sequins.
It’s royal blue.
Sometimes it’s so mind-boggling to remember that people who lived in the past really lived, you know? Ate, and drank, looked around, talked to each other, made love, fell in love, had bad days and good days and boring days, and maybe sometimes thought to themselves, how weird is it to be alive?
I don’t know why this is especially resonating with me in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. Maybe because even though it’s hard to understand, emotionally, what it might have been like to live without electricity, paved roads, heat, grocery stores, or to be the commander of an army, the governor of a frontier state, the wife of an aristocrat or the daughter of a beer baron, the capacity to understand a love affair is readily accessible to just about everyone.
Those are my great-grandparents in the black-and-white picture above, dolled up in their Sunday clothes. I don’t know anything about them, not even how they felt about each other, but I’m glad they got it on at some point. Happy Valentine’s Day to them, and to you.