It is a love story that is an integral part of our family lore, and one I still find astounding.
My dad joined the Navy soon after he got out of high school. While in port at Belfast, Northern Ireland he went on a date with a beautiful Irish woman. My father claimed it was love at first sight.
Years later, after my father died, my mother showed my brother and me the exact spot where she first saw my father outside Belfast City Hall.
My father said he proposed after their third date.
There was the story of my father and several of his shipmates serenading my mother late in the evening on her front stoop with their lubricated version of “My Wild Irish Rose.” Finally, my Irish grandmother hustled them all inside, aghast at what the neighbors might think.
After my mother died, I found letters to her from my father as a lovesick sailor aboard ship, desperate to hear from his fiancée again.
He sent her money to come to the United States so they could be married. She made the crossing on the Queen Elizabeth alone to a new world and a new life to someone she hardly knew.
I find that hard to imagine.
My father’s parents objected because my mother was Catholic and they were Protestant.
Apparently, my grandparents did not like my mother as much as my father did, so after spending some time with them in Connecticut my mother went south to stay with her sister in Norfolk, Virginia as she waited for my father to be discharged.
There is not too much information about what came next, other than my father’s ship docked in Mobile, Alabama where he was discharged and they were eventually married.
That changed a few weeks ago with an email from my son, who is in graduate school and has become quite a researcher.
Somewhere in the Mobile County records, he found my parents’ application for a marriage license. It is dated June 29, 1956, one day before they were married.
There in the beautiful handwriting of my mom is a listing of all the pertinent information of my parents.
I imagined the 20-something versions of them standing side by side, sharing their home address, their parents’ names and their birthdates for perhaps the first time.
Strangers in love.
The document lists my father’s occupation as “U.S. Navy.”
My mother’s age is listed at 26, even though her date of birth shows it should be 27. Was that an act of vanity because my father was four years younger or just a nervous bride?
I read this perplexing legalese that would bind my parents:
“Know all men by these presents, that we Edward Arthur Tingley and Rose Marie Sally are held and firmly bound unto the state of Alabama in the sum of two-hundred dollars, lawful money of the United States, to the payment of which sum, well and truly be made, we bind ourselves, our heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns, jointly, and severally, firmly by these presents. The condition of the above obligation is such that, whereas, a license to solemnize a marriage between Edward Arthur Tingley and Rose Marie Sally has this day been issued by the judge of probate for said county at their request. Now, therefore, if there is no lawful cause why such marriage should not be celebrated, then this obligation is to be void; otherwise it is to remain in full force.”
I don’t imagine they read much of that.
But there was the unmistakable bold signature of my father and eloquent signature of my mother that never changed over the next six decades.
It was as if they were with me again.
I know that they were married the next day by a Catholic priest in a Catholic church in Mobile.
I wondered where they spent the evening before.
I wondered what they did to celebrate afterward.
After my mother died, we found a small white Bible with the name of the Catholic Church and the priest who married them.
The lone photo of my parents on their wedding day shows my mother clutching that small white Bible and them both smiling broadly.
The two witnesses at their wedding were strangers.
They were all alone.
But not for long. I was born 10 months later.
The only story about the wedding night I remember was a tale my father told about seeing a very large cockroach under the bed in the motel where they spent the night. He said he never told my mother about it.
I scoured the document for other clues from that day my parents started their lives together on a journey that would last over 45 years — a European city girl and a country boy from Connecticut.
It was a different time, a different world, and as I scrawled to the top of the page, I saw something I had not noticed before and I suspect they didn’t either on that day long ago.
The page was labeled, “White marriage license record.”