The author and his wife on their wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Norman I. Gelman
I never proposed to my wife, and she never said yes. Not until we were standing in front of a rabbi.
When Esther and I were in college in the early ’50s, fraternity boys offered their fraternity pins to their girlfriends. It was a step beyond going steady, but no one considered it all that much of a commitment. Some guys gave their pin to several girls during their years on campus. It was like staking out territory: For now, she belongs to me.
Esther had many suitors. I didn’t even know how to make casual conversation with girls. But we had similar interests, including literature and theater. We’d been friends for a few years before we started dating and belonged to overlapping social circles. We’d each been selected for our school’s honors-seminar program and often signed up for the same classes.
Sometimes I lured her out for coffee. Esther talked easily, and my job was to listen. We progressed to lengthy phone calls. Eventually I persuaded her I was worth her time.
I invited her to wear my pin, and she let me put it on her. I handled the task awkwardly because while we’d kissed—decorously—we hadn’t gone exploring. We were virgins. For the boys, the rule was you’d never marry a girl who slept with you and you’d never sleep with the girl you intended to marry. I wasn’t a virgin because of scruples—I’d never had the opportunity to develop any.
Ours was a journey without a destination. I was graduating in June; she had another year to go. However, her immigrant parents took the pin a lot more seriously. They began planning our wedding.
My parents bought an engagement ring without consulting me. I may not have been dragooned into presenting it to Esther, but I didn’t volunteer. I considered myself in love, but we were only getting to know each other. If left alone that summer, we might have held hands in a movie and parked someplace dark.
Instead, like a ship driven off course, we went where the storm took us—getting caught up in wedding preparations, attending parties in our honor, packing for a honeymoon my parents arranged.
Meanwhile, I turned 22 and she 20. A few months after getting pinned, we were standing in front of a rabbi.
In retrospect, it seems stupid to have your fate determined by how your parents perceived a custom they didn’t really understand. Even more incredible that two intelligent people would let themselves be pushed around without reflecting on what would happen afterward.
On August 29, my wife and I will have been married 60 years. Having washed up on the shore after the storm swept us away, we haven’t fared so badly.
We now know we should have thought about what might happen when we announced, “We’re in love.” We might have sidestepped the custom of getting pinned. It’s possible we would have concluded we weren’t suited for each other—because in many ways we weren’t. She’s cheerful and given to outsize emotions; I’m more self-contained. But what we would have missed.
We’ve come together like matched gears. There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference in our thinking. Each of us knows what the other’s going to say before it’s spoken. We exchange punch lines without remembering the jokes. In a roomful of people, we converse with glances. We share 60 years of history, habit, and affection plus two daughters and three grandchildren.
All because of a pin.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.