Fifty-three years ago, the odds were against the survival of our marriage. Why?
- I was a recent high-school graduate, unemployed, 17-years-old, and pregnant.
- He was an 18-years-old, unemployed, high school dropout.
Back then, like it probably still is today, most teen marriages ended in either a permanent separation or divorce.
Though our parents agreed to the marriage, they were disappointed and wondered whether this was a “failure waiting to happen.“ We tuned out the naysayers and doubters.
On April 11, 1960, JT and I exchanged vows at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago, Illinois. Our mothers were the only guests; and, they definitely were not beaming and handing out congratulatory words. Out of love for their children, they both agreed to show up and sign the papers to authorize our underage marriage.
I did not have the wedding that most young girl’s dream of. It was the extreme opposite. There was:
- No Church.
- No Music.
- No Rings.
- No Reception.
- No Photos.
- No Wedding Dress.
Our one and only wedding gift was a crisp $20.00 bill from my mother.
Married without money or a job, our only available housing option was to live with my parents and occupy the bedroom I had slept in since the age of 12.
Soon recognizing our young age, educational deficiencies, and lack of work experience limited employment opportunities; JT enlisted in the Army. In the military, he could earn his high school diploma and our family would have a guaranteed monthly income and health care coverage.
My young girlfriends as well as many of my relatives’ prophesized and warned us that his volunteering for the Army meant “the end of our marriage.” Prepare yourself, they cautioned, “long separations” oftentimes turn into “permanent separations.” When JT departed for basic training on April 25, 1960 the tears flowed, but I withheld talking to him about my fears of abandonment.
We endured the six-month separation through daily letters, occasional phone calls, and his two short military leaves to visit with me and our new daughter in Chicago.
On December 8, 1960, I truly entered the adult world. Only three week after turning eighteen, I left family and friends to join JT at his new military assignment in Wackenheim, Germany.
His rank as a Private-First-Class, did not meet the eligibility requirements for us to live on the base in military family housing. So, JT secured a one-room efficiency on the third floor of a private home.
As I recall the rent was $20.00 per month. The landlord lived on the first floor and their son, his wife and baby lived on the second floor. They did not understand or speak English.
In the efficiency next to us on the third floor, we shared the bathroom with two young women. They understood a little English, worked nights and slept during most of the day. Later, I learned they were prostitutes who serviced men in the military. Once I overcame my biased and judgmental opinions, I found two very friendly and supportive neighbors. They would come over to check their clothing, makeup and hair in our full-length mirror before heading out for the night. Our Toddler Girl loved to imitate. She would stand in front of the mirror, twirl, pull, and adjust her clothing. Then, pout her lips and attempt to swing her hair. Toddler Girl, now in her early fifties, is embarrassed when we share this childhood memory of her.
In Germany, I was on the fast track to adulthood. I had to manage our money and soon learned how to feed a family of four on an income of about a $140.00 per month. There was always a nourishing meal for the Toddler Girl and the Baby Boy; but there were times when JT and I ate only smothered potatoes and onions for breakfast, dinner and lunch. Both of which were free and readily accessible.
Our landlord was a farmer and these two vegetables were stored year-round in the cellar. Though, they always encouraged us to take whatever we needed; sometimes, I was just too embarrassed to ask. Every now and then, on the pretense of getting coal from the cellar to build a fire in the stove, I would hide a couple of potatoes and onions in the bottom of the bucket. Of course, I now realize the smell of smothered onions and potatoes no doubt spread to lower floors of this small house.
I soon adjusted to my new life as a young wife, with two small children, on a limited income, living in a foreign country. Out of necessity, I also quickly learned to:
- build a fire in the coal stove
- heat water for bathing and washing clothes
- cook meals on a two burner hot plate; and
- live without television and rhythm and blues radio stations
The two years, I spent with JT in Germany strengthened our marriage. We both had to grow up and assume the responsibility of making our marriage work as well as parenting two small children. Absent friends, family, and the other American amenities we were forced to depend on each other for friendship, entertainment, conversation, and support. If we disagreed, it didn’t last long. We couldn’t call a friend to complain or run to our parents for comfort. We had to work it out between the two of us.
Those early experiences as a young couple, struggling and relying totally on each other, established the foundation for our strong and long-lasting marriage. Collectively working as a team, we were determined to build a better life for our three children.
Marriage is not easy. It’s a commitment that takes work. There will be ups and downs, but we have to:
- learn to compromise
- spend quality time together
- consider each other’s feelings
- listen to each other, and most importantly,
- laugh together
Through God’s Grace, we reached our educational and professional goals, educated our three children, and now enjoy living the life of retirees.
April 11, 2013 – Fifty-Three Years and Counting.
Happy Anniversary to Us