The endless reminders
There were endless reminders of the fact that my parents were leaders of Marriage Encounter, daily rituals that were absent in my friend’s homes. These included an hour spent “dialoging” each night, my parents demanding “quiet time” to write updated letters to each other in their journals. (Think Facebook circa 1982.)
There were also the evening “one-ringers” that I despised, when the phone in our kitchen would ring once, I would get up to answer it, only to be hung up on. My parents finally admitted that “one-ringers” were an M.E. thing — another member would call and ring once to signal that they were thinking of you. One night I answered it and it was Frank; “I’m just calling to say I love you!” he said. I hung up on him.
By age twelve, I had tried everything I possibly could to sabotage my parents’ participation in Marriage Encounter. I threatened to run away. I pretended to be vomiting in the bathroom the mornings of charismatic Mass. Perhaps the most desperate among these attempts, however, was the night that the police came to our house during one of the weekly meetings. I had called them anonymously from the rotary phone in the basement. I pretended to be a neighbor complaining of the “noise level” coming from our house, which was nothing more than five or six married couples singing and praying. They never knew it was me who had ratted them out.
Years after these episodes of adolescent sabotage I look back and wonder why I acted that way. What was it about my parents and their public displays of both religion and affection that mortified me? Sophocles once said, “The weight of the world is love.” As an adolescent, Marriage Encounter was indeed the weight of my small world, the proverbial cross I had to bear, and it was heavy. How could I have known it meant much more? In college, I would listen to the words of Neil Young who put it this way: “Only love can break your heart.” Somewhere between Sophocles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young I finally learned two things: 1) That love could be a burden; and 2) It was supposed to be.
Though my parents retired from Marriage Encounter when I was in high school, the friendships born from that time remained. Twenty years later, I would see the faces of the Marriage Encounter couples again. I was now an adult, standing next to my father and three brothers. In a surreal moment, I looked around the room and saw the same sea of faces from the meetings in our living room over twenty years earlier. They were aged and somber, as they stood in line at my mother’s wake. One by one, they embraced my brothers and me.
Frank the “prank caller” was now in his early eighties; I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years, yet the first thing he said was, “I love you.” Nancy and Henry had been at the hospital the morning my Mom died. I remembered Ray and the belt buckle he was so proud of, the one I relentlessly made fun of; he wouldn’t be there as a few years before he also had died of cancer. I thought of Father Al, who insisted on coming to my college graduation party in the mid 1990’s, even though by then he could no longer walk. I missed the robust man in my memory that occupied so much of my parent’s time, who was usually loud at the dinner table, and who often embarrassed me in front of my friends. He had become frail and quiet. Watching my dad carry Father Al’s wheelchair up the stairs, I felt humbled and small. The only words I could think of were, “The weight of the world is love.”
I realized how little I knew then about love, and that whatever I did know about it now, I had learned from these people from the past who still occupied my mind and heart no matter how hard I had tried to forget them. I longed to go back to days past, to a time when my biggest problem in life was that my parents loved each other and God and went public with it.
I no longer lament the “normal childhood” that was not meant to be mine. Back then, I took for granted that I grew up surrounded by a community of people who believed in marriage, despite its inherent hardship, and in celebrating lives that were built on faith, love and loyalty. A common biblical phrase from years of overhearing the Marriage Encounter meetings still echoes in my mind: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It took me twenty-five years to realize that the thing about the couples in Marriage Encounter was that they truly meant it.