Busted Halo
feature: sex & relationships
July 6th, 2009

M.E. and Me

Memories of my Marriage Encounter childhood



Growing up, I was mortified by my parents’ public displays of religion. I’m still convinced that from the years of 1982 to 1986 my parents were part of a cult; others called it “Marriage Encounter.”

One fateful Friday afternoon in 1980, they packed one suitcase and prepared to leave for the first of many retreat weekends; weekends that would become the bane of my existence; weekends that would become the main reason I fled to therapy at the ripe age of ten.

“We’re not getting divorced,” they asserted repeatedly, often in unison, when I questioned their decision to join such a mysterious organization. Of course, deep down I suspected that was the reason they were going. “What are you hoping to encounter?” I asked sarcastically.

“Marriage Encounter helps turn a good marriage into a great one,” they’d say chipperly, having memorized the tagline of the brochure, which featured the M.E. symbol — a heart above two intertwined circles united by a crucifix. Even though I was in fifth grade, I remember the Sunday evening that they arrived home in our purple Plymouth as if it was yesterday — it changed my childhood from a semblance of normalcy to something otherworldly. My parents pledged their full allegiance to the United States of Marriage Encounter and all of the rites and rituals that came with it. The burden of my adolescence was simple: I was mortified by my parent’s public display of religion.

Marriage Encounter stickers soon made their insidious way into our home. I considered them an infestation as my parents placed them everywhere — on the refrigerator; in the back windshield of the Plymouth, replacing the triple-A sticker à la “Who needs a tow truck when you have the Lord?”; even on the outside of the front door of our house. Whenever any of my friend’s parents drove me home from school and were curious as to what the sticker represented, I would lie and say “It’s for UNICEF; just ignore it.”

In 1982, I turned ten and asked for Michael Jackson’s Thriller album for my birthday; I got Godspell.

What fresh hell is this?

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they inevitably did. That year, our home became the holy headquarters when my parents were elected “team leaders” of the upstate New York chapter of Marriage Encounter. “What fresh hell is this?” I remember asking at the age of eleven when I arrived home from softball practice one spring evening to our living room, full of hand-holding strangers and reeking of Sanka and polyester.

I remember looking around the transformed living room — a sea of strangers smiling at me — hoping my scowl of scorn would fend off a group hug. (It didn’t.) I met the cast of characters who would shape my adolescence.

Father Al: a gregarious Italian priest who had dinner at our house at least twice a week — my Mom and Dad now went everywhere with him. (This would become my personal definition of a threesome: two parents and a priest.)

Tony and Joan: the coolest of the bunch, in that Joan wore tight jeans and Tony swore and smoked cigarettes — certainly not typical of holy rollers.

Frank and “Chickie”: I never knew Chickie’s real name, though I suspected it was probably Mary Frances, Mary Ellen, or Mary Elizabeth. They were the oldest of the group, attended daily mass, and had eight children. Frank said “I love you” each time I saw him.

Ray and Theresa: to me they looked more like twins than a married couple, as they both had crooked teeth and stood no more than 5’2″. Even though Ray gave me money for ice cream or school supplies at each and every meeting, I still had no problem in making fun of his belt buckle, a gold carving of the Marriage Encounter symbol that dutifully held up his pants. “Why don’t we all just go downtown and get the Marriage Encounter logo tattooed on our foreheads?” I asked the group at the beginning of the second meeting. Everyone laughed, except my parents. (I was grounded for a month.)

Hugh and Anne: their daughter Maggie became my idol after I stayed with them one weekend, and Maggie and I were allowed to stay up and watch both The Love Boat and Three’s Company, television shows that were forbidden at home.

Henry and Nancy: soft-spoken and intellectual; Henry was a chemist, Nancy a social worker. Because they didn’t have children of their own, they faithfully attended my brothers’ and my sports games, plays, concerts, communions and confirmations for the next two decades.

I dreaded going to “Charismatic Mass.” It was held once a month and was always longer than forty-five minutes. It featured the polyester parade replete with microphones and guitars, a veritable Catholic Woodstock, minus the sex and drugs.

Yet it wasn’t just the weekly meetings at our house or the many weekends my parents spent traveling around the country, like Deadheads on tour, to attend retreats; it was the lack of what I considered a normal life. I dreaded going to “Charismatic Mass.” It was held once a month and was always longer than forty-five minutes. It featured the polyester parade replete with microphones and guitars, a veritable Catholic Woodstock, minus the sex and drugs. I begged to sit in the back pew by myself, preferably with a paper bag over my head.

They always ended with the couples standing in a circle on the altar, singing the Marriage Encounter song, a heinous spectacle for my twelve-year-old eyes to behold:

“There’s a new world somewhere, it’s called the Promised Land
And I’ll be there someday, if you would hold my hand
But if I should lose your love dear, I don’t know what I’d do
For I know I’d never find, another you…”

The group would substitute the final word of the last line to a resounding “US!” loud enough that it was probably heard in Bangladesh.

I remember scrutinizing the brochure that was stuck on the front of our refrigerator, via a ME sticker. I was grounded (again) after crossing out the answers to the frequently asked questions for new members and substituting in my own. The brochure listed questions such as:

  1. “Is there any age limit?” (No, couples as old as Yoda are invited to attend.)
  2. “Is Marriage Encounter for all faiths?” (No, only those who foolishly collect stickers.)
  3. “What does a weekend cost?” (Only your dignity!)

Pages: 1 2

The Author : Carolyn J. Martone
Carolyn Martone is a graduate of Fordham University and the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2012 she received a three-month artist-in-residence fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, where she finished the screenplay, "Upstate," which is in development for television. She lives in Los Angeles.
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  • Roger

    What a GREAT, well-written, funny and poignant article. I wish my marriage was like that.

  • Sheila J

    You have such a way with your words…it is definitely God’s gift to you. I felt like I was in the room the whole time. And your conclusion was a gift to me…

  • Anne M

    It’s so easy to ready Carolyn’s articles- they speak to me! She can take ordinary words and make them a window through which you can ‘see’ the experience about which she writes. Bravo!

  • Lisa Gendron

    You are a genius! My childhood sounds strangely identical. We even had God loves you! rainbow bookmarks in every liturgical book in the house. Very heartfelt… and hilarious!

  • Laurie

    Another wonderful story Carolyn…keep up the great work

  • Mary Beth Dunne

    Great story – could just see everyone as she described them. The growth as an adult really made the story. Having grown up with “the Pope” and “Mother Superior”, our affectionate names for our parents, Carolyn made me appreciate that childhood even more. Great job

  • RE RE

    Great writer-very witty -you made me lrye (laugh and cry) -God blesed you with many gifts –the greatest —weird parents!!! I gotem to!

  • Ron & Judy Pekny

    Carolyn, thanks for the beautifully written story of your life as an M.E. kid. We were touched as we read it and can just imagine that our kids probably thought some of the very same things. God Bless, and we love you. : )

  • Momo

    This was Priceless. Touching and Funny. My parents were Team leaders for NY as well, and made their first weekend before i was born, so i grew up in the M.E. Environment, and while my reactions to the weirdness were somewhat different, I can definitely relate. Thank you so much!

  • P&C

    Thanks for the wonderful story. It brought back many memories to us and our children.

  • Sue

    Oh my goodness! My husband grew up in a ME family. His parents were pretty much pioneers who then brought EE to the West Coast. Your parents and my in-laws probably know each other! Even though I came into the family later on this story had me laughing out loud and then crying. I will pass this on to my husband and his sibs immediately following this comment. They are going to love it! I felt like I was sitting around with my in-laws reminicising about the old days!

  • Ida

    Great article. Sounds very familiar as I too grew up in an ME family. I remember those large group gatherings with everyone hugging. I also remember the huge ME support that my family received years later when my brother died. They really did love and care for all of us. My husband and I are now blessed to currently be a member of the ME family. Now our children will get to grow up in this community. It hasn’t changed much. The love for eachother is still present and forthcoming. Thank you for this beautiful article.

  • Roger & Ann Borrello

    When I read the first page, I immediately ran upstairs and made our daughter promise if she ever wrote an article about being an M.E. Kid, to be nice to us… after finishing it, I was bawling my eyes out, praying she’d someday honor us you honored your parents!

  • mary lenihan

    Caroline, that was beautiful. Keep writing. You have a gift. I remember our marriage encounter that your parents took us to. It was scary but I remember at the end of the weekend how close to Tully and God I felt. Very rewarding. Love Ya.l

  • Beth

    Wonderful story Carolyn. I also live in upstate NY and it’s nice to see such a strong Catholic from this area writing about her experiences. Thanks for sharing! :)

  • Catholic

    What a wonderful article!! Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and *loving* story. God love you! :)

  • Carolyn J. Martone

    Dear Fr. Al,

    You made my day! Thank you for reading my article, and I love you too :)


  • Father Al

    I’m not the Father Al of this wonderful story, but a Father Al who was involved in many M.E. Encounters and this story just brought alive all the wonderful experienes of my life. Thank you! And, oh, I LOVE YOU! Father Al – Boston, MA

  • Tony

    A funny and touching essay. Excellent!

  • jr.duboc

    This is an absolutely beautiful story. Thanks.

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