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