“I don’t know, Mark.* Your parents have never even met me, and I’ll just bet they are a little torqued off at you for getting engaged to me before they do!”
“I know, but they’ll get over that. Besides, that’s why I think we should do it. When they do meet you, they will fall in love with you as quickly as I did.”
It had been pretty damned fast. We started dating in the fall of 1965, my senior year at a small, liberal arts college in the prairies of Wisconsin. He was a junior. Even back then I had started manifesting my cougar tendencies.
He asked me out for a beer just a day or two after we arrived back on campus from summer break. I was free as a bird at the time, and open to new horizons. My previous fling with a frat guy to whom I had been pinned for most of my junior year hadn’t officially ended; it had just fizzled out. Absence made my heart grow forgetful, so in my still adolescent mind, he was history.
“Have you told them about me? I mean, you know, TOLD them?”
“Lez, they read the article in the Milwaukee Journal. They saw your picture. They know.” He looked as sweet and innocent as he actually was. His black eyes glistened with excitement at the idea of me going home to Neenah,Wisconsin with him for a long holiday weekend.
Mark was not a novice when it came to racial prejudice. Our complexions were identical in color and tone. His hair, although as straight as an arrow, was as black as his eyes. Problem was, Mark is white. His French mother donated all the swarthy melanin, and it easily overtook his father’s recessive blond genes.. She was reportedly not amused, though, by the nickname “the guys” had given Mark in high school: “Nig” For that matter, neither was I.
“I know you believe it will all be fine, but I’m kind of scared, Mark,” I whined, admiring the small diamond ring on my left hand.
A young man of few words, Mark responded as he often did. He pulled me closer and planted a passionate kiss on my slightly trembling mouth. Not much taller than I, he was 20 times stronger. He played defensive line on the football team. His compact body was tight with muscle and definition – the kind that makes a girl of 116 pounds feel safe.
“At least you are Catholic!” That was Mark’s idea of a joke. He didn’t seem the least bit concerned about taking his black fiancée home to mom and dad and the small, lily-white town he grew up in.
Of course, being in love and all, I agreed to go. My own parents had not met him either, but they probably had the good sense to know if they didn’t make a big deal out of it, it would probably just blow over. Based on my track record since entering college, ‘this too shall pass’ seemed a good strategy for them to take, even if this was the first time I had ever gotten engaged.
Mark’s parents couldn’t have been more welcoming. There were hugs all around and the same beautiful smiles their son had inherited so nicely. We had dinner on Saturday night, chatting about school doings, courses I took, and the usual polite small talk. It looked for all the world like I had worried for nothing; that I should have listened to Mark. After all, they raised him, didn’t they, and look how “open” he was.
Bedtime came. I was shown to a small, dormer-style guest room upstairs. Mark, after a lingering kiss goodnight, wandered into his childhood bedroom downstairs. Sleep for me was about as likely as my waking up blonde the next morning, so I just lay there thinking about walking into that packed Catholic Church the next morning. Not an hour went by before I heard footsteps on the stairs. He knew I was worried. He came to “comfort” me.
I searched his mother’s face the next morning to detect signs of “knowing” what had occurred under her roof the night before. If she did, she wasn’t giving it up. All seemed well. All that did was set up a guilt trip for me to take along to Mass with us.
“Lez, you know there is a good chance my parents have told their friends you were coming this weekend, right?” We were walking toward the car at the curb in front of the house. I stopped and swiveled my head around to look at him, panic rising to the next level, if there could be a higher level.
I summoned all the poise and confidence people seemed to go on about me having. I squeezed my hands and dug my nails into the palms of my hands, letting my arms hang limply by my sides. That’s what I did whenever an adrenaline rush caused my hands, knees and voice to quaver. It wasn’t working!
For some reason, we were delayed getting to the church until minutes before the start of Mass. Mark pulled my arm into the crook of his arm and led me down the center aisle toward one of the few open pews. For a nanosecond, I wondered if this would be how I’d feel when I walked down the aisle of my own church to marry him.
All whispering came to a stop. Row by row, people turned to watch the four of us walk. It lasted for about 4 hours! Or so it seemed. Once seated, my mind refused to focus on the proceedings. Instead, I imagined the thoughts of the parishioners, the after-Mass table talk at their respective houses and the judgments they would heap, not only on me, but on this sweet-natured man who cared more about me than he did about what they thought.
And I didn’t care what they were thinking, saying or judging. From that moment on, I was immune to the fear of social judgment based on my race.
I broke the engagement just before I graduated that next June. I just didn’t feel he was the right fit for me, and I didn’t want to hurt him any more than I was going to have to by pretending any longer. But I have never forgotten what it was like to be loved by a stand-up guy who wasn’t intimidated by anything.
*Not his actual name.