In the summer of 1978, my dad was a skinny sixteen-year old farm boy in rural Illinois. He was tall and wide-shouldered like his father, who once threw him through a screen door at the mere mention of an ear-piercing; he was willowy and wiry like his mother, who set him on a motorcycle at the robust age of three—he couldn’t reach the brakes, so he’d honk the horn until she ran out, jumped on the back of the bike and slowed him down. That day, he and a buddy (Billy or Bobby) had been baling hay or feeding pigs or some equally sweaty, stoic agrarian activity. He was probably wearing overalls and work boots, the sun striping his shoulders in a farmer’s tan, his summer-bronze hair flipping out from beneath his corn-seed trucker hat. At some point, Billy (full of piss, vinegar and teenage testosterone) suggested that they go catch a movie that night. Dad threw on some jeans and a shirt, jumped in the truck and only began to panic when they turned away from the nearest town.
“Where are we going?”
“To pick up the girls, duh.”
Billy laughed. Dad swore.
Two towns over, the truck burped over the railroad tracks and stopped in front of a two-story house. My dad took inventory of his unshowered, dusty appearance, the dirt under his fingernails, the smell of dried sweat and humid cigarette hanging on his hair and rolled down the window.
In the summer of 1978, my mom was a curvy fifteen-year old in small-town Illinois. She was tall and full-cheeked and smiled with her whole face; she once concussed herself standing in the bed of a truck in the Homecoming parade with the cheerleaders wearing a gigantic papier-mâché bulldog head and laughed, the effervescent, magnetic sound bouncing around behind the mascot’s bully sneer. Her yearbook was full of friends jealous of her perfectly feathered blonde hair, her notebook was full of creative writing, poems, stories and when she met my dad, she’d been sitting on a lifeguard stand all summer, fluffy-blonde and oil-and-iodine tanned.
Nobody ever told me exactly how it happened, or what she was wearing or even if that mattered. Nobody told me how he covered for the fact that he was unwashed and completely disgusting and she somehow still found him charming. They saw Grease and ate popcorn; she saved the ticket stubs and clipped the movie review out of the local newspaper, carefully securing them into her scrapbook with tape that would have yellowed and lost its stickiness by the time I laid eyes on the page twenty years later. They’d go back twice more that summer and watch John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John fall in and out of love, “those suh-huh-mer/niiiiiiiiights!”
The pages of her scrapbook over the next eight years are filled with faded ticket stubs, crumbly pressed roses and dry-rotted corsages, drawings of trucks that my dad meticulously drew and filled in with colored pencils, poems that she wrote in her flowy, slanted cursive on tea-stained paper and burned around the edges (which she’s never let me read), a list of “things to do” from my dad that goes into ridiculous detail (“Play Monopoly, Play Scrabble, Play Dodgeball, Make Dale cookies, Make Dale a German chocolate cake, Rub Dale’s feet), cards from Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, Christmas (annotated inside with who gifted what to whom). There are grainy pictures of my scarecrow dad wearing bell-bottoms and a polo shirt he owned in five other colors standing next to my mom, in Keds and a tank top and her disappearing-eyes smile; photos of high school dances (first his, then hers—they went to different schools). There’s a shot of them standing in front of a cardboard palm tree prop at someone’s winter formal—her face is flushed totally red, and you can see all of her molars, she’s laughing so hard; he’s standing up straight in a ruffly dress shirt, his mouth kinked up on one side, a true shit-eating grin. One of dad’s friends had insisted on posing them near the palm tree, because, as my dad says “somebody had ripped ass over there and that’s why we’re laughing so hard.”
There are photos from my dad’s senior year of high school; he was homecoming king and prom king and years later I would parade around my grandmother’s attic in the silly felt crowns she’d never gotten rid of. There are photos of my mom’s senior year of high school; wearing her blue cheerleading uniform doing the splits, as Senior Class President, visiting my dad at his college in Nashville, TN. There are a few short stories she wrote for community college writing classes, all vibrant, original narratives from unexpected viewpoints.
In 1985, my mom was standing at the sink at the farm where my dad still lived, washing dishes. My dad was outside, doing something rural and agrarian, wearing overalls, getting dirty. He came inside and my mom had already made him a cold drink of some kind, a gesture I’ve watched her repeat over 26 summers of my life. Her hands were covered in suds; he took a deep drink and began rummaging in his hay-filled pockets.
“Hey,” he said, pulling something out of his pocket, barely getting her attention, “what are you doing for the rest of your life?” I can almost envision the look on her face as she sifted through the stalks of hay in his hand to find her engagement ring.