Life Notes: The Wedding Portrait
What I wish I knew about my parents

In a carton labeled “Important,” on a shelf in our upstairs guest room, I found it. And I gasped. “Priceless” would be a more accurate label.

I had been looking for that wedding portrait of my parents for 14 years, since our last move. This is the only formal portrait I have of the people who were so vital in my life. And from what I could tell, the portrait was exactly as it had been – no discernible damage.

I carried it to the framer wrapped in tissue paper. He suggested intricate matting and a frame with dizzying gold flourishes. But then he showed me a simpler burnished gold frame that highlighted, but didn’t drown, this portrait of a man and woman on their wedding day, November 15, 1930. I knew that portrait had found its home.

The bride was 21, and her groom was 27. Ironically, those are the same ages – and the same years apart – as my husband and I were on the day we wed. But how different our lives were.

I had so many choices; my mother had so few. Yet both of us chose marriages to men who were lawyers. We gave birth to daughters only. And we deeply believed that marriage is for keeps, and that children are its most sacred gifts.

But how I longed to know more about who they really were. What they were thinking and feeling that day. And most of all, who they were before they were my parents. I know some of the story.

I know my mother was a poor Jewish girl from Philadelphia whose parents owned a fruit store. She was the middle daughter of three, the one designated to take care of her beautiful, tempestuous baby sister. I knew her parents had always openly lamented that they had no sons.

My father, a quiet only child, came from a more privileged background. He lived in a house on a hill in a fine Philadelphia neighborhood. He had deeply loved his father, who died young.

Those were the only accessible facts about my parents – my sun, moon and stars.

Why hadn’t I asked them more. How did they fall in love? What led them to marry one another? What was their wedding like? Who were their first friends? What did their first home look like? What was it like to live through the Great Depression? World War II?

What was the “for better” and “for worse” in their marriage? And did they say – and mean – “I love you?”

But those were not things we talked about at the dinner table in a household that my mother ran because, back then, that was her job. My father, a lawyer, left each morning with a briefcase. He came home on the 6:18 train. (The odd things we remember.)

Every single day now, I look at that wedding portrait. It’s in our bedroom, hanging next to ours, and while it’s not large, it draws me in.

I see my father’s dimples, my mother’s high cheekbones, their semi-distant gaze at who knows what as the wedding photographer snapped this one portrait.

And I wish – how I wish – that I could have a “do-over” with Lillian and Hymen, a chance to ask the questions I never did and maybe get answers that would tell me how I came to be who I am.

For now, a portrait on a bedroom wall will have to stand as a reminder of a marriage that I know will always be beyond my grasp.

February 2017
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