Dominic and Genevieve (left) on their wedding day in 1942
“Marriage spoils a romance, and children spoil a marriage,” my dad told my mom, my brother, and me at the family dinner table one long-ago evening.
“In one fell swoop you’ve insulted all three of us, Dad!” I sputtered.
“It’s true,” he matter-of-factly insisted.
This conversation occurred about 22 years into my parents’ marriage, which ended with Dad’s death on January 2, 2005. In 2002, the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania gave my folks a special citation with a “whereas” about their happy union enhancing the lives of others. It extended sincere congratulations on the joyous celebration of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary and offered best wishes for their continued happiness. The Honorable Chris Sainato sponsored, signed, and hand-delivered the citation to my parents’ home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. A navy leather case protected the citation, which sported an official, embossed gold seal. Concrete government recognition that his romance had turned out well refuted Dad’s dire pronouncements, I feel. By 2002, though, he’d probably forgotten how he’d shocked me that long-ago evening.
Thirty-five years into my own happy marriage, today I recognize that in the realms of love and romance, actions speak louder than words. What my dad said about children and marriage didn’t matter. What mattered was what he and Mom did day after day for decades to keep their romance bright and strong.
Here’s how my parents met: Mom was selling tickets for a church-sponsored event, and Dad agreed to buy one. Mom didn’t tell Dad that the information printed on his ticket was incorrect. The church was reusing tickets leftover from a dance, but the event wasn’t a dance. Later that week, decked out in nice clothes and wearing his very best shoes, Dad found himself in a muddy field at a hayride. Mom must’ve been pretty cute, because, according to her, he didn’t much mind her little deception.
Another courtship highlight was when my dad (Dominec) taught my mom (Genevieve) how to drive a car. Did many young women living in the factory district of New Castle, Pennsylvania, drive cars in the late 1930s? During high school, Dad helped his big brother Patsy fix cars. Maybe they came across a good used one: somehow Dad decided to pay $50 for a car to give Mom. In that time and place, did any first-generation, unmarried Italian-American girls own a car? Carless themselves, mom’s brothers told her to return the car, and she did. Still, teaching her to drive a car and buying one for her—those early acts transmitted significant messages: Dominec respected Genevieve’s competence. He appreciated her spirit of adventure. The gift of a car said something, too, about the shape of the dreams Dad had for their future. Also Italian, he lived in a poor neighborhood, too.
Dominec’s mother opposed their relationship, maybe because Genevieve had a heart murmur due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. At one point, Mom’s parents sent her to visit relatives in Cleveland, Ohio, to forget Dad, who had saved enough money for a year at Slippery Rock State College, where he was meeting other pretty girls. Their inscriptions in his leather-bound yearbooks, which I have, bemoaned his loyalty to his New Castle sweetheart. Another man proposed to Mom in Cleveland, but she refused him.
On February 14, 1942, my parents married. All but two of Dad’s relatives boycotted the wedding. Openly ignoring their mother’s dictates, Patsy stood up as Dad’s best man. Patsy’s twin, Virginia, slipped out of the house in everyday clothes and secretly found an inconspicuous seat in a back-row pew. On the advice of her brothers, Mom paid her respects by visiting Dad’s parents at their home after the ceremony. She wasn’t warmly received.
My parents worked hard to save money, and eventually they bought land in New Castle’s suburbs. Dad designed their home, and Mom’s brothers helped him construct it. They lived in their house for almost six decades.
When Dad’s parents grew frail, he single-handedly built a three-room addition to our house to serve as their apartment. My parents always declined the idea of a wedding anniversary party. Late in life, Dad admitted he couldn’t stomach celebrating his marriage with relatives who’d boycotted his wedding.
Opposition strengthened my parents’ bond. Most of what they did, they did together. As a team, there wasn’t much they weren’t willing to tackle. As nest-builders, they wallpapered, painted, and upholstered their furniture together. An elementary schoolteacher, Dad had summers off. Those months my parents watered and weeded the huge vegetable and flower gardens they planned every winter. They planted berries and cherry, apple, peach, and pear trees, too. Canning the harvest was another joint effort, with Dad devising a tomato seeding-skinning device he rigged onto a table they kept on the screened-in back porch.
When Mom set up shop as a seamstress, Dad built a fitting room addition to the house. He sewed customers’ hems on the blind-stitch machine they bought from a retiring tailor. That left Mom free to handle complicated sewing: she fashioned underarm gussets for off-the-rack dresses and made embroidered silk shirts for one customer’s husband.
The way they tackled nearly every task together was terribly romantic, but other things caught my notice as well. Early every morning, Mom carefully coaxed her troublesome, too-fine hair onto curlers to look her best for him. Every night before bed, Dad washed up, shaved, and dabbed on Old Spice cologne.
On the day he died, Dominec’s wallet contained one photo: in a pink-pantsuit she’d made (and he’d probably hemmed), Genevieve stands in front of a rhododendron they’d planted. One of her hands caresses a plate-sized pink blossom. Other blossoms stretch from her ankles to far over her head. The beauty they made together surrounds her, just like his love.
In her old age, Genevieve wore a gold locket on a chain around her neck. She survived Dominec by almost two years. Each night after he died, she fell asleep clutching her locket. On its outside, gold flowers and leaves encircle a delicate script letter G. Inside two headshots show Dominec and Genevieve, smiling. My parents aren’t young in these pictures, but in their eyes I detect gleams of joy, borne from long years of loving the person they treasured.
Cheryl Fusco Johnson hosts a talk show, The Studio, on KRUU-LP 100.1 FM in Fairfield, Iowa.