My grandparents recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, while my husband and I just celebrated our 6th. Ten times the marriage.
Children, so absorbed in their own little worlds, don’t realize that the adults they love had lives before them and outside of them. I’m awakening now as an adult to the reality that, like a bird nest meticulously padded with small twigs that together create a nurturing place to soften the world’s blows, the marriages of my parents and grandparents, though mostly mysterious to me, have given me a softer place to live and have fed into my own marriage in untold ways.
My grandparents have always loved Milwaukee, and especially the Pfister. My grandpa worked at IBM for 30 years, in what is now the Quarles & Brady building. He would often park a few blocks away from work just so that he could walk through the Pfister to enjoy its signature beauty, especially at Christmastime. IBM would host their many employee parties at the Pfister, soirées my grandparents say were marvelous, and they do sound romantic: carriage rides, portraits taken of the dressed-up couples, big bands playing for everyone to dance.
They also reminisce about the English Room, the Pfister’s formal restaurant for 76 years. They both remember it as “the most elegant place in town”, featuring a harpist, extravagant food, and a friendly and large maitre d’ who would circulate amongst the tables. The English Room was where my grandparents first tried Banana Foster, flambeed tableside. It was where they left each meal bearing a keepsake of an elegant black and silver matchbook that had been engraved with their last name while they were dining. They love that restaurant, even now. I am reminded that a long marriage is a vault of shared memory that nothing can tarnish.
And my grandparents each have a cherished moment when they stumbled upon a celebrity they admired in the Pfister. For my grandpa, it was Red Skelton, radio and television comedian. Red was eating lunch with his daughter in what was then Café Ole and noticed that my grandpa was noticing him from across the room. He waved a flittery, funny little wave that was his trademark, and thus effectively told my grandpa, “he knew I knew him, and he was a real sweet man, but he didn’t want to be disturbed.”
My grandma knows the very day the Pfister offered up a fortuitous meeting to her: September 26, 1984. She and my grandpa were coming to the Pfister for lunch, and they were walking in the hallway outside the café when they saw then-President Ronald Reagan coming towards them from the lobby. Now, my grandma had had a crush on him for years, since he was an actor who looked like this:
As he was getting on the elevator, President Reagan stopped for a second, looked straight at my Mimi, and smiled at her. She must have been glowing then, because she glows now at the memory.
Tonight, 33 years later, I took a photo of my grandparents on the same stairs where Ronald Reagan smiled, and they proudly took a photo of me next to a Pfister Narrator display that has my name on it. I hope that I’m learning to listen to their stories better, to hear the full life and long marriage their memories float through. I stand still for a moment to try to crystallize this evening here, with them.