By John Kass
It was a perfect day. Beyond perfect. A day that was sunny and warm, blue skies. A breeze. One of those gorgeous autumn Chicago days.
We were at the Lincoln Park Zoo. We got into one of those paddle boats in the lagoon. The boys were little then, about five years old. They moved us out around the water, pressing the pedals. We fed potato chips to the ducks, and we took turns telling a story of high adventure. It was of a family on a paddle boat just like that one, paddling backwards in time. They met dinosaurs, knights, and evil wizards that threw balls of blue fire.
When we pulled back to shore, I took out the camera. These are the photos I keep on the bookshelves next to my desk to remind me of God’s many blessings. One photo was of Betty and the boys. They’d just lost their front teeth. And another photo of Betty alone, the one at the top of this column.
There are no chocolates in it or flowers, perfume, or jewelry. But there is that smile she gave to me.
And today it is our Valentine’s Day photo.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Betty.
Some of you might not like today’s offering. There are no politics here, no red meat, no snark about the wrong of things. This one is personal, about the right of things, about children and family, marriage and staying married no matter what. Perhaps it’s too personal for some of you. I can live with it.
But she doesn’t like the anger of politics and the sound of barking dogs that comes with politics. And if a man can’t lock the barking dogs of politics away for one day to offer his sweetheart a Valentine’s Day gift, what kind of man is he?
I’ve had a few complete gift failures, some of you know about those epic fails, like the time I took her to see “Manchester by the Sea” thinking it was a love story. Since then, she picks the Valentine’s Day movie if we watch one. “Random Harvest” is good. “About Time” and “Leap Year” are sweet. But don’t trust me.
I thought about something other than a movie. So, I just asked her: “How about if we go to a place that offers meditation and incense for Valentine’s Day?”
She shook her head, no. “Once was enough,” she said. She’s right. One meditation session was enough.
We met during a college meditation class. It was one of those summer classes at a liberal arts school where you were all but guaranteed a good grade just by showing up.
It was called “The Psychology of Consciousness.” Back then my consciousness involved working in my dad’s butcher shop, shooting pool, drinking in the bars on 111th Street and along Western Avenue, and reading novels. I signed up for what I thought would be an easy “A.”
I wiped the sawdust and meat flecks from my boots, drove downtown in my beater Omega (with the hunting dog cage in the back seat), and went to class. We sat with our backs to the wall, leaving the middle of the room open. The instructor told us to close our eyes. Most closed their eyes, but just then a beautiful Italian girl walked in, long black hair, big brown eyes. She sat in the farthest opposite corner of the room. My eyes stayed wide open. Be still my beating heart.
Did I stare at her? Yes. She didn’t like it and she made a face at me. But I couldn’t help it. Finally, she closed her eyes. After about 20 minutes, the instructor told us to open our eyes and take turns telling the class of our meditation experience. She opened her eyes, made another face at me. I couldn’t help it. I’d been hit by the lightning bolts.
One student talked of feeling calm during meditation. The second one took it a step further, talking of feeling close to everyone in the room. The third kicked it up a notch, talking of all our consciousnesses melding. The fourth was even worse. It was groupthink. And one after another told of how close they felt to everyone. Then it was the beautiful girl’s turn.
“I don’t know why you’re talking this way, about how close you feel to each other,” said the brown-eyed girl who didn’t like me looking at her. “I don’t know any of you. How could I say I feel close to you without knowing a thing about you?”
My heart flipped over. I’d found the girl I was going to marry. She just didn’t know it yet, but I did.
The meditation instructor told us to break into small groups and talk about it. I picked up my chair and marched it straight across the room to where she was sitting. I asked her name. She told me. So, I said, you’re Italian?
“No,” she said, with her eyebrows raised, eyes flashing, still somewhat perturbed with me. “I’m Sicilian.”
I apologized for my bad behavior and asked her to go for coffee. Her friend Esther was sitting next to her.
“If Esther comes, I’ll have coffee,” she said.
Esther, the protective friend, came for coffee. It was an awkward cup, but we got through it and said goodbye. Esther walked one way. The Lovely Sicilian walked the other, down to the Red Line. I could have walked to my car.
But instead I followed, chasing after the Lovely Sicilian. I ran down the stairs, and paid a fare just so I could stand on the platform with strangers around to ask her if she’d have breakfast with me near school the next day.
But without Esther.
“No Esther?” she said.
Just us, I said.
That was some 40 years ago. I’m old. But she’s still beautiful. We gave our word to God when we were married at church. How did we stay together? Love and respect and never forgetting we gave that oath before the Lord. Without respect there can be no friendship. And we’re friends, too.
And together, we built a life.
She’s had my back every step of the way. And though I’m glad and proud that many of you have joined me on this great adventure, it wouldn’t have happened without her. She’s had my back through all of it, staying strong through every battle, strong through the political attacks that come when you take a stand on things, strong when the intriguers at “the paper” took out their knives and aimed for my back.
There is a wrong and there is a right. And so many of us are looking, searching, demanding to know the right of things. She’s always known. She’s always been there. She’s my rock.
Sure, we’ve hit a few rough patches. Who hasn’t? But we try not to go to bed angry. And in all that time, what bothers me are other men, and other women, who complain about their wives or husbands and their kids.
Those of you who are young and just starting out together, beware of such people. Because it is out of such disrespectful talk that small betrayals begin, and these lead to big betrayals and irreparable damage. They might not be evil people. They just might be weak and selfish. But I don’t want to hear it.
If you want to know about a man, then watch him with his family. Watch how he treats his wife and kids. And watch how they treat him. Only then will you begin to know them.
Just as I sat down to begin writing this, a reader on Facebook, Michael T. Walsh, posted something I’d written years ago.
It was about a man named Tom Marshall from Bartlett. He’d lost his wife Brooke, a teacher and the love of his life to cancer after 33 years of marriage. Tom heard me say on The Chicago Way podcast that I love being married to Betty and that I’m not afraid to say it.
He said I should reserve a special Moutza for men who complain about their wives when they have nothing to complain about. He sent a note.
“John, I was the luckiest man alive to meet her. No one will ever take her place. I don’t even think about remarrying or even dating for that matter…Again, just remember the following: Keep loving your wife and sons and don’t let anyone complain about their wives in your presence. Tom Marshall”
These are good words to remember, especially on the day of cards, flowers and chocolates, jewelry and perfume. All those are mere tokens, to help you openly declare the feeling behind those tokens. If she’s important, doesn’t she deserve an open declaration?
Men should never feel uncomfortable about saying they love their wives, or for women to say they love their husbands. Or young lovers just starting out. It’s not really about the flowers, is it?
Happy Valentine’s Day, Betty.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.
(Copyright 2022 John Kass)