This is from a series of images that I think of as my parents’ wedding pictures, although they didn’t have a wedding. They were married at the courthouse by a justice of the peace in December 1965. My father was twenty-three going on twenty-four. My mother was nineteen.
They met in Iowa City, where my father had grown up. My mother was an art major at the university. She was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced snick), when my father came as a guest speaker to talk about his experiences registering black voters in Mississippi. He was there in 1964, when the events that became the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning unfolded. Three civil rights workers were killed.
When my father was in high school, he took poetry classes at the Writer’s Workshop. He picketed the local barber shops, which were then segregated, and his protest led to the integration of the barber shops of Iowa City. He attended the March in Washington in 1963. He heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Had a Dream” speech.
Down in Mississippi, my father was scared. Three dead civil rights workers. Several houses where civil right workers were staying had been bombed. At night, my father sat on the front porch, drinking whiskey and writing poems, and also writing down the license plate numbers of all the cars that went by. One night when no one was home, the house where my father stayed was bombed. He drove home to Iowa City that same night, fast as he could go.
When my mother and father met, he was living in an unheated apartment above a garage. No heat. In winter. In Iowa. She invited him to move in with her.
My mother grew up in a suburb of Chicago. In high school she fired her ceramics in a kiln that belonged to Mary Jane Ward, who wrote The Snake Pit, a book about a woman’s breakdown and her life in a mental hospital (I watched the movie version in a college class about Gothic film and fiction). She took classes at the Art Institute. She won a scholarship to study art anywhere she wanted. Her parents didn’t want her to go to art school. They wanted her to receive a more well-rounded education, and so she went to Iowa.
She lived on campus her first year. She and her friends took psilocybin caps and went bowling. One of her friends was Nicholas Meyer, who went on to write The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a novel about Sherlock Holmes. He wrote the screenplays for several Star Trek movies. He dated Shelley Hack, the girl from the Charlie perfume commercials in the 1970s. She was also one of Charlie’s Angels.
During her second year, my mother needed permission from her parents to live off-campus. She shared a bathroom with a strange neighbor. Sometimes she would find a hair intricately wrapped around the bristles of her toothbrush. She was sure the neighbor had done this. But I, too, have found a hair wrapped around the bristles of my toothbrush, and I’m pretty sure it was my own hair. I don’t know how to explain this.
Anyway, when my mother’s parents found out that my father had moved into her apartment, they called the school to revoke the permission they had given her to live off-campus. My mother was shocked. Her parents were socially progressive. They were Unitarians. They had campaigned for Kennedy.
Married women didn’t need their parents’ permission to live off-campus. And so my parents were married. My father made a wedding ring for my mother out of a quarter. He pounded a hole in the quarter with a hammer and a nail, pounded until the quarter was a perfect silver band.
Years later, that silver band became mine. It was all that remained of my parents’ marriage. A souvenir. In high school a friend I never liked much borrowed it without asking and she lost it. Or maybe she stole it. I felt sorry for her because she lived in a trailer with her alcoholic mother.
When my parents married, my mothers’ parents disowned her. My mother dropped out of school. My mother’s sister married a doctor. My parents headed west to San Francisco. Four years later I was born. My mother phoned her parents and asked them if they wanted to know their granddaughter.
My grandmother, before dementia, told me that she had cried about my mother every day for two years. “After two years,” she said, “I decided: enough. And I never cried about it again.”
When my mother remarried, my grandfather spoke at the rehearsal dinner. He raised his glass and said of my mother’s husband-to-be, “At least this one’s better than the last one.”
Why wasn’t my father good enough for their daughter? Because he was a poet? A communist? Because he’d spent a night or two in jail?
“It was so quiet you could hear an angel drop,” my father wrote in a poem for my mother. “I startled several prairies to gift you these last October flowers.”
After I was born (in late October) my mother set the poem to music and it became my bedtime song.
In another poem he wrote: “The wife suggested recently that when she becomes quite old the seeds in her breasts will separate from the interior flesh & imitate maracas when she dances yet for me.”
I don’t recognize the people in this photograph. The teenage girl clings (look at her hands in the mirror, gnarled with tension that belies her dreamy kohl-eyed gaze) to the raft of a man who looks—afraid? Or maybe pious? His clasped hands rest casually on her shoulder. I like the echo of their hands. She is wearing the lost quarter ring. He appears to be wearing a ring, too, on his pinkie, but it might be a scratch on the negative, or a speck, or else a trick of the light.