photo courtesy of Rafael Alvarez
February, from the Latin februum (purification), is the month when cherub arrows take reckless flight toward unsuspecting hearts.
Sometimes the daring dart hits (a bull’s-eye guarantees nothing, and unintended targets often fare better) and sometimes it sticks.
This is the story of an arrow that found its mark more than 60 years ago in the city of Baltimore and abides to this day.
They met in the halls of Patterson Park High School not long after World War II. If bobby-soxer reports are to be believed, he had an entire freshman class of girls mooning over him. She was something of a wallflower and, when she did talk, it sometimes got her in trouble.
Eat your heart out, ninth grade!
An early date was a movie at the Patterson and then across Eastern Avenue for pizza at Matthew’s. In his family, the father—an immigrant machinist at the Sparrows Point shipyard—ruled the roost. She came from a more chaotic home where Mom rode a bus to and from a sweatshop, coming home dead tired.
Both sides were against the romance—her mother sent her to California by bus one summer to visit a brother in the Navy—but the youngsters took heart from “Too Young,” Nat King Cole’s 1951 smash hit.
“We’re not too young to know this love will last though years may go…”
Thus went the years: married just before Thanksgiving 1953 with the idea of taking the best of each family and leaving the rest. The Coast Guard and a secretary’s job and adios to the Holy Land’s narrow rowhouses, corner stores, and spotless alleys. Hello to pale-green asbestos shingles on a bungalow in the Eisenhower suburbs with peach trees in the yard.
Young, good-looking, and honest, work and prudence were their faith beyond anything a priest might say. Not for them the shenanigans of the smarty-pants Mad Men crowd, they pretty much played by the rules.
Never rich and, since childhood, no longer poor, they successfully straddled the better end of American middle-class prosperity that followed them into adulthood. An innate sense of thrift and union wages bumped them from shingles to brick in a better zip code. There they raised three boys in a neighborhood where it was pretty much a given that your kid would go to college.
Food and holidays, especially birthdays, defined the house. Bushels of hand-caught blue crabs, rockfish from the bay, Portuguese grilled steak garnished with lemon and banana peppers, and huge pots of homemade soup he made on weekends while sipping cheap beer.
When she had a hankering for the old neighborhood, there might be fried bologna with gravy made from the drippings or breaded pork chops, always with mashed potatoes and shoe-peg corn. Homemade pasta on Sundays (with fresh pork in the sauce to sweeten tomatoes canned in summer) was a given.
There was some sickness—once his feet swelled up after applying miracle fertilizer to the lawn; she suffered through a lot of dental work—but also long stretches of health. They took annual vacations to Ocean City and southern Maryland and once, after years of wishing and hoping and rolling dimes, a trip to the village in Spain where the ball began rolling.
If there were fights, they took place out of earshot.
To love? Certainly.
Cherish? I think so.
Not yet, thankfully.
They are my parents, Manuel and Gloria Alvarez.
On this Valentine’s Day, I summon the spirit of Mr. Cole to croon the last verse of their song: “Some day they may recall, we were not too young at all…”
Contact Rafael Alvarez at firstname.lastname@example.org.