Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Marriage of My Parents

The little wedding chapel in Elkton, Maryland.

They wed in Elkton, Maryland, in 1928.
by Charlie Leck

In 1928, when my mother was a 17 year old girl, and my father a 29 year old man, they stole away from New York City and traveled down to Elkton, Maryland to be married.

Gosh, I wish I could have been there. I wish I could even imagine it.

Over the years I tried vigorously to get anyone to talk about it. Either my big sister and older brothers knew nothing about the history of the event or they didn’t think I had any right to hear about it. My parents weren’t talking and neither were my mother’s parents. I tried tapping into each of them.

All I could find out from anyone was that Maryland was the only state anywhere near New York that required no blood tests and no waiting period until one was established in 1938.

So, with no facts in hand, I was left only to making things up, which, often, I really don’t mind at all.

To give my fantasy at least a touch of reality, I traveled to Elkton in the early 90s to get some sense of the setting in which my drama would take place. My wife was at a horse show in Fair Hill – not so far away – and I took our rental car and drove over to Elkton. By asking some old timers I bumped into, I found out that there was, back in those days, a train that came down from New York City, through Philadelphia and on down to Baltimore. It made a stop in Elkton. Voila! There you are. I had a story.

My mother, Mildred Ann Svejda, was from a strict Roman Catholic family. My father’s family was German Lutheran. My father was 12 years older than my very young mother. It’s easy to guess that Grandma Svejda (Emma) was foursquare opposed to the marriage.

"You're so young, Milly. He's 12 years older than you. He isn't a Catholic, Milly! You must be married in the Church."

Having been close to my grandpa, Frank Svejda, I can imagine him winking at my dad and nodding that he should go for it. He and my dad were always very close during my life and I was always fascinated with that camaraderie and their friendship.

Another ingredient important for the mixture here was that my mother was a stubborn, entirely independent and determined woman. I can imagine her making the decision and telling my father that she had girl friends who had taken the train to Maryland, gotten married, spent a one night honeymoon there, and then traveled right back to New York so they could get immediately back to work.

I liked Elkton. I wandered its narrow streets and chatted people up. Several folks pointed me toward Main Street and the Historic Little Wedding Chapel. Though there is now a waiting period in Elkton, it still remains a popular place for couples to marry because of the wedding chapels that had been established there in the 1920s. The manager of the chapel spoke with me about my parents and it’s very possible they were married there; however, the chapel’s records prior to 1938 were destroyed. Yet, there were also competing chapels in those days and they all got their share of weddings. And, there was a local Justice of the Peace who advertised his services and hung out a shingle, announcing his availability to perform a wedding. Whatever, whether it was in the little chapel or before a Justice of the Peace, my mother had probably made advance arrangements. She was pretty organized and planned ahead.

So, in the summer of 1928, they boarded a train with another couple (probably friends who had also married in Elkton) and enjoyed the trip through New Jersey, into Philadelphia and then on south to Elkton. Knowledgeable cabbies would meet arriving couples at the train station and tell them all they needed to know about where to get a license (the courthouse remained open until 7 o’clock) and where they could marry. My parents arrived on time, purchased their license within five minutes and took their vows, with their friends acting as best man and matron of honor. Then, they went out to dinner and had crab and champagne.

I found the Howard House Tavern right there on Main Street. It announced that it had been in business since 1853 and it had a great big menu with plenty of crab. I ordered the plate of soft shell crabs and the steamed red potatoes (it’s what my mother would have had).

“And, oh, yes, can I get a split of champagne?”

“Certainly sir!” The waiter brightened up, sensing a tip of unusual size. “What kind would you like?”

“A Taitinger, please. Very chilled. And start me with a half-dozen raw oysters!”

It’s the way my old man would have ordered. He loved seafood and adored clams and oysters.

Alone, I sat back to enjoy the fantasy. Over there, only twenty feet or so away from me, at a corner table, I watched the best man stand and propose a toast. There was great laughter and everyone raised a glass. My mom and dad kissed.

Wow! She was a pretty good looking chick. She had that Bohemian nose, but it fit her and her dark skin glimmered. She was tall and thin and very, very happy. My dad was a tad shorter than she. He had very light hair, almost white. He wore a suit and tie nicely, like it was common for him. He was thin and his clothing hung nicely on his frame.

My dad was shaking his finger at his best man and laughing uproariously. My mother blushed and looked down at the table. Her matron of honor giggled and put her arm around her husband’s back. A huge platter of oysters were brought to the table and the waiter refilled their champagne glasses. My dad was singing something and the others at the table were laughing and clapping as he sang. His voice was quite high and quite good.

When you’re smiling, when you smiling
The whole world smiles with you
When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through

But when you’re crying, you bring on the rain
So stop that sighing, be happy again
When you’re smiling, keep on smiling
The whole world smiles with you
The four revelers consumed the last of their champagne. I signaled to my waiter, calling him to my table.

“Bring them another bottle of champagne – whatever they’re drinking – and put it on my tab.”

My waiter hustled another bottle of champagne over to them. He quickly filled their glasses and, in response to their inquiry, he pointed over at my table. They turned to look over and waved to me and I smiled and lifted my glass in a toast to them.

The oysters and my champagne arrived. Both were spectacular. I ate and drank as I watched the little wedding party enjoying their lovely celebration. My mother was blushing about something and my father put an arm around her and gave her a big hug, kissing her sweetly on her cheek. He seemed to be filled completely up with a huge love for his new wife. She, just a child, was swimming in it as if in a gentle, still pond in a small stream.

My father’s buddy rose to his feet and began a song. His voice was stunning and the entire audience stopped and turned to listen to him.

Bring back once more those days of yore
So I can see my sweetheart,
that girl I adore

She won my heart right from the start
And now it won’t behave

That girl of mine
Oh how I love her
That girl of mine
I really love her

So she’s many miles away
I’m with her every day
Memories and love now bonded two
The packed house – each and every table – applauded and cheered the lovely song. My father was clapping wildly and my mother rose and clapped sweetly for the beautiful performance. The best man turned and waved to each corner of the room. His eyes caught mine. He saw me clapping. He bowed slightly and waved demurely to me.

“Oh, Charlie,” the woman with him was shouting, “you were wonderful!”

I lifted my champagne glass to him and tilted my head demurely, but my heart was pounding. It is my father’s brother, I thought. It is my Uncle Charlie. It is the man after whom I am named. And that is his wife, Tess – my wonderful Aunt Tessie.
My waiter arrived with the crab platter and slid it before me. He saw the tears in my eyes and he was taken aback.

“Are you all right, sir?”

“Yes, yes,” I said. “I’m just enjoying the little wedding party across the way.”

“What wedding party is that, sir?”

“The table to whom I sent the bottle of champagne.”

“What champagne is that, sir?”

I looked over to the corner where my mom and dad were celebrating with such fervor. They weren’t there. Six elderly folks, even older than I, were sitting there at a circular table. They looked both exhausted and bored. I peered up at my waiter. A lump grew in my throat and I couldn’t speak.

“Could I pour you more champagne, sir?”

I nodded silently. Everything was peaceful. A piano tinkled somewhere. There was a dull murmuring of voices spread out across the big, open room.

I had traveled through time and I’d been dropped back again in the now and the here, but I had gotten what I came for and it was a lovely split second of time.

The crab was wonderful and the champagne elegant. The tab extremely high.

An old postcard from Elkton show how marriages were at the center of its economy.

Main Street in Elkton about the time my parents would have married there.

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