An Improbable Love Story

The Community Chronicle, February 2020

Every year as Valentine’s Day approaches, I think about a young woman who took a risky chance at a new life, and a man who fell hard for her. It was a different time back then, a hundred years ago, and even though convention dictated certain behaviors and mores, sometimes love has a different idea.

My Grampa had just finished up some business meetings and stopped into the Houston depot to buy a ticket to New York on the late-night train. Afterward, he walked toward a little kiosk to purchase a soda, or perhaps it was for a cigar. He loved cigars. He wasn’t prepared when a young woman with porcelain white skin, rose red lips, jet black hair that hung down her back to her knees, and large brown eyes the color of liquid smoke looked up at him. Ever the charmer, the World War One veteran struck up a conversation with the young woman. There was something about her; he was mesmerized. He’d never seen a young woman who looked like her -- lilting eyes rimmed in thick black lashes that hid a mystery, a mystery he wanted to know more about even if it took hours of talking to her. He asked about her life, which she admitted was hard.

At the age of 11, her stepfather forced her to quit school to work in a cracker factory to help support the family. Long before child labor laws, she had to pick up searing hot crackers coming out of the oven on a conveyor belt. No gloves, just small fingers. The crackers burnt her fingers, creating blisters that bled and never had a chance to heal. Even though she was in pain her step-father would not let her quit. Never mind that she bled on the crackers, no one seemed to care. Just do your job, she was told. When she got a little older, she found the job at the kiosk and left the factory.

After hearing her story Grampa told her that if she would be at the station that night, he would buy her a ticket and take her to New York where he lived. She would meet his parents and his whole family. They would love her, he said. He would give her a good life. When she protested that she was not that kind of girl, he assured her that his intentions were honorable and that he would find a justice of the peace to marry them in the first town they came to on the journey.

That evening she packed a small suitcase, snuck out of the house under the cover of darkness, and raced to the train station. Grampa kept his word and they did marry at the first town. Unfortunately, Grampa couldn’t control his family’s reaction to bringing home a young woman of mixed heritage as his bride. His family were orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, from a village not unlike the one in Fiddler on the Roof. In this tight-knit community, you married your own kind, you didn’t bring home a wife who was not Jewish. They told him they would never accept her. They said he was dead to them. So the young couple returned to Texas and settled in Houston where my mother and uncle were born, and Grampa set up a business in the booming tire industry. Life was good.

When Nana first told me their story, I asked her how she could marry a man she didn’t know. Who does such a crazy thing? I could understand people in my generation (the baby boomers) doing something so carefree, but someone born in the 19th century, like Nana? No, I couldn’t. The Nana that I knew was responsible, traditional, and conventional. She said that in those days people rarely married for love, instead, they considered what each could bring to the marriage. Love was secondary and not considered important. He wanted a wife (never mind that he had fallen in love with her) and she wanted someone to take care of her. She often said that she did grow to love him over time and I believed her because she talked about him a lot. We heard many a story about how Grampa adored Nana, how he treated her like a princess and gave her any and everything he could afford. She never had to work another day of her life other than to be a fine wife and mother. 

Their love story lived on until he died quite suddenly in his fifties, not long before I was born. She talked of him frequently, as though he were in the next room or out running an errand. Though I knew he was long passed I nearly expected him to walk into the room at any moment. He never left her side, even in death. And until she passed away at the age of 96, she never took off her wedding ring, nor did she stop loving him. Indeed, theirs was a love story for the ages.