In the late 1960s, a woman named Susie — my mother before she was my mother — worked as a waitress at the Sheraton Hotel in Greensboro. She sparkled with personality, and before long, the management promoted her to hostess of the fine-dining restaurant. People came to eat on the nights she was working, and when her regular customers came in the door, she grabbed menus and escorted couples to their special tables.
Not long into her job as hostess, the management moved her again, this time to behind the bar of the Matador Room.
One evening, a man named Phil — my dad before he was my dad — came into the restaurant, sat at the bar, and ordered a Schlitz on draft. My mother poured the drink and thought he was the best-looking man she’d ever seen. He had wavy black hair and a brilliant smile, and she thought he looked just like Joe Namath.
The man, who was my dad before he was my dad, drank his beer, left his money under his glass and left the bar without saying anything.
The woman thought she’d never see him again.
But the next night, he came back.
He waited for the woman who wore her dark hair in a beehive and talked like Loretta Lynn to finish her shift, and he took her out for a late-night dinner. They stayed out for a long time, talking about everything — their work, their days, their life, their pasts and their futures, until the restaurant finally locked the doors and turned out the lights and told them to go home.
My parents, before they were my parents, sat in my dad’s car, talking and finding their voices deep into the night.
You wonder what keeps a couple together for 40, 50, 60 years. You wonder what’s the secret to a long and interesting marriage.
Once, I came across my parents’ wedding photo, a single color print. They keep it in a photo box on a shelf, not even in a frame. In it, my mom is wearing a long, blue satin dress and white gloves; my dad is in a sharp, black suit. They’re posed in front of a brown-paneled wall at the courthouse. They look happy. But they also look quiet. It doesn’t seem right. That’s the thing you notice when you stare at pictures long enough: They capture everything but sound.
When I think of my parents, I think first of their voices, the constants that haven’t changed despite age and illness and surgeries and time. My dad’s hair isn’t black anymore; my mother doesn’t wear a beehive. But their voices are the same, as strong and distinct as when I was young and would listen to them talk at night.
When I was a child, long after I should have been asleep, I remember lying in bed, overhearing my parents’ late-night conversations.
They worked long hours back then and got home well after suppertime. They had a business to run and daily things to take care of; every decision they made was through careful conversation with each other. Always with each other.
Every night, I listened to the scrape of their forks on plates while they ate their late-night dinner. And I heard them talking. For hours at the kitchen table, they talked — about what I don’t know, their pasts and their futures, maybe? Their work, their days, their life. Sometimes they raised their voices; sometimes they argued. But mostly, I heard my dad’s hearty laughter and my mom’s sweet accent sounding just like a country singer. And I listened as their voices drifted up the stairs in the night, finding their way toward me, filling in the darkness.