My Parent’s Marriage

Detroit Stories

On New Year’s Day 2008, my girlfriend and I broke up. I should have seen it coming. I managed to get reservations at a hot New York restaurant for New Year’s Eve and she cancelled with plans to stay home “alone” with a “cold.” Much like the rest of our relationship, the ending was anti-climactic. Amanda left me a voicemail telling me the keys were with my doorman because she wouldn’t be coming by anymore.

We met the previous July and I was certain that she was ‘The One.’ I looked her up and down numerous times, attempting to keep the drool from the corners of my mouth while we talked, envisioning a house by the southern Atlantic, babies and Amanda in a white summer frock. We seemed compatible and talked everyday about everything. During our final negotiations towards what I thought was an inevitable marriage, the cracks began to show. In the end, we were just too different and wanted different things from our lives. I suffered the usual depression, denial, and anger in the first few weeks after we split. I wasn’t as devastated as I had been in past break-ups but the nagging fear of being a lonely 85-year-old bachelor began to creep back into my mind.

The women in New York are slightly neurotic and strong willed.  I like that about them. The battle of wills is quite a turn-on. When was it going to be my turn? I began to wonder. When am I going to meet my wife and what makes these relationships work over the course of the years? My buddy Eric told me he got married because he couldn’t stand the thought of spending anytime away from his wife Bonnie. They were friends for 10 years and a couple for 5 years. My friends Bob and Annie got married because they had reached a crossroads in their relationship: get married or break-up. They divorced in 2000. These weren’t the exact examples that I had been wondering about. When I thought about it, I realized the model I was looking for is much closer to home: my parents – my schoolteacher Mother and semi-connected building contractor father. What kept my parents together those 38 years? How did they do it? What was the bond between these two deeply different people?

When people ask me how an Irish-American girl met and married a Romanian holocaust survivor in 1965 Detroit, I mumbled “He wired the apartment complex where she lived.” Mother probably told my brothers and me the story of their courtship many times over the course of the years but I was too focused on the Detroit Tigers to pay attention. When one of my girlfriends pushed me too hard for the answer, I grew irrationally angry. I gave her their phone number and said, “Here, call my Mother.”

Judy Bennett was from a family whose roots in the Detroit area go back to the 1700’s. (How’s that for bad karma?) . Mother went to the University of Michigan to become a teacher and was doing just that on a faithful day in 1965 when she ran into Aron Zola. My Maternal relatives always impressed me with their Midwesterness, that ability to meet people of all walks of life openly, warmly and sincerely. This is the very trait that makes the family from Minnesota seem like good fodder for comedians and sitcoms – it is viewed, incorrectly, as naiveté – but I’ve always seen this as the real strength of the people of the area. They don’t really care who lives next to them as long the neighbors as contribute to the general community. The other side of that belief is what Robert Frost articulated in his poem the Mending Wall: good fences make good neighbors. Midwesterners will watch your kids and feed the dog and get the mail when you’re out of town but they don’t need or want to know what goes on in that house.

Aron Zola came to Detroit from Pittsburgh, PA. in the early 50’s to work for Chrysler. Three or so weeks into his tenure as a worker on the auto lines, some Polish guy came up to my father, patted him on the head and called him “a dirty Jew.” The Old Man picked up a 2×4 and whacked him right across the side of his face, putting him over the production line. Dad was promptly fired. That was my father at his cantankerous best, a proud Jewish man who brooked no dissent, except from his wife and three sons. He survived Hitler by following the Soviet retreat into Russia and then followed them again as they beat Nazi’s back into Germany. Along the way, only he and his three older sisters would survive out of a core family of close to thirty. By 1947, he was in the Displaced Person’s Camp in Traunstein, West Germany, learning how to gamble, blackmarketeer, while helping the Irgun set up the Modern state of Israel. He refused to go to the country that he helped in some small way to found because they wanted to put him on a Kibbutz. Dad, a notorious capitalist, was adamant – he was no communist. In 1951, he came to the States, not speaking the language, with nary a dime to his name. His journey took him from the streets of Detroit as a card hustler, pool shark and gambler, to the heights of the building contracting business. He counted as his friends, and sometimes business associates, politicians, judges, and street hustlers with colorful names like the Rabbit and several of the surviving members of the infamous Jewish gangsters and rumrunners the Purple Gang. Of course, my father’s street friends were not allowed in the house.

He always seemed out of place in the genteel surroundings of the uber-American suburbs he choose to live in. The Old Man was most at home talking to his cronies at the Horse Track than he was talking to a now retired Federal Court Judge who was a dear family friend. When I asked him why build a home in Bloomfield Hills to raise your kids? Why build another home in North Scottsdale in the mid ‘90’s? There was no pontification on schools or possible land value in the future. “It’s what your Mother wanted.” He said.

At my father’s wake in 2002, my cousin Mark Fryd handed me a cigar and riffed for two hours about his relationship with his Uncle Aron. Mark’s analysis of their marriage didn’t flatter my Mother. “Your Mother wasn’t the prettiest woman your father had. He married her because he knew she would be a good Mother.” If the Old Man were only looking for a good woman to bear and nurture his children, why were they together for 37 years? Outside of a woman named Susie, I never heard about any of his ex-girlfriends or conquests. There were whispers of a previous wife who was also an Irish-American redhead and affairs but how was I supposed to know? Jesus, we’re talking about my parents here.

I finally got Mother on the phone in between students (she runs her own school where she retrains kids who have ADD and Dyslexia in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area) on a warm March day. I was getting excited to find out what Mother thought her relationship with my father so strong. “We were older when we got married (Mother was 27 and the Old Man was 35) and had done the things we wanted to do. Also, when we married, on Tuesday I played bridge and he played poker.”

“So how did you meet Dad?” I asked.

“I was living in an apartment complex in Roseville, MI. and your father was there with an electrical contractor friend of his. He looked me up and down through his sunglasses like you men always do and said hello. He was there the next few weeks with his friend and I’d make him tea every morning. After we had been going out a few weeks, I gave your father an ultimatum: I don’t want to be your Tuesday girl. It’s either Friday or Saturday or this relationship is over,” Mother said. “When he told me there wasn’t anyone else on Friday and Saturday, I scoffed. You’ve heard stories about your father and they were all true. He was quite a ladies man. He called me back an hour or so later and asked me if I’d like to go to the movies on Friday. I told him I was busy this Friday but maybe next Friday. I didn’t have any plans so I stayed in that Friday and washed my hair. I didn’t want your father to think I was that easy.” (Mother was the second Mrs. Aron Zola. My cousin Sarah, who remembered his first wife, once told me she was an Irish red head. It turns out my father had a type. Who knew? “Your father was married to a woman before me for six months. Her name was Helene. They had a dog so your father ended up paying alimony for the dog,” Mom laughed. Knowing how much my father hated spending money on things he deemed worthless, I’m shocked he didn’t have a heart attack.)

I think Judy Bennett caught Aron Zola completely off guard. Mother was perceptive and in love. Aron was playing the field. When she put her foot down, she caught his attention. Judy had substance. “After we had been dating for a few months, one of your father’s friends told me I was good for him, he was beginning to settle down,” Mom told me. “He told me that since your father and I had been together, he wasn’t pacing around as much. You know how your father was, always onto the next thing. I could get him to sit down and watch a movie.”

“But if you really want to know the secret, I got it from Grandma Randle who lived across the hall from us in the Mansfield Apartments. She was over for tea one day and asked me about the house we were building, how it was going. She told me that she’d been through many of her friends building houses. “Judy, if you want your marriage to work, make sure that you and Aron agree on everything that is in the house.” She said.”

“Once the house was ready, your father and I went and picked out the wallpaper. We went to this large distributor in on 8 Mile Road one Saturday and found the wallpaper we wanted for your room, the powder room, the kitchen and dining room. We told the saleswoman to hold onto the samples we wanted and we’d be back the next week. We went back in the next week to find the wallpaper for Joel’s room and the family room and your father decided we should put wallpaper in our room. Your father, he liked, interesting things. He found this red-flocked wallpaper with a black background and then decided he wanted wholesale changes for all the wallpaper we had already chosen. I asked Aron to come out to the car to talk to me for a second. I calmly told your father that I wasn’t going to live in a bedroom that looked like a whorehouse. He said if we didn’t get that wallpaper, then we shouldn’t have any wallpaper in the bedroom. Your father walked back in and we bought all the wallpaper we had already agreed on. That was the secret of our marriage, we just agreed to agree.”

Agree to agree, compromise. According to Mother, that is the key to a long and happy marriage. Choosing your battles and understanding what issues are important to you, those are the things to fight about, and not the little things like the toilette seat being left up in the middle of the night.

Toward the end of our time together, Amanda used to say the same thing all the time: compromise is what makes a relationship successful and I agreed. When we first started seeing each other, I changed whatever she wanted me to change. I deemed most of them inconsequential items that would make her happy. A new lamp for the living room, an Orchid in the bedroom window, getting my haircut every couple of weeks instead of once a month, I agreed. Early Christmas morning, as we sat on the couch after we had gotten back from her cousins in Staten Island, Amanda got upset with me when I wanted to go to a local bar to have a Christmas drink with some old friends. She reminded me that this was a family time and that compromises had to be made. Early the next morning, we were off to her sisters in Middletown, NY for another family gathering that would last until 9pm. I had opened the restaurant where I tended bar that morning and the next three days, I had to work three straight open to close doubles, plus I had several looming deadlines. When I reminded her of these compromises I was making for her on a day that wasn’t even my holiday, she stood up and went to bed. In retrospect, with Amanda, everything was ok as long as I was compromising with her. There was no agreement to agree.

I flashed to a long forgotten question I once asked my father. He glared at me and in that voice of his that cross between Jackie Mason and Bela Lugosi muttered, “Go ask your Mother. Whatever she says is fine with me.”

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