Opinion | Biff America: Love and hardship
She was 13, he was 21.
The country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Mike worked odd jobs, Pat had yet to quit school to become a live-in nanny.
They met at the home of a wealthy family who had no idea they were visiting.
Pat and her siblings were being raised by the family of the man who had abandoned them and their immigrant mother.
Pat’s mom, Bridget, was forced to leave her children in the care of her husband’s family. Bridget conceded the truth in her mother-in-law’s declaration: “Your husband is not coming back, you have no way of caring for your children, we’ll take care of them, and you should go back to your own people.”
Pat’s life and behavior was watched over by four maiden aunts who were determined that she wouldn’t inherit the poor morals of her mother who they assumed had ensnared their brother.
Marie Dupree was a few years Pat’s senior. She worked as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family who lived nearby. Marie would turn off the porch light as a signal that the parents were gone and kids asleep, and Pat would sneak over. One night Patty showed up and two boys were visiting. One was Marie’s boyfriend, another was his friend Mike — both were in their 20s.
Mike wrote in his diary of that night, “I met a real swell redhead tonight named Patty O’Malley — WOW.”
After that night, Pat and Mike would sneak off whenever they could. Their dates would consist of Mike waiting on a street corner as Patty walked home from school. They would sneak into a diner and split a grilled cheese sandwich. Had her aunts known of that, they would have been mortified. They once said to her, “If you are not careful you will grow up to be ‘loose’ like your own mother.”
Soon after they met, Pat quit school and left home to work as a nanny. Pat loved to learn. But the dowdy, oversized hand-me-downs her aunts forced her to wear embarrassed the petite ginger. She went to work to get out from under the thumbs of her aunts.
She was 13, he was 21 when they met. Nine years later they married.
Pat lacked love while growing up, and once married she made up for lost time. Mike was protective and affectionate. He was well aware of the hardship in his wife’s past and was determined she would suffer no more. Pat’s love was laced with admiration and gratitude. When she called him at work she’d ask for “my hero” and leave love notes in his lunch box.
They would look back and say those were the best years in their lives. They would dance to the radio, make love when the kids were asleep and share their dreams of self-employment, a big house and nice furniture. But in the meantime, they had each other.
Good fortune smiled upon Pat and Mike. They had six healthy kids, a home with a yard and a successful business which Mike ran with his brothers.
When they began to be able to afford the things they wanted, they lost the things they had.
Mike soon was working six days a week and drinking seven. Pat’s role was relegated to mother, wife, hostess, but no longer partner.
She wasn’t sure what was missing in her life. She loved her children and home but felt lonely and neglected. She would have traded a new bedroom set for one bite of that grilled cheese sandwich they had shared on their early clandestine dates.
Mike was too busy supporting his family to be aware of his mates’ declining mental health.
Some people never learn, some never get the chance, but Mike was lucky. The doctor said the heart attack should have killed him. Eventually retirement and quadruple bypass saved both his life and marriage.
As Pat nursed him back to health, Mike drank less. Mike’s strength returned as did Pat’s confidence. Soon they were once again dancing to the radio.
Their last years together were as good as their first. The house was paid for and in those days Social Security meant something. He would sometimes grow depressed over the years he wasted, but Pat wouldn’t tolerate his melancholy. She would hold him in her arms and say, “You’re still my hero.”
Mike died at the age of 90, a widower. Put on paper, Pat and Mike’s lives might seem ordinary. But they weren’t characters out of a book; they were two people doing the best they could under the circumstances. They were my parents.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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