It was, after all, the early 1950’s. May-December marriages were relatively rare in the real world; even in Hollywood they were pretty uncommon.
Here in the somewhat tightly-knit community known as the Veterans Administration Hospital just outside the tiny town of Tomah, Wisconsin, your Grandpa Raphael and I stood out for that reason alone. He was short and stocky and in his late 50’s, while I, especially in my high heels [which, according to the practice of the times, I wore whenever I was in public], and my hair piled high on my head, could not make myself look older than around 30 at most. And even though the level of sophistication was higher in this federal facility than it had been at that state hospital in Cherokee, Iowa where we had met and married, nevertheless it was the Midwest, it was rural, and we were the newcomers who were under the usual scrutiny that all newcomers undergo.
We had become accustomed to being noticed when out in public, and indeed had come to be amused by the variety of reactions we drew from others. One of our favorites was to watch the face of the registration clerk in hotels. On one occasion, as your Grandpa Raphael was signing the register, the clerk asked if he wanted a separate or an adjoining room for his daughter. After glancing quickly at me, your Grandpa responded, “No, my wife will be staying in my room with me tonight.” I expected the clerk to be apologetic, but he was not. Instead, with a face that became impassive and slightly
cool, he simply said, “Of course.”
Another reaction we experienced at times was a subtle one but unmistakable: that I probably married him for his money. This was, after all, the era when Marilyn Monroe was singing in her movie that “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, and when doctors and lawyers [not rock stars, sports figures and entrepreneurs] were among the more highly paid. So why else would this young woman marry this chubby, balding old man?
Actually, these assumptions and reactions did not offend us. Indeed we were amused by them, and eventually found ourselves sort of playing into it whenever we could, in a kind of private improvisational theater.
One such opportunity presented itself one evening at a group dinner party attended by several staff physicians and their wives. Since it took no time at all to run out of new places to dine in Tomah, three couples and we decided one Saturday night to travel the 60 miles to La Crosse, the nearest city, to enjoy an upscale restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River. I dressed up in my basic black frock and high heels, swept my hair into its usual up-do, and put on my earrings.
Now, I had purchased these earrings while still single and poor in what was known then as a five-and-dime store. They were “dangly”; each earring consisted of a circle about an inch and a half round, encrusted with fake “diamonds” that dangled down from the stud. I liked wearing dangly earrings, especially with my upswept hairdo, because, for one, it was the glamorous style of the times, and for another, I thought it made me look sophisticated enough for my newly assumed status as a doctor’s wife. I had paid, for this rather good imitation, the magnificent sum of nineteen cents.
At the restaurant, since our table was not yet ready, and needing to divest ourselves of the heavy overcoats Wisconsin weather demands, we milled about in the entryway around the coatroom until we were summoned to our table. There we were seated in such a way that four of us sat across from the other four, none of us seated directly next to, or across from, our own spouse, to maximize diversity of conversation and encourage socialization. The evening went well.
Then, during a short lull in the conversation, the young doctor seated to my right said to me, “Is that the new fashion?” I was flattered by his assumption.
“Is what the new fashion?” I asked.
“To wear just one earring.”
Well of course I instinctively clutched at my earlobes and made some sound of surprise, inadvertently making it perfectly clear that this was not a new fashion statement, but a loss. This stopped nearby conversations and turned a number of faces in my direction, including your Grandpa’s. In response to his quizzical look, I told him that one of my earrings was missing. Well, this then sent my neighbors scurrying to search under their chairs, around their place settings, and so on, until one of the waiters asked if something was wrong. I, embarrassed by all this fuss, said something like they shouldn’t bother or it doesn’t matter, when suddenly, clearly and casually, your Grandpa announced, “Oh, please don’t worry. They are heavily insured!”
For an instant this caught even me off-guard. But I saw the ever-so-slight twinkle in his eye, and I relaxed.
Well, of course, this propelled everyone into even more frenzied action. The waiter asked where else in the building I had been, and he went straightaway. For a minute I couldn’t look at your Grandpa for fear of breaking into laughter.
Soon the waiter appeared with a small silver tray holding the earring, and presented it to me as if I were a Duchess. Of course I thanked him, took the earring from the tray, and reinstalled it on my earlobe, as if I were a Duchess, and we went about our business of having an enjoyable dinner out with colleagues and friends. As we left the restaurant, your Grandpa tipped the waiter handsomely.
Since we had come to La Crosse four in a car, two cars, we had to wait until we got home to burst into laughter. As we were putting out the light before retiring, he said, “You know, I gave that waiter a good tip for finding your nineteen-cent earring. We are going broke maintaining the illusion that we are rich!” I felt very rich indeed.