Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Blossoming of Romance Under the Fascist Sky

My parents met as teenagers on a bicycle trip in Germany and Italy in the summer of 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the second world war.  Although both of their families lived in the Detroit area, and they had friends and acquaintances in common, they had never met before.  That's not entirely surprising, though, since both of them went away to school.  That summer my mother, MD, had just finished her final year at Oldfields and was heading off to Sarah Lawrence in the fall, and my father, FD, was approaching his last year at Hotchkiss, with Yale in his sights thereafter.

FD and MD photographed in Germany, summer 1939
Found by RD in MD's jewelry case after she died

My siblings and I find it remarkable that our parents were sent off to spend the summer of 1939 riding around on bicycles in the two major Fascist countries in Europe, at the very brink of war.  What were our grandparents (on both sides) thinking when they agreed to allow them to go on such a trip, and in such countries, when the storm clouds of impending war were thought to be more than apparent to even the most casual of observers?  Although staunch and conservative Republicans, neither sets of grandparents were exactly pro-Fascist in their sympathies.  But those were different times with far less information available than we take for granted today.  I highly doubt that my grandparents would have consented to send their children on such a trip if they had comprehended that Europe was at risk of exploding into war within only a week or two of the conclusion of the bicycle trip, when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

MD photographed at the time of her debut in 1939

I vaguely remember MD talking about how she recalled that Germany was covered with flags emblazoned with the Nazi swastika that summer, and that she didn't care much for that country or her time there.  Mainly I remember her saying that she was exhausted and sore most of the time from riding on her bicycle all day, and that she never got enough to eat.

MD photographed for a "Debs of Detroit" story
that ran in Life Magazine, 1940

My sister Camilla recently sent me a postcard that MD sent that summer to a friend of hers back home, from Venice, in which she said she much preferred Italy to Germany, particularly for its food.  I've copied her newsy missive here, below:

I have a knife that my father bought in Germany that summer, but I don't recall him ever speaking about the bicycle trip, only my mother.

Father Darling's knife

I wish that I could ask both of them questions about it now, but I'm not able to since they are long dead.  It is interesting to me, as I write this blog and look back and ponder those that came before me, how often I wish I could pick up the telephone and review what happened with the person I am writing about, who is no longer alive to tell me the story once more, or to answer the questions that I have.

MD with Willard Huffstadler (KIA during WWII)
Photo taken in Germany, 1939

But I do recall MD telling me that it was during that bicycle trip that she began to fall in love with my father.  There were other boys in the tour group that she liked, and who liked her (such as Willard Huffstadler, shown with her in the photograph, above), but it was my father whom she came away wanting to see more of.

FD photographed around the time he met MD

And since they conveniently lived near each other she was able to, at least during breaks when they were both home from school.  MD made her debut in the winter of 1939, over the Christmas holidays, and I believe my father attended some of the parties, but I don't think he was one of her escorts.  They started to date in earnest in the fall of 1940 when he went to Yale, which was but a short train or car ride from Sarah Lawrence.  And they became engaged when they were still undergraduates, after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

FD's Yale freshman Branford College class, 1940
FD is second row, standing on the far right

MD dropped out of Sarah Lawrence to marry my father when he was drafted into the army in the spring of 1943, during his junior year at Yale.  As it was for a lot of people of that generation, they had a sense of urgency to get married in the face of the mighty conflict, and their parents--both sets of whom came of age during the carnage of the first world war--encouraged them to get married even though they were very young, not much more than twenty years old.

FD shortly before he and MD married

There was very little time to make arrangements for their hurried wartime wedding, since they had only several weeks before my father was required to report for duty.  Grandfather Darling officiated at the morning ceremony, held in the church in Grosse Pointe where he was minister, which was followed by a luncheon at one of the nearby clubs. I don't believe there were more than twenty-five people who attended their wedding, only immediate family members and the closest of friends.

As his new bride, MD followed my father to the various army bases here in the U.S. where he spent the remainder of the war (he never saw active combat), setting up housekeeping in small apartments or crowded boarding houses nearby.  And so they began their married life.  They stayed married to each other for thirty years or so, twenty of which worked, followed by ten that didn't so much.

FD and MD as college undergraduates, early 1940s

As the youngest of their four children, I mainly recall the time in their marriage after things had started to unravel.  I vaguely remember when their marriage still worked, and when they still enjoyed each other's company, but not with any great vividness, and only through a boy's eyes.

After they got divorced MD methodically destroyed every photograph that she had that showed the two of them together, including all of the ones taken when they got married.  I was able to spirit away the photograph that I am showing here, however, which I keep in a frame on my bedside table.  It's the only one I have of them together, where there aren't any other people in the photograph.

And I hold it dear because it is a reminder that, yes, there once had been a time when they were young, and in love, and still looked forward to a happy life together until death did them part.  I see it in their smiling faces in this early photograph, taken long ago, when they were easy and comfortable with each other, and still in love.


  1. What a lovely personal story. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Oh Reggie. So lovely. Such an intertwining of our national and personal histories. And wasn't your mother a lovely woman. Also love the cleft in your father's chin.

  3. We look back on the development of fascism in Europe with 20/20 hindsight, but I think it was difficult for anyone not directly victimized by it to recognize it for what it was back then. Such a bittersweet post. Your young parents were, so to speak, absolutely darling.

  4. This post breaks my heart, and makes me thankful for so many things. Thank you for writing this.

  5. Reggie Darling, so bittersweet and perfect- so much of what our life and relationships are about. the photographs capture that exuberant youth that is sometimes hard to imagine in our parents. MD- was well, darling. how easy it must have been for FD to fall for her-and likewise. xo,pgt

  6. Your mother has a striking resemblance to Annette Bening in her Debs of Detroit photo. I am touched by the sadness you obviously felt at your parents' divorce, and the clinging on to photos of them in happier times. I know what you mean about wanting to ring and ask them about events in their lives. My father still lives, but my mother died 8 years ago, and there are many things I would like to ask her, but no longer can.

    Regarding Fascism in the 30s, it is surprising how the world ignored the horrors of the collaboration between Stalin and Hitler, and for example bought the grain from the Soviet Union in 1933 that had been denied to Ukraine, and which resulted in the death from starvation of 7 million from that soviet alone.

  7. I truly enjoyed your story. Your parents were a handsome couple and you can see in their vibrant and glowing faces of these photos around the time they met, that they were in love. How wonderful to have these bits and pieces from their interesting history.

  8. This story reads like a lovely and bittersweet novel. One that I would hope were to be made into a movie. (Thinking of Atonement...) Your parents even look like they are straight from the pages of Old Hollywood. I was so touched by all of this.

  9. Thank your for the lovely post that brightened one's gray rainy morning. Your father was dashing and your mother lovely. A carefree youthful bicycle trip through Italy and Germany before the war erupted sounds like the beginning of a great novel. Thanks for poignant share. Always enjoy your posts. JDH

  10. Dearest Reggie,
    I think the fact that she kept that photo of the two of them hidden in her jewelry box until the day she died says a lot. This is definitely RD at his best. Very beautiful and exquisitely well written.

  11. Wonderful story - thank you so much for bringing your parents to life for us.

    I've been checking the backs of all the old photos at my parent's house to make sure my mother has noted who the people are and what year the photo was taken, while we are still lucky enough to have her around :-)

    I grew up down the street from Sarah Lawrence.

  12. Dear Reggie, What a wonderful story of romance and determination in a time of such upheaval and change. It must surely be so that the world was never the same again after the 1940s, before which there did indeed seem to be an innocence about people and events which never returned.

    You write with much sadness about your parent's divorce which was obviously at a very formative time for you. Clearly the bitterness which ensued has left a lasting impression.

  13. Thank you for sharing this poignant story with us, Reggie. My heart hurts for the boy who saw his parents' marriage unravel. That could not have been easy, and I appreciate you sharing their story with us. I hung on every word. So glad you managed to save that picture of the two of them in happier times.

  14. Riveted, start to finish. Some writing professor from your bygone days has surely leapt from the grave to award you A+ for the deft handling of the said, and the unsaid. Reading the comments posted herewith, I'd come to a similar conclusion as that of lindaraxa. Indeed, to my mind, she offers a summation equal to yours. I thank you both. F.

  15. Isn't it interesting how we get insights after loved ones are gone? I discovered that my mother kept a box of favorite quotations, neatly transcribed onto index cards. I had to smile to myself when I saw colorful limericks mixed in with inspirational quotations. You are a great storyteller - thanks for sharing. - Mark

  16. This post is really quite perfect.

  17. Michele from BostonOctober 1, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    RD - what a wonderful story. There's always a feeling of kinship among those of us of divorced parents; how it mars are childhood and then stays with us the rest of our lives. You always hope though that they were happy and maybe truly in love for a time. A sweet and lovely read while I'm in hiding from the monsoon raging outside. Thank you so much.

  18. Reggie: This story truly hits home: my parents were married in 1945, just before the end of the War and spent their "honeymoon" on a train with hundreds of GI's, on the way to California. My father was a pilot and had been on many bombing raids in Northern Italy/Albania but was due to go to the Pacific. The war ended and they returned to Philadelphia.
    They too had a few happy years, though not very many, but remained married for 30 years before my father left and divorced my mother in a nasty divorce. I was the oldest so I do remember many good, happy times. But my brother who is 14 years younger doesn't know about those times....
    Their wedding, also, was only attended by maybe 50 people and there are very few pictures. And I too treasure a blurry black and white of them both cutting the wedding cake!
    Thanks for the touching post!

  19. So interesting and so personal a story. My MIL went back to her home in Austria/Germany in the 30's. We have some postcards and a few pictures but I wish she were here to tell us more. She came to the US alone at 16 to meet up with her mother. It was a more innocent time, even with the war clouds on the horizon.

  20. Ah Reggie, this one is simply perfect, for so many reasons. The formal photo of your mother captures the essence of life for those privileged (and or cursed, depending upon one's point of view) few engaged in a formal coming out, but the Life picture seems to capture the essence of MD. I too marvel at the specter of the carefree (?) pedaling in Europe at that time, good gracious.

    I'm thinking that our parents knew many of the same people, belonged to many of the same clubs, attended many of the same functions. It all seems very "long ago and far away," doesn't it?

    Thank you for sharing such a lovely series of events, and people.

    Sending you a smile,

  21. This might be the richest thing you've ever written. Just stellar. I have a friend whose Mormon father was sent to Germany for his year of white-shirt/navy trouser...Joseph Smith evangelizing. He arrived just in time to hear Adolph Hitler spew his venom, live and in person.

  22. Thank you to everyone who commented here. It is much appreciated. This was a meaningful post for me, and I spent a lot of time on it, getting the voice right. Telling this story helped me put some of the puzzle's pieces together in a way that I hadn't figured out before, until it came to writing this. Thank you.

  23. Reggie - Bravo. As a footnote, MD's postcard to her friend Measle recounted that she had wanted to buy a pair of leather shorts in Bavaria but they were too expensive and besides, would have looked silly. Do you recall when FD went to West Germany on Department of Defense business in the mid 1960s and returned with a pair of lederhosen for each of us? MD was right - they did look silly. Your loving brother, Frecky.

  24. Hello Frecky:
    Yes, I do recall the lederhosen that FD brought home to us from that trip in the 1960s. I was quite proud of mine. i got in to a fight with Tommy Quiggle, a classmate at Potomac School, who called me a Nazi when I wore mine to school one day in second grade! Believe it or not, I am in the market for a set of lederhosen to wear when hiking in the Catskills next summer. Boy thinks I'll look like an idiot, but I don't care . . . .
    Your loving brother, Reggie

  25. Oh, Reggie, heed the wise Boy on the subject of lederhosen.

    MD said she got to know FD on the trip because she was always the slowest cyclist and he would keep her company.

  26. I just re-read this. First time I've ever commented on the same post twice. The last paragraph...regarding the sole surviving photo of your parents together..."resonated" is the wrong word and "it hit me" is too base. All I know is that I'm glad I have a box of things for my daughter,LFG. It's a box that includes pictures of her mother and father when they were hopeful about the future and sincere about their partnership. However fleeting that period was, I want her to know, through the evidence of letters, photographs and my wedding band, that it was real. Ok, I'm gonna have a cig and a martini now.

  27. Lederhosen are hot, heavy, and very unflattering. They also stink from absorbed sweat, and are impossible to clean. There ARE some things that are better with modern technology. I'm with Boy and Sister on this one. If you want to connect with the yodeling/jugenvolk crowd get one of the silly hats.

  28. ADG: Thank you, that's lovely.

    Hermione: I already have one of those, ahem, "silly hats."


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