My parents met at a parish social in New York City soon after my dad returned from a World War II navy stint. They were both Catholic high school teens. My dad was finishing his senior year after taking time out to defend his country and my mom was 15. Their meeting was, as my mom tells it, love at first sight. She saw this dashing young man at the punch bowl, hoping he would pour her a cup, and he did. They dated for years, when young couples still went “steady,” and became engaged when my dad had some job prospects lined up. They were married in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a few blocks from where they both grew up, in midtown Manhattan.
I have seen countless times the photo of them standing in the “close” outside the cathedral, she in her fine white dress and he in his black tux adorned with a white carnation. They look so young, attractive, hopeful and in love. They had lived through war and were touched by death and hardship in their own families, yet their faces radiate innocence and something more – purity. A purity that was expected of Catholic couples in 1951.
That black-and-white photo, taken at a significant starting point in the life of a young couple, is framed prominently in my parent’s bedroom to this day. Next to the photo is another one of me and my two older brothers taken by a professional photographer when we were about 8, 5 and 3 years old. These two photos, for decades joined together on the bedroom cabinet and in our hearts and minds, tell much about my parents and the kind of family we grew up in. As the old sing-song goes: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby carriage. As I reflect on my formative years, I realize that the assurance of love and marriage provided a wonderful sense of security for me and my brothers growing up. This is the type of security I hope my wife and I are giving to our two sons today.
There is something else I would like to pass on to my boys – a sense of purity. Not a puritanical mindset that sees the body as dirty, sex as a necessary evil and the devil in every detail. But a noble, gentlemanly purity of heart and mind that knows the temptations of the flesh yet chooses – by grace, expectation and example – the higher good. I learned of that purity not only from my parent’s wedding picture, but more powerfully from a story my mother told me when I was 13 years of age. She must have known I was on the edge of adolescence and probably wanted to give me a good example for my future relations with females. Yet the most persuasive part of the story was in the way she related it, which told me just how much she cherished my father’s gracious goodness.
The story goes like this. During their dating period, they would meet many evenings for a simple snack at a luncheonette and then walk the city’s streets, winding out different paths to prolong their time together. Inevitably, they would come to the door of my mother’s apartment building and say their good-nights. My mother told the next part of the story with such exact detail and wonder that I knew she was reliving the moment as she spoke. Each night, she would turn toward my dad, expecting a little hug or an innocent peck on the cheek, but my father would stand very tall and proper, remove his right glove finger by finger, and say very sincerely yet formally, as he shook her hand, “Well, my sweet, it has been a very enjoyable evening with you. I hope I will have this pleasure again soon.”
As my mother repeated those words, I could see the two of them in my mind (I knew the exact building where it had taken place) and decided immediately that this was how I wanted to act with a young lady. The year was 1971, before impurity flooded TV and the media, and I resolved in my heart to be that young man, taking off my gloves finger by finger to shake the hand of my beloved.
As I now endeavor to inculcate this value in my own sons’ hearts – the elder just turned 13! – I know that it may be time for another purity story.