By RACHEL GILES
One night in early April of 1992, my mom drove her red Ford Escort up to my grandparents’ little white house at two o’clock in the morning. She told my dad she was headed to New Mexico and wanted him to come with her. My dad snuck out his bedroom window with a suitcase of clothes, his guitar and provisions: a jar of peanut butter, some Fresca and sardines. They were headed west. I have probably heard a dozen different versions of this story.
My mom and dad met their freshman year of high school. It wasn’t love at first sight, and they actually didn’t like each other very much. Eventually, they ran in the same circle of friends, and early their junior year, my mom invited my dad to a party. Soon they were dating, cutting class to play pool and spending hours at Denny’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. So when my mom asked my dad to come with her to New Mexico, he said yes.
On the road trip, they took turns driving. My dad didn’t know how to drive a manual, so my mom would yell “clutch!” and shift gears from the passenger seat until they hit fifth on the highway, and then she could sleep. They listened to cassettes of Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Beatles’ White Album over and over and over again. They knew every word to every song.
My dad proposed somewhere on the side of the road in Oklahoma. They got married on April 21 at a courthouse in Amarillo, Texas. There wasn’t a dress or tux; my mom was wearing a green camisole and my dad was wearing a salmon t-shirt. There weren’t any guests, flowers or cake. They were high school sweethearts who had a wedding reception for two at the Whataburger down the street.
They never made it to New Mexico. Even after my dad pawned his guitar, they ran out of money and had to go home to Woodbridge. They never ate the sardines.
They came back and broke the news to family and friends, who were supportive of the decision but didn’t believe they’d stay together. They were facing an uncertain future: young, broke and trying to finish high school. My mom borrowed and altered an old bridesmaid dress from my Aunt Jo, and my parents went to their senior prom as a married couple. They graduated together in June that year.
When my dad told me his version of the story when I was 12, he mused how absolutely insane it was that one impulsive decision as teenagers had changed their lives forever. I will never forget when he looked right at me and said, “Your mom and I? We flew a paper airplane to the moon.”
A couple years ago, my family went on a roadtrip across the country to visit my grandfather for Christmas. He lives in New Mexico now, in a tiny town near Taos, on a sprawling ranch that backs up to the Carson National Forest.
On the way out, we stopped in Amarillo. The streets were empty and eerily silent that Sunday. We walked around the Potter County District Court building, but couldn’t go inside because they were closed. I took pictures of my parents, 25 years after they were married there. We drove to the Whataburger, and ate lunch. The story of my parents always felt mythical to me. It was strange to sit in the booth where they sat, eating cheap cheeseburgers and fries. I thought about how insane it was that this Texan town, the courthouse and an old fast food restaurant could feel like these magical places.
My parents are celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary this week. Both of them are essential employees. My dad is a frontline health care worker, a nurse who cares for COVID-19 patients every time he clocks in for a shift. My mom is an administrator who has been helping to coordinate the INOVA Health System response to the crisis. So they won’t be going away for the weekend or out to dinner to celebrate this year.
Birthdays, weddings, graduations and events all around the world are being postponed or canceled. We are all responsible for doing our part to flatten the curve. But that doesn’t mean that milestones have to go unacknowledged. My parents are going on a backyard picnic to celebrate their anniversary.
Love isn’t dependent on extraordinary events or circumstances. It makes the average extraordinary. It makes you burst into tears at a Whataburger when you see your parents holding hands.
We should celebrate the good stuff, the people we love, in the small and meaningful ways we are able to. Sing happy birthday over Zoom, call your family and your friends to say hi. It might seem impossible to find joy during this time, but I know better than most that nothing, really, is impossible. You can take a paper airplane to the moon.