Remembering an Old-Fashioned Courting

Journalist Steven V. Roberts was writing about his family when his mother produced letters she had exchanged with his father years ago. Roberts talks about his parents and his new book, My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This Sunday is Father's Day, and, for the occasion, Steve Inskeep spoke to a man who learned something new about his dad years after his father's death.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The son is Steven V. Roberts, longtime newspaperman and sometime public radio host. His parents came from Bayonne, New Jersey, and he was writing a memoir about them when his mother produced piles and piles of yellowed old paper.

Mr. STEVEN V. ROBERTS (Journalist): About a hundred letters that my parents exchanged between 1936 and 1940. My parents met on my mom's 17th birthday, February 1st, 1936. They lived one block apart from each other.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at a letter here. It's addressed to--it's Dorothy. It's...

Mr. ROBERTS: Dorothy Shanban(ph).

INSKEEP: That's your mother. And your dad was not at a loss for words here. This looks like five or six pages here.

Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I said to my mother, `Why did you write letters if you lived around the corner from each other?' And she gave a very good answer. She said, `You know, we were very shy, and we could say things on paper that we couldn't say to each other directly.' And you read the letters and you see that. They start off--in the very first letter, my father is so fumbling. Even the first salutation, as he says, `Dear Dorothy or Dot or Dottie or whatever they call you,' and he goes on and on and on, trying to defend the fact that the first night they met, he walked her home, and he was so shy, it was a rainy and sleety, icy night, and he left her halfway down the block. He didn't even walk her to the door.

INSKEEP: Good night. See you later.

Mr. ROBERTS: He just sort of took off. But you could see they're feeling each other out, the first tiny tendrils of relationship and affection in these pages.

INSKEEP: They argued in these letters, didn't they?

Mr. ROBERTS: Yes, they did. And my mother, as I say, only 17, and yet, she was very sharp and sort of hit back at him. And at one point, she says to him, `You know, you strike me, Will, as someone who's really rather frightened of women and that you're like a little lost boy, you know, whistling in the dark,' and he writes back about 10 pages, and on the last page, he says, `Dot, you're right.' And that is the first moment when you see that spark of real intimacy and affection that blossomed into a 57-year marriage.

INSKEEP: Did she change him, in any way, by drawing him out and getting him to admit his shyness?

Mr. ROBERTS: Oh, absolutely. It was like she brought his fears into the light. And once she did that, they weren't so scary anymore. You could just see it in the letters. It was such a relief to him to have someone understand how shy and insecure he was.

INSKEEP: Was he a different person later in life when you came to know him?

Mr. ROBERTS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. He was always the public face of that couple. He was the wind in the sails, but she was always the steady hand on the tiller. It's a pretty good partnership when you--and toward the end of dad's life--he's been gone now eight years--but he used to say, `We're like two trees,' to mix a metaphor, `that our roots are so intertwined with each other, that if you ever cut one down, the other would fall.' My mom has not fallen, but there's a huge hole in her life.

INSKEEP: Do you know if--in all the years that came after their marriage, if your parents ever did get back into that situation where something that they wanted to say was easier to say on paper than in person?

Mr. ROBERTS: Not to each other, but to me. When I was dating Cokie and she...

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, your wife. Yeah.

Mr. ROBERTS: Cokie Roberts. And she was Catholic. I was Jewish. And my father was very, very upset with this match, and he wrote me a five-page, single-space letter expressing his deepest feelings and deepest fears, and only now do I fully understand that letter, because having read about his own youth in his own words, I understood how insecure he was, in some ways, and the letter to me is all full of how you could not be the dominant male in a household where you're Jewish and she's Catholic, and he was--some of his own insecurities, that I only discovered through reading these letters, were showing up in his fears about me.

But there's another letter in which he finally concedes, you know, `It would be a whole lot easier to oppose this match if it weren't so obvious she's the perfect girl for you.' And then I knew it was going to be all right.

INSKEEP: Steven Roberts, is there a paragraph or two from this pile of correspondence between your parents, as young adults, that you'd like to read to us?

Mr. ROBERTS: I'll read sort of two excerpts. This first one is from my father to my mother, after they'd been seeing each other for a couple of years and they're getting increasingly serious, but he's still very uneasy, and he's preaching doctrine of free love to her, being a child of the '30s in New York, but he writes to her this way. `You see, Dot, I wouldn't have the nerve to seduce you even if I wanted to. Maybe that's what I've meant all along. Hell, I don't know. Will.'

He was still very uneasy in this relationship. And they finally do kiss. This took a couple of years. And apparently, it did not go well, and he said something to her afterwards, and she writes the next day, `There's a matter that we should thrash out. Your parting remark last night provoked me considerably.' Apparently, he had said something really suave like, `Thank goodness you don't expect any pretty speeches.' And she was furious. Quote, "You were looking forward to a cataclysm, and I to the natural process of things. And although the natural thing happened, you seem to regard it as a catastrophe. Don't worry," she writes, "it's not likely to reoccur." But then she softens. `How my guardian angel must be laughing and saying to herself, "What a fuss over a few kisses."'

INSKEEP: Steven V. Roberts is the author of "My Fathers' Houses." Thanks very much.

Mr. ROBERTS: What a pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

(Credits)

MONTAGNE: With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

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My Fathers' Houses
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Memoir Of A Family

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