Between courtship and marriage, their love affair lasted 60 years. It spanned perfect health and terminal sickness, for richer and poorer, full measures of joy and sadness.
Inseparable, they accompanied one another from a park bench in Queens, where love at first sight took hold to a little white house in Florida where they lived for 40 years until death cleaved them apart.
Come the end, everything my parents owned fit into a few cardboard boxes stacked in what we called the family room.
Mostly, they left behind photo albums, thick parchment pages between leather covers. My mother filled these books with years of photographs, notes and keepsakes.
An engraved silver coin from an early date to Playland in Times Square. Whorls of my father’s hair wrapped in plastic. New York Mets ticket stubs. The folio from my parents’ honeymoon night at a beachfront motel on Long Island.
The place was called the Ronjo. In 1964, it set back my father, who was 18, a cool 59 bucks.
The albums brim with photographs going back to my parents’ childhoods and forward through mine and my brother’s.
There’s the happy couple at Jones Beach, the ocean breeze lifting my father’s pompadour. There’s their first new car, a 1965 red Volkswagen Beetle, list price $1,650. There’s me as a baby, then my brother Matthew appears – the boys swaddled and held, playing with Evel Knievel toy motorcycles, riding bikes, dragging sleds up Suicide Hill.
My favorite picture tells a simple story. I am 6, Matthew is 3. We are grinning and laughing with every tooth we can bare, each balanced on one of dad’s knees, with a birthday cake on the table before us. I cannot imagine being happier.
The more I flipped through the albums, the more I felt loss in the depths of my heart. My father fought a grueling fight against Parkinson’s and dementia for three years, lasting until March 24, when he left to rejoin my mother, the one love of his life.
My sadness was not so much about losing him, but about the things have lost as we jet forward through the 21st century.
Sitting in my parents’ kitchen for the first time minus my parents, I missed the elements that built their life together.
I missed photographs you can hold, pictures carefully pasted into books that may yellow and crumble with time, but never detach from the memories they capture.
Today we have a trillion selfies, digital images of every last hamburger, every new outfit, every duck-lipped smile. It’s Instacrap, a style and volume of photography that cheapens memory.
Once, every photo mattered. You chose subjects carefully because you only had 12 or 24 or 36 shots. It took a week for Fotomat or the drugstore to deliver an envelope of celluloid treasures. Those were images worth keeping for life – because they held life in perpetuity.
Lifelong love also has fallen out of style. Now it’s unicorn rare to see passion that begins with a smile shared on a junior high school playground and spans six decades.
I am talking about love that fills albums: with Father’s Day and Mother’s Day cards drawn by hand, with wedding photographs of the bride and groom looking more like prom royalty than adults a few months from parenthood.
I have had two marriages. We vowed till death do us part, but the relationships ended well short of the graveyard, in legal documents no one saves in an album full of treasures.
My parents, Lynn and Harvey Leibowitz, never owned much – just a few boxes of stuff and all those photo albums – but they had each other. And that was everything.