Short Engagement, Long Marriages: How the Greatest Generation built a Life

Mar 27, 2018 by

When my mother died last October at the age of 90 she left me her diaries. I knew my mother well enough not to expect any shocking revelations. Her diaries are a simple chronicle of the daily events of her life.

I started reading on the June 11, 1944 entry, the day my 17-year-old mother boarded a Western Pacific train in Golconda, Nevada (population 200), for a nine-hour journey to Salt Lake City. The day after she arrived, my mother enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Utah, moved into the dorm and found a part-time job. When she failed Anatomy in the Fall quarter and had to drop out, she found a room and a full-time job. The diary records nothing of her emotions following this setback. She just set out on the next phase of her life without complaint. That was typical for my mother. If a task had to be done, she did it. When my sister and I persuaded her to move to my sister’s home in Texas in 2010, she cheerfully emptied her house in Helena, Montana, even in the knowledge that this was the last adventure of her long life.

The diary entries from late 1944 to March of 1947 provide a clear picture of my mother’s life: working, eating out, going to lots of movies, dancing with GIs at the USO and attending First Presbyterian Church.

On March 16, 1947, my mother recorded that she met John Elliott at the Sunday evening College and Career Group at First Presbyterian. She liked to tell us that she heard him singing. My father sang first tenor in the St. Olaf College choir and had a great voice. But the diary says nothing about music. My mother noted that he was 6 feet tall and “cute.” He drove her home. They had malts on the way and then “talked and danced” until midnight. Since my father worked on a Union Pacific railroad crew during the week, he could not see her again until Saturday. He did send her a post card saying he “missed” her. The following Saturday they met at 6 for dinner and a movie. Even though my mother knew that “Johnny E” would be waiting for her at the 11 a.m. church service the next day, she managed to sleep through her alarm. Those diaries reveal that sleeping until noon was not something my mother discovered in retirement. They met again for College and Career that evening. After that, my father left the next day on the train, to return the following Saturday.

On that Saturday, March 29, 1947, 13 days after they first met, my father proposed. My mother accepted. They married three months later on June 27, 1947. It lasted 50 years.

My father and mother had known each other for a total of about 18 hours, stretched out over two weeks when they got engaged.

Today’s millennials date two years before getting engaged, without setting a wedding date. A recent survey of 4,000 newlyweds found that, on average, couples were together for 4.9 years before saying “I do.”

By today’s standards my parents were crazy. But if we look closer at my 20-year-old mother and 23-year-old father, their quick engagement made perfect sense.

My parents met at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. They shared the same faith and the same experience of Protestants in a Mormon majority culture. Both had been raised in railroad families. My mother’s father was a section foreman on the Western Pacific Railroad. My father’s father had been a civil engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Both families viewed Salt Lake City as home base. Both suffered great hardships during the Depression. My mother’s father was demoted from section foreman to track walker and then sent to remote Portola, California. He carried a rifle when he walked the tracks to shoot game. He also kept a vegetable garden, shoed horses, and loaded cattle into rail cars to earn extra money. My mother spoke with great respect about all her father did to keep food on the table. My father’s father lost his job with the Union Pacific, followed by his savings and house in Salt Lake City. He then moved the family to a homestead in rural Mud Lake, Idaho. This introduced my father to the hard life of the farm. He took away a life-long aversion to chores as a result.

They had a lot in common. But if we want to understand how a super short engagement became a fifty-year marriage, then we need to understand the context of my parent’s decision. The Depression and World War II threw their lives into fearful uncertainty. Will there be food on the table tonight? Will dad have a job tomorrow? Will our fathers and brothers die in a losing war?

In 1947 my parents felt that this period of uncertainty was coming to an end. For that reason, they were ready to start a marriage and build a life.

As much as I like the idea of a quick engagement and a long marriage, I am not sure that my parents model works in 2018. In 1960, the average age for marriage was 20 for women and 22 for men. Today it is 27 and 29. There are obvious reasons why the age at first marriage is going up.

Many more young people are going to college, which can take four to six years to complete. Student loan debt, which is now an inevitable part of that education, puts a brake on any plans for marriage and children. Many women want to pursue a career after their BA as well. If you throw in a what I call the “hesitation factor” – “I see so many divorces,” is a familiar refrain – then the average age of marriage is going to go up. And since so many millennials do not have the social network of my parents – church, extended family, and fraternal organizations—millennials intent on getting married may need to seek some help.

My colleague at ITO, Annie Holmquist, recently wrote an article about the rise of matchmaking services. For millennials seeking to tie the knot, a paid matchmaking service might just be the answer.

Image Credit: Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This post Short Engagement, Long Marriages: How the Greatest Generation built a Life was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by John Elliott.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.