We were sitting with my parents on the fancy white chairs in the Lobby Atrium of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway with two thousand other people, most of whom had been refilling their rum and ginger beers since 9:30 that morning.
The twins were at night activity.
The cruise director, Alvin from the Philipines, was laughing into the mic at his own question, which he did a lot.
He was choosing couples for the Newlywed/Not so Newlywed Game. The giant Jumbotron behind him glittered all the way up to the next deck—packed with more drinkers looking down at the rest of us.
"So—who is the longest married couple on the ship?”
There was a noise from some folks on the other side of the lobby. “Fify years! Fifty years!” The couple was cruising for their Anniversary.
I don’t know what came over me, but I wasn’t about to let my parents be dissed by some pisher parvenus who’d only been married fifty years.
“Fifty SEVEN!” I screamed, jumping up and down, defensively.
“Fifty SEVEN Fifty SEVEN!” My husband, Sruli, echoed, enthusiastically jabbing at the air over my parents’ head. “Right here! Right here!”
Naturally, Alvin noticed. Then he noticed my dad’s cane.
“Fifty SEVEN! Congratulations! But you can take a pass if you want.”
A pass? A pass?
My parents had taken us on this cruise because since we moved to Maine, we don’t get to see them for long chunks of time, and the twins are growing up and have just hit that not-quite-as-annoying-to-older-people-anymore age.
When the cruise idea was first bandied about, my mother had said, “How about next spring?” My father had said, “How about soon?”
Which, of course, scared me.
My father turned 80 this year and it’s sobering to see this force of intellectualism, musicianship and discipline morph into a slow, benign and very easily tired man, just because of stupid age. And Hydrocelphalus.
So, no pass. No pass. How about soon? How about NOW?
And, as the crowd cheered, my mother, my father and his cane rose and made their way to the stage.
I remember my father shooting me a look right before he got up. It said, “Wow, Lisa, thanks for volunteering us because this is going to be so much fun!” I’m sure that’s what it said.
They were Couple Number Three. Couples One and Two were easy to find. Number One had been married only 2 days before. “Do they look happy to you?” I nudged Sruli. “Resigned,” he said.
Couple Number Two was a riot. She was black and demonstrative, he was white and silent. They earned a place in the crowd’s heart because of their passionate kissing when they were chosen. They’d been married four years.
The Jumbotron now featured my beautiful mother, 100 feet high in her drapey, sparkly cruisewear, my father in his new black sweater and pants with, of course, the white sneakers.
My face was frozen in the shape it makes when you try to eat a hamburger that is too big for your mouth. Sruli’s jaw was stuck on gape, too—as were his eyes, and there were wrinkles of disbelief way up on his forehead.
The three wives were escorted out of earshot first and the questions started coming.
“Where did you go on your first date and how much did you spend?”
Ok, I knew this. They had gone to see the movie Operation Petticoat, and then out for ice cream. Chocolate for my mother, vanilla for my father.
It was a blind date, and my mother met him when she opened the door of her parent’s house in Philadelphia, 18 years old, dressed in a 1960’s frock and heels.
She took one look at my five-foot-seven father, kicked her heels off under the chair and said, “I’ll get my shoes and be right down.”
By the second date, they knew. And the second date was the next night.
My father got it wrong. He said they went to a restaurant in New Jersey and he spent about 50 dollars. When my mother came back and said “Operation Petticoat” and the crowd groaned, she considered my father’s answer.
“That was our third date, Babe,” she said to him and to everyone else. She turned to Alvin. “Hawaiian Cottage—it was a swanky supper club-- with an orchestra.” Then she explained to Alvin that 50 dollars in those days was different than now.
“What, like 5000 dollars?” he laughed, respectfully.
Luckily for 57 Years, Couples One and Two got it wrong, too. In fact, I don’t think Couple Number One got any questions right. I guess Husband Number One was resigned to a long cold night in the brig.
Next question: “Who from your wife’s family would you least likely to be stuck on a desert island with?”
Easy. “My wife’s brother,” my father said.
“Why?” Alvin was no Julie from The Love Boat. He wanted dish, he wanted dirt.
“Why your wife’s brother?”
And then, my father, my PhD in physics, professor of Mathematics, author of books, composer of symphonies, speaker of 6 or 7 languages, High Holiday Cantor, leader of a Gemorah shiur for forty years father said, in front of 2000 people: “Because he’s an asshole.”
The place erupted. Ha Ha HA! My mouth could not close. I looked over at Sruli. His mouth couldn’t close. This could not be happening. My father had never said that word in his entire life.
Alvin was ebullient.
They got that question right—Ding Ding Ding!!
The next questions compared a male anatomical part to a limousine or a mini-cooper and the couple’s love life to either Thanksgiving—grateful for what you get—or Memorial Day—commemorating the dead.
But the final question was the bomb.
The men had gone out, the women had answered, and now the men were back.
It was the question that you expect in the Newlywed Game, the one where Bob Eubanks leers at the contestants, his perfectly polished teeth poised like fangs.
“Where was the weirdest place you ever made whoopee?”
And that’s when I realized that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
I mean, here we are in front of thousands of people. It’s our first night on the ship and now everyone’s gonna know. Everyone WANTS to know.
Sruli didn’t want to know. And I certainly didn’t want to know.
My mother had tried to be decorous with her answer. “Oh, you know,” she said, not looking at the audience, “in bed, at home.”
“That’s not weird,” complained Alvin. “Come on!”
“No, no, in bed, at home,” she didn’t say anything more.
But now was my father’s turn.
He didn’t hesitate. “On a train.”
AYYYYYYYYY! The crowd started to hoot and holler: A train a train! A TRAIN!
“Reeeeeeeeeta!” Alvin stretched out my mother’s name in complete delight. “You didn’t TELL us!”
“From New York to Miami,” my father said, matter of factly. On the Jumbotron. In front of 2000 people.
Ding Ding Ding! They won, anyway.
“Fifty SEVEN YEARS!” Alvin kept laughing into his mic. “What’s it like to be married fifty-SEVEN years?”
They won a couple bottles of champagne, Championship T-shirts and other tchotchkes from the gift shop on Deck 7.
And all the rest of the week, as we cruised to the Bahamas and back, my parents were recognized on every deck, in every buffet, in every restaurant, at every slot machine, and in every elevator.
“Hey—aren’t you the Newlywed Couple of 57 years?” and then, to me, “Wow you don’t hear that any more!”
Wow, you really don’t.
But I guess I wanted to make a moment, a big moment for my parents.
Winning the Newlywed Game will be a fun story my parents will be able to tell their friends, the other once-forceful and accomplished friends, now with long-worded ailments of their own– who won’t need to be told what it’s like to be married 57 years, because they are, too.
My parents are good sports.
You have to be, to be married 57 years.
I wonder what it’s like to be married 57 years?
I look over at Sruli and I think—we’ll never know.
We started too late—we’ll never make it.
We’ll never even get the chance to get the answers wrong.