A few weeks before we packed all of our belongings into the backseat of an aging, blue VW Rabbit and drove the 2500 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Portland, Oregon, my soon-to-be mother-in-law sat my soon-to-be husband, Chris, down, looked him in the eye, and told him, “If you marry Jess and move to Oregon you will be making the biggest mistake of your life.”
Chris told me about the comment later that day. We knew his parents were not thrilled about his plans, but no one had flatly told him that he SHOULDN’T pledge his life to me and move west. But there it was. At the time, it felt like a slap across the face. I see it now for what it was–a warning, which could have been said to either of us, that we were too young to know ourselves, much less know the immense sacrifice required during the life of a marriage. How could we possibly make it work—especially half a continent away from the support of our families? Jesus, we didn’t even have jobs. Obviously, his mother could see, we did not fathom what it takes to pay the bills and sustain a relationship. Why were we investing in each other and not everything we’d worked for in college: our careers?
Chris, an obedient only-child, ignored his parents’ warnings, closed his eyes, and jumped into the abyss that is marriage. I look at pictures from that summer—1997. We were 23. Babies. What were we thinking?
And I think of my now six-year old son, an only child as well. What if he were to graduate from college and cavalierly announce his intention to commit his life—60+ more years—to his college sweetheart. Oh, not only that, but that he was going to pack his camping gear and clothes in the back of some old beater and move five states away—just ‘cuz he and his honey thought it sounded like a sweet place to live. I’m sure my response would be, “WTF???” or maybe, “I just paid $75,000 in college tuition for you to make the biggest mistake of your life.”
When I was 23, I didn’t know the ferocious love a parent has for a child. All I knew was puppy love. That is what the summer of 1997 was all about. We sold almost everything we owned—John Cougar Mellencamp and Pink Floyd CD’s. Umbro shorts. Indian weave ponchos. The dorm room hot-plate. Everything. And it felt good. A fresh start. We weren’t scared–it was us against the world. How could it not work?
It was hot the day we left. The humidity seemed to melt the leaves on the trees. The air vibrated with mosquitoes. Driving away, we held hands and sang Indigo Girls songs. Our new dog, Milo, was curled up among our sleeping bags in the back seat.
We had no jobs waiting for us in Portland. It didn’t matter. We were armed with our freshly earned bachelor’s degrees, his in Biology and mine in English and Women’s Studies. We had that and our puppy love. We were invincible.
We arrived in Portland a week later. Stinkier, but just as happy. We pulled into the parking lot of the small apartment we were renting and unloaded our gear. It took two trips to and from the car. The next morning I went to the Thriftway up the street on SE Tacoma (it’s a New Seasons now) to buy some ramen noodles. The “Now Hiring” sign in the store seemed like, well, a sign. So, I asked for an application. The manager was surprised to find a recent college graduate was applying for a job as a cashier, but we got along well and he hired me on the spot. I practically skipped back to the apartment. I rustled Chris from the bed—which was really just our sleeping bags on the floor—and told him of my good luck. We decided to celebrate with a picnic at Sellwood Park.
Spread out on the grass above Oaks Bottom, we ate granola bars and blackberries that we picked along the way. Milo chased squirrels. Children played freeze tag. It took us about fifteen minutes before we noticed that there was no humidity and not a mosquito in sight. We snuggled and talked about how much we loved each other and our new Portland life.
The next morning I went to work at Thriftway, and Chris went to work at LaborReady, a business that assigns one-day jobs usually entailing hauling boulders, digging ditches, or some other equally brutal project. We spent that evening and most subsequent evenings crashed out at Sellwood Park imagining our future—better jobs, a house, maybe a baby. We’d lie under the towering pines, overwhelmed with the newness and endless opportunities of each day. And always, we’d notice—no humidity and no mosquitoes.
After a time, we made friends and hosted dinner parties. Our salaries provided just enough money for food and rent. When we had people over we had to borrow utensils from the neighbors because all we had were two spoons and two forks from our camping cook set. Cutlery was not a luxury we could afford. Yet, the living room/dining room was a warm, happy place where the pine-tree smelling air blew in our large windows and laughter floated back out.
I try to picture my son in 17 years. What if he lived like that? Content to live in a crappy little apartment with almost no kitchen accoutrements and even less furniture. Content to work long hours performing grueling physical labor while his partner worked the cash register at the local market. Both for minimum wage and no health insurance. Content to invest only in love…not his career. Isn’t he going to be working in the Peace Corps or starting medical school? Anything less will feel like failure—not his, but mine.
We are approaching our eleventh summer since we arrived in Portland. That was two houses, a master’s degree, and a child ago. Puppy love is now almost-middle-aged love. Milo is still hanging on. We still spend the warm months in the park—only now it’s Peninsula, not Sellwood. We still marvel at the lack of mosquitoes and humidity.
May is fast turning into June. The piney, sunny, blackberry filled days bring me right back to 1997—when my husband made the biggest mistake of his life.
May my son be so lucky.