Seventy years ago today, an eighteen year old UCLA dropout and a twenty five year old college graduate stood next to each other in a church in Southern California and took their wedding vows in front of family and friends. The bride wore a lace-covered white dress and the groom sported the same suit he’d worn to his best man’s wedding a few weeks before. There was a fancy reception and, later, a fancy album of formal wedding pictures to document the event.
Only these two people didn’t actually get married on July 21, 1950. They’d eloped to Vegas in May. The big church wedding went on as planned, and only the two of them knew the truth. They didn’t tell her mother, who had planned the wedding, or her father. They didn’t tell his parents either. For more than 50 years, they didn’t tell anyone.
They finally told their oldest child after more than five decades. He was sworn to secrecy, but he told me anyways, so I knew the secret too. But I never told my parents that I knew.
Yes, my parents. Those two people who eloped to Vegas back in the day were my parents. We celebrated their anniversary every July and they never breathed a word about Vegas or the little ceremony that really started their 57 years together.
The day after my mother died, in August of 2007, my dad and I were going through their file of legal papers to find the funeral home contract. I saw a faded yellow marriage license with the word “Nevada” at the top. I pulled it out of the pile and pushed it towards my dad.
What’s this? I asked, as innocently as I could manage.
Oh, that, he answered. He grinned, his eyes alight with amusement. And then he told me the real story of my parent’s wedding day.
He said my mother’s mother, Irene, wanted the wedding to be the social event of the season. I found that pretty hilarious since both sets of my grandparents were solidly working-class people. Hell, my dad grew up on a dirt farm and my mother in a remote canyon north of LA. I’m pretty sure none of them had made the papers their entire lives, except maybe their own marriage announcements. Why Irene wanted a society wedding was a mystery to me.
Somehow, the would-be bride and groom cooked up the idea to have their own ceremony, their own way, They could put up with all the crap of a “society wedding” if it didn’t mean anything to them. I don’t know for sure, but I bet it was my dad that came up with the idea. He had helped two friends in high school elope across the state line his senior year of high school, so he knew how it worked. Who came up with the Vegas plan didn’t really matter, though. They somehow figured out how to get my mom out of Gardena for a night without making Irene suspicious,. They were back the next day, a newly married couple, with Irene none the wiser. Ever. She went to her grave thinking that big fancy wedding had been the real thing.
This February, I was visiting my cousins in Arizona, where one of them volunteers for the local Family History Center. It was a slow afternoon, so she helped build my own family tree using their resources. The cool thing about Family Search software they use is that while you’re working, it’s working too. It searches all of its extensive files for the names you’ve put already entered in your family tree. About an hour after I entered my parents’ names, Family Search popped up a box with files it had found. California marriage license, check. I added it to their records.
Another half-hour goes by, and Family Search pops up a new box. It’s found the Vegas marriage license. I burst out laughing. Nothing is secret any more, not with the Internet! I told my cousin the story of my parents’ elopement and added the Vegas record to their history.
My cousin asked me why my parents had kept the secret all those years. I shrugged and said I didn’t know.
I still don’t.
So here’s to anniversary dates that are meaningless, to secret dates that meant everything, and to family secrets lost to the mysteries of time and sweethearts in love.