She was wearing white, and looked barely 20. He was striking in his Navy uniform. Her blue eyes were big and round, her glowing face framed by soft golden curls. His intense gaze communicated a delicate balance between steely confidence and inner warmth.
I stared at the faded black and white photo, finally recognizing the older couple, friends of my parents whom I had grown up calling “aunt” and “uncle.” This was their wedding picture, taken more than half a century ago, and one of many photos propped up on the table in the funeral parlor. “She looks like a princess,” gasped my 6-year-old daughter, who had insisted on accompanying me that afternoon.
“Yes, I know. And he was her prince.”
I surprised myself with this matter-of-fact response, devoid of my usual cynicism. After the death of my marriage, I was so disillusioned, I launched a crusade to purge my daughter’s personal library of any story that smacked of simplistic fantasy. Topping my hit list were classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White, stories that I had devoured as a wide-eyed child.
But that afternoon in the funeral parlor, where we were both moved so deeply by the photograph before us, I suddenly found myself whispering about princes again — after years of mourning lost dreams.
A friend who helped me through the difficult transition from life before divorce to life after it used to insist on a new ending to traditional fairy tales. “That conclusion about how they all lived happily ever after,” she remarked, “I think they should change it to, ‘and then the real work began.'” Her comment made me realize, among other things, how betrayed I had felt by my own limitations during the marriage, not merely by my ex-husband’s.
At the funeral parlor, what struck me about that wedding picture was not only how young the bride and groom looked, but how distinct from each other they seemed. Even their happy pose conveyed a careful distance. This photo had captured the two at the start of their journey together, when underneath the glow of elation were probably nervousness and even doubt. There was no way to predict how far the journey would take them. There was no way to anticipate how their pose in relation to each other would change.
By the time I met them, this man and woman typified a husband and wife who not only knew each other’s endearing quirks and annoying habits, but who had even started to take on each other’s facial expressions. Placed next to the wedding picture was a new color photo, which showed the couple at their grandson’s recent wedding. The occasion marked the last time they slow-danced together.
Since the funeral, all those tales of handsome princes and faraway castles don’t seem so daunting anymore; I have even calmed my impulse to shield my daughter from the occasional fantasy. The classics are back on the shelves, and now during the bedtime ritual with young Hanna, they stand just as much chance of being picked as the stories about modern heroines like Power Puff Girls and Amelia Bedelia.
I imagine the mistake lies not in believing in dreams, but in depriving ourselves of the chance to dream fully. Indeed, a passionate, honest commitment to the hard work of loving someone — that’s the stuff of life. It’s what helps us grow up instead of simply growing old.
Originally titled “Old-fashioned Love Story Never Goes Out of Style” and published as a “My View” column in 2002 in The Buffalo News