Excerpts from “Formative: The Years That Changed Everything”
Here we are, at one of my favorite parts in the story of my grandparents! The following is the (TRUE!) story of how they met. Valentine’s Day. School dance. 1963.
Want to know what happened before this? Catch up here.
Kathleen, February 1963
Kathleen had finally made it through the grueling first round of midterms. The second semester of sophomore year was her toughest load of classes yet, and she was doing nothing but studying since they came back from Christmas break. She hadn’t even been able to volunteer at the hospital in the New Year. She would run through the names of her regular patients every day to make sure that when she returned, she wouldn’t forget them. To add to the stress, her friends were relentlessly begging her to join them at the Valentine’s Day dance on Saturday. With Spring Fling still months away, it was the first big dance of the new school year. All of the girls with boyfriends had been talking about it for weeks, dreaming about the restaurant they would go to for dinner before the dance, and what dresses they would wear.
Somehow, it was Friday afternoon and she had just taken her last exam of the week. As she brought the answer sheet to the professor’s desk, she felt all of her muscles relax. Now she could go home, lie on her bed, and drown in the orchestra behind Frank Sinatra’s voice.
Barbara came up to her in the hallway and half-threw a catalogue into her arms. Kathleen was startled and peeked down at the cover. Of course. The glossy page showcased models in full skirts and bright sweaters, laughing with their perfect lipstick smiles.
She glanced at Barbara’s knowing look.
“Really? You know I’m not going to this dance tomorrow night. I don’t even have a date, and I’m exhausted after this week. I don’t know how I’m still standing.”
“Nope, you’re going. I truly don’t want to hear it. A group of us girls are going dateless, and you’re coming along. It is an all-girls school after all. Who said anything about a date being mandatory?”
Kathleen paused. She was trying to find any way to make listening to records in her bed sound like more of an airtight plan for the night. But she was so mentally spent that she didn’t have the effort to fight Barbara. Maybe it would be fun.
“Alright. I’ll go. But the second a slow dance song comes on and I’m left alone on that dance floor, I’m taking the train home.”
“Fair enough. There’s a group of us getting ready in the dorms around six. See you then?”
“See you then.”
Kathleen straightened her skirt and readjusted the purse slung around her shoulder. She knocked on Linda’s dormitory door, already able to hear the music turned up loud and the shrill laughter of her friends.
She stepped in and the girls squealed. They showered her in a sea of compliments, thrilled she was finally willing to come along.
“Kathleen! You look fabulous. A red skirt? Good choice.”
“Your curls look perfect, Kath.”
“How do you always make it look so easy? Get over here so we can paint your face.”
They pulled her into their circle of makeup and mirrors before she even had a chance to say hello. She did feel pretty special, though. Once she had shared with her mother and sister that she was considering going to the Valentine’s Day dance, they were more excited than she expected. They had spent the afternoon shopping in the city for an outfit. A full, red skirt had felt too showy for her, but her sister pushed her to try it on. Now, she felt magical, even though she still didn’t want to acknowledge the electric twist in her stomach every time she thought of actually going to the dance.
Barbara had settled in front of her and immediately got to work applying mascara, brow liner, and many other products Kathleen had never used. When Barbara spun her around to look in the mirror, she felt beautiful. She had never seen her face look so made up, but she had also never felt so old. She was in college — and forgot that it meant more than just harder classes and volunteer hours. A Frank Sinatra song came on, and she couldn’t help swaying her shoulders back and forth. Maybe the dance wouldn’t be so bad after all.
It was Saturday night and Tommy’s friends were bored. Each weekend was a new adventure crafted from nothing to do, or a chance to party-hop at schools near New Rochelle. Tonight, they decided to explore the untouched land: all-girls schools. On Valentine’s Day, they figured it would be a gold mine of single girls looking for a slow dance. They found themselves on their way to St. Vincent’s College of Nursing, planning a way to sneak in to the school dance in full swing happening in the gymnasium.
The security guard could see right through Tommy’s wrinkled khaki pants and dirty shoes as they approached the doors. Through cunning words and a little extra money tacked on to the price of their tickets, they slipped through the heavy gym doors. Lights flickered through the room and the spinning girls in full skirts were cast in an amber glow.
His pack of friends stood in a corner near the fizzing pink punch bowl surveying the field. Never had he seen so many beautiful girls in one sacred space, and he was determined to spin one of them around that night. There were a few other boys there, but they all looked so confident and pulled together, qualities that escaped him in that moment. He stood there in his wrinkled pants and clunky glasses feeling sorry for himself. Bennie was already giving it a try, chatting up some girl named Barbara by the punch bowl. The rest of his friends had wandered off, and he realized that he was all alone in the corner, looking just as uncomfortable as he felt. Across the gym he could see the shape of a girl. Her features weren’t clear from his corner of the room, but he could see her happily dancing and laughing with her friends, swirling around in a bright red skirt. A red skirt — now that was something he could spot in a crowd, even if it was the only thing he could see. He took off his glasses. As he slipped them into his shirt pocket he became a fearless ladies’ man, ready to talk to the girl in the red skirt.
He stumbled forward, walking carefully but determined through the blurry lights toward the one thing he could follow with his eyes. He approached the girl and her friends. She spun around quickly as he tapped her on the shoulder, the smile still on her face. He imagined it could be from a joke she had heard a few seconds ago. She had never seen him before, and her perfectly arched brows knitted together in confusion. He knew he had to say something quickly, or she would lose interest and keep dancing blissfully with her friends, without him. In a swift effort to keep her next to him, he blurted out confidently, “Your name is Kathleen.”
“Your name is Kathleen.”
The boy in khaki pants stood in front of her and she couldn’t help but stifle a laugh. Which one of her friends had sent him over?
Barbara must have been trying to make her feel special tonight since it had taken so much convincing. She was feeling witty though, and could see how nervous he was.
“Huh, you’re right. What’s my last name?”