My parents’ story together began in the spring of 1973 when they married and struck out west. She was twenty-one, he was twenty-two, and they’d been dating a matter of months when she told him she was leaving Cleveland, a city she had never much liked, for Seattle — where she had always planned to live, and where her own mother had spent the war years, living with her aunt and her uncle, the Swedish fisherman. My mother had not inherited much from her mother, save her red hair, quick temper, and stubborn attachment to the green beauty of provincial Washington State, so different from the smoke and cement of Cleveland and the small farm community outside it where her family lived. She had been to Seattle, carted along on cross-country road trips in the family station wagon, to visit her great-aunt and great-uncle, and she’d never forgotten the pine-scented air or the snow-tipped mountains wreathed in clouds, the hilly city lapped at its edges by a cold saltwater sound. Now she had gotten into nursing school out there — so, was he coming with her or not?
Though their families charged them with desertion, the move had its appeal: they were each one of five siblings, high in the birth order, and in different but defining ways their parents had been hard on them. More than three hundred people attended their wedding. Back then, it was still a little unusual for a Hungarian boy from one neighborhood to marry a Polish girl from another. There were fisticuffs at the reception, and it was generally agreed that the bride’s relatives both began and ended the fight, but everyone was laughing by the time they farewelled the couple.
They did move out west, but not to Seattle; not yet. A printing company had offered him a job in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Revillagigedo Island in the Alexander Archipelago. She found a job at the local hospital. They rented a basement apartment in a cottage on the edge of the Inside Passage, where they could step outside and watch eagles wheeling over the ruffled water. For a pair of born-and-bred Clevelanders, Ketchikan was almost too quaint to be believed with its fishermen and modest tourist trade, its streets and wooden pilings slick with rain one hundred and forty days out of the year. It was not quite the change she had envisioned, but a chance it still was, to escape Ohio and try on a different life. They liked it there, and felt like pioneers.
Still, when the transfer to Seattle came a few years later, they were ready to live in a city again, eager to meet new people. One Sunday, on a whim, they visited a little white-steepled church set into the hills above the neighborhood where they rented an attic apartment. It was nothing like the large, drafty old churches they’d attended as children in Cleveland; everyone wore jeans. The priest’s gentle Polish accent reminded her of her beloved grandfather, but it was someone else at the parish who commandeered their attention: a short, stout nun with blunt brown bangs peeking out from under her minimal wimple, a far cry from the strict, ruler-wielding sisters of their youth. They told Sister Mary Francis they had little interest in organized religion, let alone the church in which they’d both been raised, but the nun somehow convinced them to return. Soon my mother was leading a Bible-study group and my father was running errands for Sister Mary Francis’s elderly mother. They were back in the fold, with barely a token argument raised in their own defense.
This time, though, they were changed: they believed it all. They asked God to move in their lives. They saw his hand at work — in friends met, in jobs found, in day-to-day life — where they had never looked for him before.