The Second Second Date Story

So the way my father used to tell it, my parents’ second date went something like this:

My father was positively smitten after his blind date with my mother, and wanting to spend as much time with her as possible made sure that the activity for date number two was an all-day event. This being Salt Lake City in the 1950s, a day of skiing was just the trick. He picked her up, and together they made their way up the winding Wasatch switchbacks in his new Ford Crestliner. At some little town along the way, probably Solitude or Brighton, my father pulled off the highway for gas and got… well, let’s just say he got turned around.

He was trying to impress this young woman he was already falling in love with, and that made his directional incompetence all that more frustrating; he felt himself start to get angry. In order to impress, my Father wanted to purchase my Mother a wonderful gift. Remember, this was back then, not today when you can turn to the Internet and quickly Google “trending gifts for women” and have a beautiful gift at your fingertips almost instantly. His anger only grew worse when, turning down a small side street, he found all the other cars were going the other direction and not letting him through. A sedan pulled up next to him until both drivers’ windows were about a foot away from one another. The driver motioned for my father to roll down his window while he did the same. The man was huge, build like an offensive lineman, and had an enormous walrus mustache.

Leaning out of his window, he proceeded to inform my father that the small street they shared was one-way and my father needed to turn around. That might have been the end of it, except that he ended this explanation with a few words that one simply was not allowed to say in the company of a lady back in the 1950s. (It would appear that in the 1950s-era Greater Salt Lake area “fish” was not yet a popular ‘replacement’ word.) So my father did what any self-respecting gentleman of the era would do.

He reached out of the car window, grabbed a side of the man’s walrus mustache in each hand and pulled as hard as he possibly could, pulling much of it right out of the follicles.

My sister and I must have heard this story a thousand times when we were growing up. It was one of our favorites. So often was it told, and so much did we like listening to it, that it wasn’t until I got engaged myself that I ever really stopped to think about it.

I had flown to the East Coast to meet my then-fiancée’s family for the first time. Over dinner they were asking me to tell them about my own family, and I chose this story. I got to the end, and saw some very real horror in their eyes as they connected this story to the family their daughter and sister was about to marry into. It was at that moment that I went back in my own head and replayed the events my father described, not from the eyes of the child that asked to hear it over and over, but from the eyes of an objective adult.

And the question that for years kept coming back to me after that night was, why in God’s name had my mother agreed to go out on a third date with someone that must have appeared to be just a little borderline psychopathic?

In kid-vision cartoon form, the second date story is hilarious. In real-life vision, it’s violent and bloody and sickening; it’s something you might expect from a Tarantino movie, but not from your father. (One would hope.) My mother was pretty intolerant of violence when I was growing up, and after seeing the story with new grown-up eyes I couldn’t figure out how they ever ended up getting married. I kept this question to myself mostly, asking it out loud over the years only to my wife. I never brought the subject up with either my mother or father, because it occurred to me the answer might be something I didn’t want to ever know.

My father passed away six years ago after a long string of battles with cancer, having come out of each battle victorious until at last it finally got the upper hand. Two days after he passed I picked my sister up at the airport and we went to visit my mother. We talked about Dad for a while at my parents’ kitchen table, sharing stories about both his last days and our earlier life together. At some point we reached a lull in the conversation and just sat there silently for a long while. And then, without really knowing why, I heard myself asking my mom the question I swore I would never ask her.

“Hey Mom, can I ask you something?”

She nodded.

“You know the story of your second date with dad? When he lost all control and pulled that guy’s mustache partially off?

She nodded again

“I can’t figure it out. Since you didn’t know him at all really, why did you ever agree to see him again after watching him do something like that?”

My mom smiled.

“Oh, that never really happened,” she said. “Your father made it up one night when you were both so little, and you laughed so hard and asked him to retell it over and over, so he did. It was something you kids never got tired of hearing, but it was just make believe.”  I laughed, a little relieved; this made more sense, and fit better with the man I grew up with.

We all sat there for a while longer, and then after a bit my mom broke the silence again.

“The real story of our second date was actually a much better story, I always thought. Would you like to hear it?” My sister and I just looked at her, too surprised to even respond.


It is not winter, but spring in the Wasatch mountains. The young man and woman have been hiking amid the trees and wildflowers all day, and they have hardly said a word since they left the car.

It will be a while before either gets up the nerve to confess this to the other, but each of them had the same realization the previous evening on their first date. That realization, its truth hard and crystal clear as set diamond, is this: Each knows they have just met the person with whom they are going to spend the rest of their lives.

A prolonged silence with others they have know would have felt uncomfortable, would have demanded unimportant words to fill the awkward spaces. For some reason, though, this silence feels right. Everything, everywhere suddenly feels right.

The young woman reaches out to hold the young man’s right hand, and knows immediately that she has transgressed. For one thing, the hand feels wrong. Somehow the muscles in it don’t react in the precise way muscles in a hand should. She doesn’t know this empirically, of course. Her knowledge is instantaneous and born of instinct; besides, there is no way she could know that his right hand was a victim of childhood polio, or that he has spent a lifetime cultivating ways to use it that make it impossible for an observer to tell it lacks full functionality.

Worse than the lame muscles, however, is his reaction. She somehow knows, in the same way she had known that his hand was wrong, that he is ashamed and wants her to let go. Wants her to forget whatever she might or might not have felt. Wants to leave. She feels him trying to pull away, shaking off her touch.

And then the young woman does something unexpected, something that no one has ever done with the young man. She doesn’t let go. In fact, she strengthens her grip. She will later remember pouring everything into that grip, willing him to know without her speaking that she knows his secret, and that she doesn’t care. That even if she still lacks the courage to say it out loud, her feelings for him have already taken root.

It is their second date, and already she loves his imperfect hand.

And after a panicky minute he seems to know this. She feels his hand slowly relax, and then grip back just as tightly. He says nothing out loud, but she hears him nonetheless: “If you’ll really take me as I am, then I am yours for as long as you might have me.”

It will be years before they ever discuss or even acknowledge these events to one another out loud. But it will always be the defining moment of each of their lives.


My parents’ anniversary is today, or at least it would be if they were still here. My mother never really recovered from my father’s death, and fell victim to her own bout with cancer a couple of years after he passed away.

My parents were never the kind to take pictures, so our house was never filled with framed family photos the way my friends’ houses were. I was surprised when my sister and I found boxes of amazing photos of their early lives when we were dealing with their estate. There’s a picture of them that now sits in my bedroom, an 8×10 black and white photograph of them posing atop a Wasatch mountain. It seems unlikely it would have been from their second date, but I see that day in this picture anyway.

In this photograph they both look so young, so impossibly good-looking. On some level this is to be expected. My father spent his youth after WWII and college playing jazz for a living and learning to become a pilot; he had earned a reputation as a Playboy back when that was actually a thing. My mother was brash and independent, and did the very thing Salt Lake City ladies of her era did not do. She went to college, and then moved for a few years to San Francisco to explore the world and date bohemians. She dated Martin Milner for a bit just before he moved to Los Angeles to start work on Route 66. Then she got tired of that life and moved back home, as should would later say, “so I could be there to meet your father.” I’ve always known these things about them, but the photo in my bedroom makes that time before my sister and me somehow more real.  It is an odd thing to see your parents in a photograph like this. It’s a mixture of amazement that you could have come from two people so beautiful, coupled with the dull ache of resignation that of all the wonderful gifts they left you, those movie-star-looks genes were not among them.

They were many things, my parents, and most of those things were good. But in this picture, as on their second date, they are perfect.

Forgive me if I have chosen to switch from the meta to the personal today. But I wanted to find someway to say to them both, Happy Anniversary.

I miss you both terribly.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

59 thoughts on “The Second Second Date Story

  1. Your parents were a wonderful light that shone brightly in my childhood. These stories of their early courtship are so human and moving and are an inspiration to me (both the apocryphal and the real one!!) Your father was a great storyteller, and that is one of the “gifts” you got from him Mr. Kelly. Publish it now.


  2. The real measure of a person is a combination of their ability to tell a story, and their ability to generate one.

    Sounds like both of your parents were a kick, my friend. Time to go tip a glass.


  3. Thanks everyone. I debated even posting this, since it’s a little out of character for the site. Your kind words are appreciated.

    As my dad would have said, they make me feel finer than frog hair.


  4. Tod, that’s quite a story, and well told. I teared up too. I still have such clear images of your parents, even your father’s hands, and that story encapsulates so much. Show me that photo next time I’m in town, OK?


  5. Beautiful, Tod. In planning my own wedding, I find myself reflecting on marriage pretty much all the time (because it’s less stressful than the wedding to think about, and it gives me some perspective). I’m sure I will come back to this a lot over the next few months, so thank you for sharing. Your parents really knocked it out of the park.


  6. Yes!!! Bigger platform indeed.
    I’m thinking back page of the NY Times Sunday Magazine.
    The dust seems to have kicked up here in NY , where I sit weeping.
    Beautiful writing, beautiful people. It’s all about heart. Just listen
    to your heart. You have a gift to share. Keeping writing…!!!
    xoxox, M


  7. This story is finding it’s way around the globe. Aussie here. Came via reddit.

    That was beautiful and I, too, misted up. You gave me the strongest feeling in my day.


  8. This is, as everyone has said, really beautiful. And what makes it even nicer is all the love in the comments. How great to see genuine remarks and not snarky rants. A very nice little corner of the Internet. Thanks!


  9. Dear Tod,
    Great story! My parents are married 58 yrs this year and my Dad also had polio that he conceals from most everyone.


  10. Tod,
    Truly amazing! Your parents sound wonderful. This story is enough to make anyone cry, like I didn’t do enough of that at the conference. Thank you for sharing your excitement, enthusiasm, and casino chips :)


  11. Hey Tod, delighted to find my way here. (through my favorite email of the week, Longreads’ five recommendations).

    My father too had polio as a child, which left him with a badly malformed leg and a heavy limp. Shamefully, I’ve never spoken to him about it, or my parents’ lives when they were young. They had a family of four before they separated, and they’ve been apart for longer now than they ever were together, but still there must have been moments of love and happiness, none of which I really know anything of.

    Your piece also found me as I fretted over the night feed and pained restlessness of my four-week old son, and helped to give me a perspective I might not otherwise have found. I’ve been touched. Thanks.

    (Incidentally, don’t suppose there’s any Irish in there? Kelly a common name around these parts – indeed, my mother is one!)


    • Shane-

      Thanks for your comments.

      It sounds like our fathers might have been on different ends of the spectrum in terms of how polio affected them. It is true that my dad’s hand never quite worked correctly; in fact he was born a righty and was forced as a kid to learn how to be a lefty. But by the time I was around he had figured out ways to use it that made it pretty impossible to tell. (Except when remembering things like this story, I tend to forget that he had polio altogether.)

      My wife’s parents were like yours in that they divorced when she was growing up; raising our own boys we have been trying to take the best of what amounts to three families that we knew growing up.

      Huzzah and congrats on the arrival of your four week old son. You have quite the adventure in front of you, filled with the very best and worst moments of your life. (Nothing will prepare you for the terror of that first serious flu or illness.) But the best will outweigh the worst a thousand fold. Watching your son slowly, more and more become the person he is going to be is itself worth the whole price of admission.

      Also, yes – we’re about as Irish as an American family that isn’t Catholic and doesn’t live on Boston can be.


  12. the dust in the eye has made it to Vienna, Austria too, via a link to this wonderful touching story from’s Sitdown Sunday Seven Deadly Reads.


  13. Tod, 

    Your honest, beautiful piece about those amazing, wonderful and flawed human beings that are your  parents has stuck with me over the past few weeks.  Of course I cried.  Of course I remembered how supportive and gracious they both were.  It reminded me of watching Big Fish after both our fathers had died.

    But really (and you know I mean this as a compliment) it’s the best damn sermon I’ve read in a long time!


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