Anniversary Story by Harry Mark Petrakis

September 18, 2018
Harry Mark Petrakis

This year, on September 30, 2018, my wife, Diana, and I will have been married 73 years. We are restricted in celebrating anniversaries now. Airports have become as difficult to cross as battlefields. Heartburn warns against a celebratory dinner of lobster and champagne. So we will spend that day quietly, grateful we still have one another.

A story cradled in the folklore of our family goes that when both of us were ten, in our parish church one Sunday, Diana pointed me out to her older sister Maria as “the boy I’m going to marry.” I like to believe that story is true.

I remember her as a bony girl with great dark eyes looming oversized in her small pale face. We met again some five or six years later, both in our teens, again at church on a Sunday in summer. My father was the priest at the church, which gave me, his son, a certain patina of respectability, which through idleness and gambling I was working hard to overcome.

I was astonished at how the girl had blossomed. Her face had grown fuller, so had her eyes. While still large and very dark, they now ornamented her face.

As we started dating, Diana’s mother invited me for dinner. I went nervously, fearing a critical reception, hoping to make a winning impression.

Her father was a short, stocky and ebullient man, who embraced me with unrestrained affection. Diana’s sister, Maria, equally as lovely, and her younger brother George, also received me warmly.

That wasn’t true of Diana’s mother. She stared at me throughout dinner with the ferocity of an eagle guarding her nest against predators.

As a young woman, Diana still radiated a child’s delight in life. One summer day we drove for an outing to Starved Rock Park. We walked along a wooded path through the forest and came to a fountain, crystal clear water bubbling from a triad of spigots. Diana flipped off her shoes, raised her dress to the hem of her panties, and stepping barefooted into the fountain and began a spontaneous little dance. I wasn’t the only one enchanted. Men and women walking past the fountain paused to admire the lovely nymph cavorting joyfully in sunlight.

In 1940, we were both seventeen. War had broken out in Europe the year before and America was expected to enter. I was draft age and in good physical shape, so I felt certain I would be inducted into the army. In my fantasy I saw Diana and myself as star-crossed lovers soon to be parted.

But I was rejected for service because of scar tissue on my lungs from my childhood bout of tuberculosis. As friends and schoolmates departed for the army, I felt ashamed at being rejected and found solace in gambling, which had become an addiction that threatened to dominate my life. Despite the warnings of her mother, Diana accepted my proposal of marriage and my father married us on September 30, 1945.

For the first months following our wedding, we lived with my parents in their south side apartment. At the beginning of our second year, we found a studio apartment in the nearby Woodlawn neighborhood, comprised of a kitchen, bathroom and living room. A Murphy bed swung out of the wall. The second year we lived there, our first son Mark was born. The journey of our family began.

While we occupied the studio, I worked in the south side steel mills, on rotating shifts, one week eight in the morning to four, then four in the afternoon to eight, and finally midnight to eight in the morning.

The midnight to eight shift was a problem, since I came home exhausted at dawn to a baby son who greeted the day with a strong pair of lungs. So that I might get a few hours of sleep, Diana bundled our son in his buggy and for the next four or five hours walked the streets, lingered on a bench in the park, or took him to her father’s store. The price she paid for gaining me some sleep was to come home exhausted herself.

After leaving the mills, I worked other jobs. While my gambling had diminished, I still wasn’t totally free. But the desire to write slowly weaned me from gambling. Yet writing also stripped me of interest in any job. The result was that I either quit or was fired from a series of employments.

In this series of jobs was added an abysmal year I spent as owner of a small factory district lunchroom. Diana was my principal waitress working long days beside me. The two of us would fall into exhausted sleep on the South Shore train that carried us home.

Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1940s and lasting into the mid-fifties, as often as I sent stories out, they invariably came back with printed rejection slips attached. Manuscripts often remained with magazines for months, and once, having sent a story to Partisan Review, I waited a year for a reply, which was just another rejection.

During this time, two more sons were born to our family. For our family of five, the monthly arrival of bills was a constant worry for Diana as she tried to stretch our meager funds. We had arguments about my gambling and my inability to hold a job. There were pleas and tears and promises I kept breaking. Yet, Diana never asked me to give up writing.

Ten years of submissions and rejections were to pass before I sold my first story, Pericles on 31st Street to the Atlantic Magazine at Christmas of 1956. When that story appeared in print in the April 1957 issue of the Atlantic, I bought a score of copies to distribute to family and friends. My repeated and often plaintive claim to being a writer had finally been confirmed.

During those years that I struggled to write, it was Diana who remained rooted in that real world we lived in with our sons, seeing to their clothing for school, making sure I looked presentable as I began a new job. She shopped for groceries with a purse full of coupons that she manipulated for savings with the skill of an accountant.

When our sons grew older, Diana sometimes joined me on the lecture circuit. Her warmth and friendliness helped make our visits special. A professor at a university in Toronto told me as we were finishing a three-day residency, “Harry, you are the writer… you were the one we were looking forward to seeing. Now that you’re leaving though, I must tell you, we will miss Diana the most.”

Through the tumultuous and erratic course of my writing journey, Diana looked after our family. In times of stress, she was our comfort. She kept faith in me and that bolstered me when my confidence wavered. When I confronted her with decisions that were reckless, subduing her fears as a mother, she supported me. I remain convinced that without her love and the way she held our family together, I would not have written a single story or book.

Nearing this 73rd anniversary, we are now a very old couple, my wife on a walker and I on a cane. Our breathing has grown short, our muscles weary, strength and agility worn away, But there is something that cannot be taken from us… that life’s journey we have made together.

Now I also admit to having made a multitude of faulty decisions in my life. One decision, however, has proven so incredibly sagacious that it might erase a plethora of faulty ones… that decision was asking Diana to be my wife and then having her say “Yes…”


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