Our Beginning – An Intermarriage

The story of the beginning of our relationship is not an easy story to tell. I have a lot of sadness and perhaps regret, but I am also glad this story is part of my life. I hold on to it because of the lessons I have learned, the philosophy of life I have developed, the people I have met, and the journey that continues.

When I was young, I was surviving. I went along with the religious path of my childhood. I attended the parochial school system of the Catholic Church. My parents were both staunchly Catholic, and they raised us to follow that path. As a child, we follow. We go where we are dropped off. Until I was 18 years old, I was a practicing Catholic. And then, I went to nursing school- the first time living away from my family. Conveniently Holy Name Cathedral was two blocks from my apartment. I continued my weekly attendance at Mass and probably Holy Days of Obligation (and as I write this, I cringe at the obligation part).

When I was young, as all little Catholic girls dream at times, I played that I was a Catholic nun with my mother’s half-slips and a piece of cardboard. One slip was the long skirt with a rope and rosary around the waist; the other was a veil like the nuns wore. Theirs were black or brown. Most of my mother’s slips were white. I once prayed over a dead bird. I’m not sure what my prayer was, but I’m sure it had something to do with hoping the bird went to Heaven. At that time, I thought Heaven was a place, and I didn’t question any other philosophical meaning. I just got a bit cynical and angry, and when in 7th grade, we had a retreat day and had to be silent for the day, I took one of my friends aside, and in rebellion, we talked under a tree. Our teacher, Sister Philip, told me to confess that, and when I laughed, she poked me and said, “And Miss Mack, you can confess that too.”

In high school (Catholic, of course), I took a comparative religion class. I wasn’t very impressed with any of them and was happy to continue to blindly go to my own church. We had field trips to various religious venues. The protestant church was most similar to what I was comfortable with. However, we were not allowed to attend protestant services at the time. I can still remember walking into the Buddhist temple in downtown Chicago. There was a giant Buddha in the room. I was struck by the ornate patterns and bright colors-red and yellow and probably more. Hard to recall now. We also went into a Jewish Synagogue, and it felt very different. The altar, which I would later call the Bimah, had a stand with a scroll filled with odd letters (Hebrew) and read from right to left. It was all fascinating but did not prompt me to do any more exploring into other religions.

I graduated and was accepted to a downtown hospital program in Chicago – Wesley Passavant School of Nursing, now Northwestern Memorial Hospital. My home was in a southside suburb of Chicago, 45 minutes from downtown. My apartment was in the Carriage House on Chicago Avenue, downtown near the lake. It was actually quite luxurious for student nurse housing. Student nurses and interns shared this building instead of traditional dormitories. Our apartment was on the 26th floor, looking over Chicago Avenue, where we could often see limousines pulling up to the restaurant below. Eli’s the Place for Steak was on the first floor of the Carriage House. Eli’s was famous for its steak and cheesecake. I never ate there as I was just a poor nursing student. We went down the street to the local Walgreens and ate hamburgers. Or we ate in the hospital cafeteria next door. On the 6th floor of the Carriage House was a bar, a swimming pool, and a walkway tunnel to the hospital. I can remember falling into the swimming pool drunk after one of our weekend parties.

We wore blue uniforms with white pinafores, a starch white nurses cap, white hose, and white shoes.

I dated a little but was very focused on my studies. My goal was to get through my training and work in a profession to help people and be able to live independently away from home.

One of my roommates – I had four, was dating a dental student at Northwestern. The Northwestern University Dental, Medical, Law, and Business school were all at the downtown campus on Superior Avenue. The rest of Northwestern’s colleges were in Evanston, which was about 6 miles north along Lake Shore Drive.

The Carriage House was on Chicago Avenue about three blocks from Lake Michigan and three blocks the other way from Michigan Avenue “The Miracle Mile” full of high-end shops and department stores. The Water Tower was just the Water Tower. There was no shopping center at that time. Today there are still some of the same shops. The Walgreens is still there, but the Water Tower is a multilevel shopping mall, and Lord and Taylor is across the street.

Back to the dental school. My roommate’s boyfriend, the dental student, told me, “I know the perfect guy for you. He is one of my classmates.” I’m not sure what he saw in the guy or me he thought would be a perfect date, but I was not interested. My roommate’s guy lacked anything I was attracted to, and I thought, yuk! I’m not interested in any guy fixed up by him. 

Shortly after that, I got a call from the “perfect guy” asking me if I needed any dental work. I said, “No. I have a dentist. Thanks.”, and I hung up. That tactic didn’t work.

Then a few weeks later, another roommate’s uncle was going to take us all on his boat. I needed a date. I agreed to meet “the perfect guy, “despite my original trepidation. We decided to meet for lunch in the cafeteria of Abbot Hall, the housing dormitory for the dental students. All I knew was that he had dark hair and a mustache. All he knew about me was that I had dark hair and was short. I walked to Superior Avenue to meet him. I smiled at any guy with dark hair and a mustache, but none of them seemed to be looking for a girl like me. Then I saw this guy lying on the brick plant enclosure. He had a piece of ornamental grass in his mouth. He had dark hair and a mustache. I walked over, said, “Steve?” Still lying on his back, he looked over and said, “Mary?” And there we were. Steve brought a friend with him in case “I was a dog…” Steve, his friend Lenny, and I had lunch that day. The conversation was comfortable, and I felt an immediate attraction. Steve told Lenny he could go. I passed. That was our first date.

There were many more, and eventually, we were “exclusive.” It was the Spring of 1971, and we were finishing our school years. We both would have the summer off. I would go home to the south side of Chicago, and Steve would go home to Cincinnati.

In the Fall, I would be starting my second year of nursing school, and Steve would be starting his third year of dental school. We both had two years to go, and thus two years to get to know each other. Rather than my Dad picking me up to go home, within a month of dating, Steve, who had a car, agreed to take me back. He would meet my parents for the first time.

I didn’t make a big deal about the fact that he wasn’t Catholic. I wasn’t even considering that being Jewish was such an issue. I guess my inner rebel, cynical 7th grader, doubting self, was more interested in our attraction and mutual compatibility in conversation and flow, rather than considering the barrier that religious difference could cause.

So, Steve took me home. I had no idea what his house was like in Cincinnati. I had no idea how different it would feel for him to walk into my childhood home. Yet, he would describe all the crucifixes on every wall. The statues of Mary and Jesus. My Dad’s painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus over the desk in the living room. My Dad was an artist, trained by a French painter and at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Sacred Heart painting was a life-size head of Jesus. Dad painted it in a way that no matter where you were in the room, the eyes of Jesus could follow you.

I’m wondering what my mother made for dinner that day, but it could have been pork roast.

I guess I lacked the emotional maturity or intelligence to realize how strange my house would appear to a Jewish boyfriend. I had only dated Catholics up to now. I also was never so attracted to anyone as I was to Steve. He was cute. He was five years older than me. He was sexy. He made me feel special, and honestly, I loved him from the start.

But on this day, when he came to my south side Chicago suburban home in an all-white, mostly Catholic, and not a Jew within miles neighborhood, it would be the first of many difficult moments in our relationship.

My very Catholic parents were not happy. They liked Steve. My brothers and sisters liked Steve, but it was apparent that there was an issue. Steve quietly sat at the kitchen table while my Dad drew him something that outlined the quickest way to Heaven-Catholicism. Later, Dad wrote a book What is Truth? (This book would define every ism that was not Catholic as heretical and pagan).

Steve drove back downtown that day after leaving me with my family for the summer break. That summer, Steve went home for a few weeks, and we continued to talk. He decided to stay in Chicago for the summer, and he would pick me up on the weekend, and we would continue our dates. I ended out staying downtown in my apartment, and Steve would eventually stay with me.

On Friday nights, Steve would get a weekly call from his parents. If he even mentioned Mary, they would change the subject. They were not happy about him dating a “shiksa.” (a woman who is not Jewish).

I still did not let this barrier phase me until after we had been dating two months, Steve said,

“We have a problem here.”

I asked, “What’s the problem?”

“You are very Catholic, and I am very Jewish, and I don’t think this is going to work.”

“Why not???” I asked. I thought- religion should not be a barrier to love. God is all about love. He would not want us to separate because of religion.

Then, Steve said, “I know that I would want a Jewish home and could only raise my children Jewish. You come from a strict Catholic home. I don’t think this will work.”

My inner struggles were just beginning. “We can make it work. I could raise my children Jewish.” Yet, I have no idea what that means. I don’t even know much about Judaism. They don’t believe in Jesus. But that’s okay. I can keep Jesus in my heart and not talk about it. Yikes, what will this mean? And my thoughts would go on and on.

One day I would go to confession at Holy Name Cathedral, and when the priest lifted the confessional screen, I would say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” And then I would ask, “Do Jews go to Heaven?” I don’t think I said my sin was dating a Jew, but I was feeling the guilt and pain of the situation by now.

The priest very calmly said, “Of course they do. It is what is in your heart that God sees. If your intentions and beliefs are genuine and you know no better, all will be received in Heaven.” Or something to this effect. I remember walking home that day with some relief.

My conflict would continue. My head was spinning with confusion. I was in love. This should not be such a problem. Yet, by the middle of the school year, when I was in my psychiatric nursing rotation, my instructor pulled me into her office. She said, “Mary, you are doing fine in this rotation, but I notice you are troubled. What’s going on?” I cried and told her about my relationship – the sadness, confusion, and love. She said, “Have you ever been to therapy or had counseling?” I said, “No.”

That day as would be almost every day since, was a life-changer for me. She said, “I think you and Steve should go for counseling.” She gave me the name of a therapist on Michigan Avenue.

We made an appointment. I had never been to a therapist before. Steve had never had counseling either other than perhaps his rabbi. And for me, it would have been the priest and the nuns.

The therapist was Jewish. My psychiatric instructor was quite insightful. Steve felt comfortable. I was just honest. I told her, “I love him, and I think I would be okay to learn more about Judaism, be married by a rabbi, and raise my children Jewish.”

Interesting that I had no prior dreams of getting married or having children. I just wanted to have a nursing career and was not much interested in getting into a serious relationship. While my girlfriends had all talked about what a wedding might look like someday, I blocked those images out of my mind. I had seen my parents’ conflicts and fights and the pain of relationship and just wanted to get out of the house and live a life. I had no concrete visions of what that life would be.

But here I found myself by happenstance in love, and now contemplating being with this man-this very different, intriguing, fun, and cute man-for the rest of my life. I was not even thinking about children or how I would raise them. I guess I had the spiritual and religious puppet mentality to follow how I was raised.

Meeting Steve forced me to think, to envision, to wonder, and to search. I could only go so far.

The therapist knew after three sessions that I would somehow survive and be okay. She had concerns about Steve. She was Jewish, and she could sense that his mind was closed to any compromise.

After our third appointment, she said, “I don’t need to see Mary anymore. Her mind is set, and she is willing to do what you want Steve, but I do need to see you. If you marry, it will still be tough for you, and along the way, you will have to compromise, at least some.”

And so, Steve would continue to see her. His mind was still relatively closed, but he stayed with me, and together we explored the restaurants of Chicago and each other’s souls.

During our last year of school, Steve’s sister, Marcia, his only sibling, would be diagnosed with a brain tumor. Up to now, I had not met his parents. They were not at all thrilled about his dating me.

I had never met his sister. She was married and lived in Athens, Georgia. She had two children. Steve would talk to her during our courtship, and she was supportive, and I think we may have talked once or twice.

After her diagnosis, Steve’s mother would fly from Cincinnati to Athens to help with the children, who were 6months and 18 months old. I loved babies and would babysit while in nursing school. My clients were often wealthy families living in the John Hancock Building or on Lake Shore Drive. My regular sitting job was for a family that lived in the same building as the Drake Hotel and where Ann Landers and Barbara Walters lived at one time.

Steve wanted to visit his sister and was going home to see his parents first, then driving to Georgia. I offered to come along and help his Mom. This would be the first time I would meet his parents and then his sister and her family.

Steve’s mom was already in Georgia when we drove to Cincinnati. I met Steve’s Dad and his Aunt Peppi. His home was much larger than mine, even though I had a large family compared to him.

It was a split-level home, much like my rich aunt and uncle. Steve’s Dad was very nice but a bit gruff. During our visit, he took out a book that discounted the reality of the virgin birth of Jesus. I had never questioned this. His Aunt Peppi very directly asked me, “Do you believe in Jesus?” and I as directly answered, “Yes.” Aunt Peppi took Steve aside and said, “She can’t convert Steve. That’s too much to ask. You can’t marry her.”

Steve had close friends who cautioned him about getting too involved with me, saying it might be better to break it off.

We did continue dating and two years later I walked down the aisle of a Jewish Temple and was married under the Chuppa. Little did I know that more would break than the glass.

To be continued in memoir.

© 2021 Mary Claybon All Rights Reserved


Mary Claybon has dedicated her life to healing the body, mind and spirit through her writing and coaching. She is a proud Mom and Grandma from near Cincinnati, Ohio and is owner of her business and brand, Promoting Health: The Middle Way LLC. You can read more about Mary’s work and read her blog at https://themiddlewayhealth.com

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