“From A Blind Date to A Matchless Marriage”
Editor: The following is an excerpt from Walter Linder’s memoir, A Life of Labor and Love, A Red Memoir.
When I reached my early twenties, I was convinced I was too shy to ever get married. Although I had gone out on dates with various women, nothing had clicked. At 24, I began seeing a young woman named Charlotte. We went out for about a year but I sensed something was not quite right. I wasn’t meeting my wife! “Wally, I could never marry someone who doesn’t dance,” she said — leading my sister June to advise that such superficiality was not for me: “Forget her.” (Good advice. As it turned out, the three women with whom I was to spend the next six decades of my life — Esther, Toni and Vera — were all terrific dancers.)
During that year, a comrade from my CP railroad section asked me if I had a girlfriend. “Yes,” I replied, but “it doesn’t seem to be going anyplace.”
“Well,” said Gladys, “if you break it off with her, I’ve got the girl for you.”
“A blind date?” I said.
“Why not?” she answered.
I did break up with Charlotte later. Determined to overcome my shyness, I called Gladys for the phone number of “the girl for me.” Gladys had checked for her friend’s O.K. It was the first week in May, 1955, and it was then that I met Esther Chanzis. Was about to meet my wife.
She lived in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood I now visited for the first time. When I picked her up I suggested we go see a Swedish movie in Manhattan, “One Summer of Happiness.” She agreed and off we went. I was so entranced with her looks and the beautiful peasant blouse she was wearing that I spent more time staring at her than at the movie.
When I took her home, I asked if she liked bike riding and, if so, suggested we take a trip the following Saturday afternoon along the Belt Parkway bike path. We could start from Bensonhurst and ride to the old Brooklyn ferry that embarked from the beginning of the Belt to Staten Island. (Ten years later, when the Verrazano Bridge opened, that ferry closed down.)
The week went by and my excitement mounted. Saturday arrived; we rented bikes and cycled off in the afternoon for about four or five miles to the ferry. We decided to board the next boat and take the trip to Staten Island. It turned out to be the least expensive date I’d ever had, a nickel per person each way. But when we got to Staten Island, we decided to stay on the ferry without paying for the return trip to Brooklyn. The fare for the two of us was ten cents all told!
She had a family gathering that evening so before I left her I asked her out for the following weekend. To my delight she readily agreed. Saturday came and I took her out to dinner. By this third date, we had told each other a lot about our lives. Like me, she had come from a Communist working-class family so our views on life had much in common — except that she was a great dancer.
Afterwards she invited me upstairs. She shared a tiny, box-shaped four-room apartment with her parents, Ida and Sam, both retired — two small bedrooms, an even smaller living room and a kitchen. In the course of reviewing our lives she had told me of a two-month trip she had made to Europe in 1951, going to the World Youth Festival in Berlin. She had just been laid off from her job and used the severance pay to finance the trip — traveling on the Queen Mary to England and flying home from Berlin, with stops along the way in Holland, France and Poland.
To me, who had never been further from home than the Catskills, her trip sounded positively sensational. She then told me she had written a 100-page description of the trip and gave it to me to read. For the next three hours, I sat in the kitchen completely spellbound. All her descriptions were captivating: with all the people she had met on the trip, hanging out with the crew (not the passengers) on the ship, trying to figure out which of the seven pieces of silverware she was supposed to use at dinner, touring London, Amsterdam and Paris, meeting with people who had fought the Nazis during the war.
When I got to the last page it was 3:00 a.m. By then she was asleep. And I was convinced that this was the woman I wanted to marry!
For the next six weeks, we recounted what kind of future we might share together. I was absolutely overjoyed over having met such a wonderful human being. As luck would have it, I had just received my driver’s license the week after we had met (although I had no car). Her family had bought a two-door Chevy convertible, on the theory that she would get a license and then drive her family around. But so far she had failed two driving tests. And here I had a license. What a set-up!
The July 4th weekend was approaching and she said she had been planning to go upstate with a number of her friends, some single and some married. I said, “Let’s go!” and so we did, with her car and my license. We all had a great time. My mind was agog. At the end of the weekend, and despite the fact that we had known each other for only eight weeks, I decided this was the woman I had been waiting for. When we got to her apartment I told her I wanted to marry her and spend the rest of our lives together. She was ecstatic, threw her arms around me and fairly shouted, “Yes!”
Her parents were spending the week at a resort so she immediately called them and told her mother the great news. My future mother-in-law Ida was overjoyed, especially since she thought I was “a piece of gold.” It was then that my Esther told me of the heartbreak she had experienced a year before. She had been going out with a guy for some time and they had decided to get married. A hall had been hired; the invitations had been sent out — Esther had a huge family, with aunts and uncles and cousins galore who were all delighted at the approaching marriage. But about a week before the wedding the guy shocked everyone. He backed out. He told her he didn’t think he could commit himself to marriage.
Esther was despondent. She told me she felt her time “was over.” She’d never get married. But now she exclaimed how lucky she was. “If that guy hadn’t backed out, I would never have met you!”
I then said we’d have to wait until October.
“Not again,” she said.
“No,” I told her, “I’m not backing out.” I explained that I had a 3A draft classification based on supporting my parents and that my next hearing to continue the deferment was scheduled for October. She was relieved. I had been sharing an apartment in downtown Brooklyn with a friend but I decided to move back with my parents in order to save up money for our honeymoon. So we spent the next four months planning the wedding and our trip.
Esther was slowly helping me shed any inhibitions, to forsake much of my shyness. I didn’t know it at the time but she later told our daughter that she looked on me as “a project,” as “a work in progress” that was absolutely worth taking on. Lucky for me.
We were married on October 22. At the wedding she pulled one of her tricks. The bandleader had announced that the bride and groom should now come out for the first dance. I was struck dumb. “I can’t do this,” I moaned. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We won’t be alone.” She then invited all the guests to join us on the dance floor. Somewhat relieved that everyone would not be staring at me, we started dancing. Then I looked around and realized we were the only ones on the floor. She had told everyone not to obey her invitation, which they did, and now the guests were laughing uproariously while the groom was “dancing.”
We left the following week, during a snowstorm, driving cross-country in our little Chevy convertible, by way of Niagara Falls, then Chicago to visit her cousins — who owned a deli and sent us on our way with a load of food — and then for a week in the snows of Boulder, Colorado — the beginning of years of bliss that I had only dreamed about. Meeting your wife had proven not so hard.
My next draft board hearing was a year away but by that time Esther was pregnant with our daughter Anita, which meant a new deferment. So I had escaped once again, never to be drafted.
But that’s a story for another part of my memoir.