By Harriet P. Gross
The Supreme Court recently ruled that all legally married couples are entitled to federal benefits for the wedded. Some states are still fighting the legality of gay marriages, but I’m sure a day will come when people are actually surprised that this was once the case.
That’s the way it was with mixed-race couples, too, in the once-upon-a-time before 1947, when the last state struck down its law against miscegenation. All of which reminds me of a poignant story that a reader sent to me back in the fall, something she’d pulled from “Spirit,” the Southwest Airlines magazine.
Shirley Greenblatt and Collins “Pat” Patterson didn’t marry until 1952. She was 29 then, he a ripe old 44. They had met at work in a New York government office, where she was a secretary and he was a janitor. So you may have guessed from this occupational discrepancy that she was white and he was black.
It’s said that opposites attract, which was temperamentally true for these two. She was outspoken and outgoing; he was quiet and contemplative. A mutual love of jazz first brought them together. They married in a civil ceremony in Pat’s tiny apartment and kept their union a secret. It was at a time when Orthodox Jewish parents like Shirley’s would have most likely sat shiva for her if they knew, and so she decided to keep this from them, because they had already suffered so much: both were Russian immigrants who first met while hiding from a Cossack pogrom.
Even after marriage, Shirley remained the dutiful “single” daughter who returned to her parents’ table for dinner every Shabbat, and managed somehow to turn away her mother’s incessant questioning: “Why haven’t you found a nice boy already?”
Shirley and Pat bought a house together, and her mother, who was led to believe it was her daughter’s alone, came once a week to visit and — of course — to tidy it up, as mothers often do. In preparation for these visits, Shirley hid every vestige of her husband in the basement: his shoes, his clothes, anything that might hint at the presence of a man on the premises. And Pat would also hide in the basement. He loved and respected Shirley enough to do so, fully understanding why she felt this was necessary. He had been one of the World War II American soldiers who liberated a concentration camp in Germany, witnessing Jewish suffering first-hand.
They made many such difficult compromises, but the hardest, most heartbreaking, was their mutual decision never to have children. Reality told them it would be impossible to hide that. So the marriage secret outlived Shirley’s parents and eventually became known to a few of her close relatives, including the cousin who wrote this story. Pat had shared it with his sister, his only living relative at the time of the marriage, but she and Shirley never really got along. So they were their own support system through a union that lasted until cardiac arrest took Pat away at age 66. Shirley soldiered on alone until 1990, when she lost a five-year battle with cancer.
The lawsuit that finally ended all American miscegenation for all time was brought by a Virginia man who said his only plea was this: “Tell the court I love my wife.” By one of those great, inexplicable ironies, his surname was Loving.
By a great but more explicable irony, Shirley Greenblatt and Pat Patterson came together in marriage and ultimately after death, as they are buried together in a non-religious military cemetery in New York. Their joint headstone is plain, bearing only their names and dates of birth and death. But four simple words beneath those facts sum up their love for the world to see now: “We had it all.”
Those now fighting for gay marriage rights throughout America may someday be able to make this same statement.