I have very few photos of my mother when she was young and even fewer of my father.
In the photo, I see a good-looking couple dressed in holiday best. He is tall in a double-breasted navy blue suit with a snappy geometric patterned tie, highly polished black shows. His hair is parted and in place with hair creme. He sports a tidy moustache. He is relaxed and has his arm wrapped around his wife, his wedding ring just visible. She is wearing a brown, possibly silk dress, camellia corsage near her left shoulder, fancy drop earrings, peep-toe sling back pumps. Her hair is medium length. Her make-up is understated, a touch of red lipstick. They are definitely styling. Both are looking at someone or something away from the camera.
Cal Leonard Martin had just turned 22 that October. Penny née Jean Marie Swanson was 21 and would turn 22 a few weeks later in January.
They seem so young but, in post-war, mid-20th century America, they were adults, parents starting a family. They had just had their first child, my older sister Mary in November. (Three years later I would be born, in five years my younger sister Nanci and in seven my youngest sister Kate.)
They were grown-ups on their own and on their way. Neither of them would have considered living with their parents as an option. Advanced education wasn’t on my mom’s radar. Back-packing around the world or taking a few years off to find himself would not have crossed my dad’s mind. He was a Marines Corp veteran having served in World War II as a radio technician. Now, he was a father and breadwinner.
I don’t know where this photo was taken. Certainly California, but was it near Salinas where my sister Mary was born? Or were they already in San Francisco where my dad would start his Radio & TV repair business (Day & Night Television) using the skills he had acquired in the Marines?
They look happy. I hope they were in love. I am sure they had plans for the future.
Neither of them knew at that moment that in 5 years Penny would contract polio in the 1952 epidemic and would spend weeks in an iron lung while she was pregnant. They didn’t know that she’d ultimately undergo an experimental surgery which transplanted muscles from her abdomen into her left leg so she could walk again, leaving her with a permanent 99 stitch scar and four artificial trusses criss-crossing her belly.
Neither of them knew that 7 years later in October 1954, only a month after their youngest daughter was born, Cal would be dead from a blow to the head incurred in a fight at Compton’s Café in the Tenderloin in San Francisco after hours. He and another drunk man would exchange verbal insults. Cal would be knocked down, hitting his head and be taken to SF General Hospital unconscious. There he’d fight for his life for three days, receiving three separate craniectomies (small holes drilled in skull) to try and stop the swelling in his cranium.
Neither of them knew that every holiday season after Cal’s death, Penny would sink into a dark alcohol-soaked state of mind, full of unspeakable sadness. They didn’t know that at Christmas time in 1959, after weeks of traveling with her daughters and mother in tow searching for some kind of better life, she’d try to commit suicide in Nice, France.
And neither of them knew that, finally, around Thanksgiving in November 1981 on Maui Hawaii, Penny’s liver would fail.
None of that future is visible in this photo of a young couple at Christmas time.