I suspect many children hear — or concoct — romantic stories about how their parents came to marry. In my own version, my mother fell in love with my father — a friend of her three older brothers — because he was the smartest man she’d ever known, and he fell in love with her because she was the prettiest woman he’d ever known. They met when he was 14 and she 12. When they were 20 and 18, they worked in the same office and began spending time together alone. Five years after that, they married on impulse and in secret at New York’s City Hall. It was a classic love story.

Yet even from the beginning, I sensed that the fairy tale didn’t quite fit. For one thing, there were obvious ways my parents were ill-matched. My father, Eli, approached life with a wry, philosophical distance. My mother, Dorothy, seemed to think in cliches. (During a long phone call with my father when he was in his 90s, I blurted out, “I’m going to miss you so much when you’re gone!” He said, “I’ll just be a memory. There are so many people who were so real to me, and now they’re just memories.” When my mother heard me say something similar, she shrieked, “WHAT KIND OF THING IS THAT TO SAY?!”)

As my parents grew older, they spoke of their courtship in ways that called my view of it into question. “I was after him for years,” my mother told me. “I was very possessive. I kept trying to get him to go to lunch and go out with me after work. I can’t believe how aggressive I was. . . . He said he would never get married.” My father had quit high school at 14 to support his sister and widowed mother. It was the Depression, so he was barely managing to do that. There was no way he could also support a wife and children. And he had a dream: One day his mother and sister would marry, and he’d be free. If he married, he’d be obligated for life.

Then there was Helen. Looking back on their lives, my parents also spoke openly and casually about my mother’s “rival.” Talking to my father, I once referred to Helen as his “other girlfriend.” He said: “Your mother wasn’t my girlfriend. Helen was my girlfriend.” Then why did he end up with Dorothy? Here’s how he explained it: He believed (this was the early 1930s) that a man who “deflowered” a virgin was honor-bound to marry her. That’s why he never slept with Helen, though he dated her for three years. He had sex with my mother because she told him she wasn’t a virgin, so it wouldn’t obligate him. But once they were intimate, she changed her mind. When he continued to insist he couldn’t marry, she became ill. She cried incessantly, vomited repeatedly and lost weight. He felt that her illness and suffering were his fault: He’d done wrong and had to make it right. He proposed, and they eloped.

Hearing this account from my father (and separately from my mother) when I was 50, I thought my mother had used her unhappiness to pressure him — just as she’d used it to pressure me throughout my life. For example, after college, I decided to join the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach English in Thailand. But as my departure neared, my mother grew distraught, crying nonstop. The night before I was to leave, I succumbed to her despair: I didn’t go. It took me less than a day to regret my decision. For decades after, any mention of the Peace Corps pierced.

The sense that my mother had tricked my father into marriage made me wonder if he should have married Helen instead. It imbued her with an aura of mystery and allure. So I was intrigued when my father, in his 80s, told me he’d saved Helen’s letters. We found them in the storage room of my parents’ condo, in a bulky brown envelope, its sides creased and torn. Each letter was still folded in its stamped envelope addressed to Eli Tannen in a woman’s neat hand. And there was another stack, too, of unfolded typed pages signed “Eli”: copies of letters my father had sent her.

When I began writing a book about my father’s life in 2012, I put the letters in chronological order — and saw that my father’s relationship with Helen was the one that resembled a classic love story. They met at a “camp,” as the modest Catskill getaways were called. The letters refer to a late-night boat ride and to long, self-revealing conversations. My father writes that he feels with her “romance of a flavor I have never yet tasted before.” Reading Helen’s letters, I fall in love with her myself. She sounds like the soul mate I assumed a spouse should be — and I believed my mother couldn’t be. In her first letter, Helen recalls a line of poetry (“Oh, world I can’t hold thee close enough”) and an Arab folk tale (“Like the ‘Man of the Sea’ of Sinbad’s, I have become attached”). She’s contemplative and sensitive and, like my father, attuned to language. All of it reinforced my conviction that he should have chosen her.

But gradually, as I wrote the book about him, my thinking changed. I don’t know if my father would have been happier had he married Helen. But he surely would not have been happier had he remained single, as he was determined to do. His dream of being free when his mother and sister found husbands was a fantasy. His sister eventually married, but his mother never did — and he was miserable living with them. It was marriage that set him free. By tapping into his sense of duty, my mother gave my father a license to start his own life.

Four years into their marriage, my father wrote in a poem to my mother, “I’m in love with married life” and “I’m in love with loving my wife.” Despite their different temperaments and interests, that love prevailed and deepened over seven decades. I see it in scenes that have stayed in my mind. In one, my parents are in their 90s, waiting for the dining room in their senior residence to open — both in wheelchairs (she recovering from a fall, he from surgery), holding hands. In another, I’m with my mother in the living room of their Florida apartment when my father comes in, pushing his walker before him. But instead of heading for his usual chair, he heads for his wife. “Where are you going?” she asks. He says, “I’m going to give you a kiss.” My father outlived my mother by more than two years. Five months after she died, he wrote to a friend: “I don’t know how I can go on without my Dorothy. To me her loss is equivalent to the loss of a saint.” 

In the end, I gave up both fables I’d formed about my parents’ marriage: the romantic story of the prettiest woman and the smartest man, and the cynical tale of a conniving woman who ensnared a man she didn’t deserve. I arrived at what I think is a truer truth. Lasting love comes less from having chosen the perfect partner than from the accumulation of days spent side by side, caring for and talking to each other, and something my parents did a lot of: laughing together.

Why was I so preoccupied with Helen? Why did I become convinced she’d have been a better wife? Pondering these questions, I realized that it wasn’t only about my father’s life. It was also, maybe mostly, about mine. By imagining my father with a different wife, I was actually imagining myself with a different mother — a better one. How easy it is to envision a parent, a spouse, a sibling who has none of the frailties our actual family members have — and no other frailties, either. We judge the people in our lives not by comparison with other real people, with real failings, but with the perfect people our imaginations conjure. That’s what Helen represented to me: my father’s ideal wife, my ideal mother, the ideal family I might have had.

But the only kind of family anyone gets is a real one. And the family I got — to my great good fortune — was suffused with the devotion, liveliness and laughter that my mother brought to it. That legacy has stayed with me, my two sisters and our own families, and kept us in continual laughing, texting, talking and Zooming contact, buoying us through the pandemic.