“06880” reader Jeff Van Gelder emailed me from Germany.
His parents — Edgar and Inge — celebrate their 60th anniversary today. Nearly all of those years were spent in Westport. You can’t get old people anything, Jeff said, and President Obama doesn’t have time to call. Could “06880” do something?
The last thing I want is to be Al Roker. If I did something for the Van Gelders, what’s next? Congratulations for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, baby showers?
But I wanted to help, so I asked Jeff some questions: What were those 55 years like? How did his parents live here? What did Westport mean to them?
Jeff responded beautifully. He wrote:
What have my parents gotten out of Westport? A sense of belonging, most likely, although the question would be better put to the both of them. Westport’s appeal back then is easy to imagine. It was a mix of newcomers, and still very much a New England town.
They arrived at the beginning of the ’50s, when Westport was just emerging into the “Westport” it was to become. You could buy gas at 2 places on Cross Highway, Roseville Road was the most dangerous stretch of road imaginable, and men still wore fedoras when they boarded the train at Saugatuck. On the weekend my father took us to Nyala Farm to visit the cows. Back then it was much easier to entertain a 5-year-old.
After his retirement, my father became involved for many years on the always controversial Planning and Zoning Commission. All of my mother’s work for the Westport Community Theatre, World Affairs Council, Woman’s Club and as an ESL teacher were activities that were characteristic of Westport.
They probably didn’t consciously consider what they were doing as giving to the town. It was just who they were, and still are. As with all parents, the school system was a vital part of their decision to stay in Westport.
My parents had a number of friends in town. Some stayed, many left. They were all from somewhere else, as were we, but it always felt like Westport. On the other hand, we lived next to a family that had been in Westport for over 100 years. This gave me a preternatural feeling of permanence that I have come to realize is not the norm for Fairfield County.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s divorce rates continued to rise. Many friends at school moved away with just one of their parents. That always happened to other people. In my family no matter how much we yelled and fought, somehow my parents stayed together. Despite the problems that every family experiences, and the sorrow of having to bury one of our siblings in Westport, it is only now as a father and husband that I appreciate what their choice of Westport meant to all of us, and how glad I am to have grown up there.
Five years ago, after more than 40 years in our family home, they decided it was time to move into a place with less space and fewer stairs. They stayed in Westport, because it was where their friends were and where they belonged. Now they are as close to heaven as it is possible to be, living right behind Gold’s.
Sharing a life with someone for 60 years is more than an act of endurance; it is an exceptional display of humanity and love. My parents inspire their son, my friends and all those who know them.
The 60th anniversary wedding gift is supposed to be diamonds. Jeff Van Gelder’s homage to his parents is richer by far.