The latest in a series of essays inspired by the intersection of family photographs and memory. First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, August 2023.
This is the story, as my parents always told it: They were graduate students in linguistics at the University of Michigan. As part of their work, they and other grad students would conduct field teaching — instruction in English to Mexican farm workers in rural Michigan, pickers in the heart of sugar beet territory. It was late 1945 or early 1946, just after World War II ended.
My father, Edward Mason Anthony Jr., was the only one who had a car — a Studebaker, if memory (his) serves. So he’d be the driver. After the day’s classes, in the months where the sun set early, five or six other grad students would cram into his car, set out from Ann Arbor and head either north toward Saginaw or west toward Battle Creek. My father would drop each off at a farm along the way to teach an hourlong English class.
He’d stop at the furthest farm, teach his class, then turn around and pick everyone back up again and return to Ann Arbor. They’d lecture in farm shacks, at tables in late-night greasy spoons, even in train boxcars. My mother had an advantage over the other graduate students; she was fluent in Spanish and had spent time in Mexico during her undergrad years.
As the senior member of this group — and, not incidentally, the driver — my father would select who got dropped off to teach which group. There was this one student, Ann Terbrueggen, to whom he’d taken a fancy. They’d known of each other back at Cooley High School in Detroit but never really got acquainted. He wanted to. He finagled the schedule so she’d be the second-to-last person dropped off. That way they’d get some time to talk while the car wasn’t populated with all the previous grad students. He’d drop her off at her stop, keep going, teach his class, then return and pick her up. That’s how they got to know each other. He was 23; she was 21.
And 77 years ago, on Sept. 18, 1946, in the Michigan League Chapel in Ann Arbor, they were married. They stayed that way for 69 years until he died, working in their field — sometimes together — in various capacities across the decades and across the planet. On the inside of the closet door in my father’s study, now my study, is posted a full-page copy of The New York Times front page from that day.
The late-night teaching rides were a family folk-tale staple whose veracity I never doubted. I took my parents’ word. And I was always fascinated by it — not only by the courtship part, but in particular by how my intrepid mother would teach in a box car alone in rural Michigan late at night.
This was, after all, during an era where even her advisor — a renowned linguist whose fundamentalist values unfortunately permeated his approach to pedagogy — told her a couple years later that she was a great linguist but added a caveat that crippled her for decades: “You wouldn’t want to overshadow your husband’s career, would you?” My mother always put emphasis on the word “husband” when she recounted this story to me.
Then, about seven years ago, shortly before my mother died, I opened a drawer in this little Scandinavian end table she kept in her study in the house where I grew up. In a stack of tiny old photos toward the back of the drawer, I unearthed the one at the top of this essay. It shows my impossibly young mother, sitting at a table in what appears to be a small shack or a boxcar, surrounded by what I can only conclude are Mexican farm workers. The photographer is unknown, but I have my suspicions.
I showed my mother. She was coming toward the end of her journey into dementia, and she neither recognized it outright nor remembered what she had told me about the boxcar, the Studebaker and the young man driving it. She told me one thing, though, quite definitively: “That’s me teaching. Or what used to be me.” She was grinning when she said it.
I like to think of them driving on those evenings in the years before interstate highways, the Studebaker cutting through the night along narrow roads from town to town, fields of beets flanking them. The state was lousy with beets; a USDA crop production report I found from 1946 said that Michigan had more harvested acres of beet fields than all but two other U.S. states that year.
I don’t like beets much. Never have. I’ve actually avoided them actively for much of my life, mostly successfully, for reasons related to my palate rather than my parents’ origin story. But an odd thing happened a few weeks ago as their anniversary approached. At a lovely dinner party held by friends, beets (though not sugar beets) appeared on my plate in a vinaigrette marinade. I had to consider that a bit of kismet, as my mother might have put it. I hesitated, then took a bite. And you know what? They were really good. I can’t help but wonder if they came from Michigan.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.