Janice Patterson remembers calling her mother to announce she was engaged. There wasn't much excitement on the other end of the line.
"She said, 'Well, I'll tell your father. It's your life,' Janice recalls. "Then she said, 'I have to get off the phone now because "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" is on.' "
Janice, white and Jewish, knew marrying Frank Patterson, black and Baptist, might not go over well with her family, less because of their different races than their religions.
But difference, in its many manifestations, is not always the burden it seems.
Janice, now 60, and Frank, 64, met in 1978 while working as Allstate insurance agents in Chicago. Janice had grown up in Arcadia Terrace, a North Side neighborhood with a tightly knit Jewish community. Frank, raised in segregated South Carolina, had moved to Chicago for college.
They became friends. Frank was going through a divorce, and Janice, always a teacher at heart, helped him with his then-undiagnosed autistic son, Frankie, who as a young child had never spoken a word.
The friendship blossomed into a romance, though "it wasn't a winey-diney romance. It was a who-is-picking-Frankie-up-from-school type of thing," Janice said.
Frank encouraged Janice to pursue her passion for teaching, and she got her master's degree in special education and began a teaching career. Meantime, Janice worked with Frankie, putting flash cards all around the house to teach him words like "car" and "boat." Frank remembers the day his son, at age 7, finally said his first word. Walking by an Oak Park bank, Frankie pointed to passing traffic: "Caaar."
Frank had no problem telling his family about the relationship, though Janice thinks at first they considered her Frankie's Annie Sullivan, who became famous as Helen Keller's teacher.
But for almost 10 years, Janice kept the romance a secret, unable to fathom how she could tell her family she was dating someone who wasn't Jewish.
Her father had a tradition of calling her at 6:30 a.m. every day, so on the instances she would stay over at Frank's house, she would have her calls forwarded to his line.
"Here I am, 31 years old, in the closet, literally, talking on the phone so he doesn't think I've spent the night somewhere," Janice said. Most difficult, she said, was not being able to share the good things.
Frank and Janice got engaged on her 35th birthday, in 1987. As news spread among her close family, some relatives were more supportive than others.
The couple visited Janice's parents, and Frank "gave a lovely speech that I think he stole from Spencer Tracy in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,' " Janice teased.
"No," Frank corrected her. "I said that the reason they know me now is because of the way they raised her." It was a liberal family, just old-fashioned and concerned the couple were bound for a hard life.
Her parents announced they would not be attending the wedding. The couple took it in stride.
"It didn't matter to me, because I wasn't marrying them; I was marrying her," Frank said. "And at some point I'd figure they'd come around."
"I didn't want them there if they weren't going to be happy," Janice said. Still, she said, "there are times I'm sorry I didn't have the first dance with my father."
Janice and Frank married in a Jewish ceremony, with a rabbi and under a chuppah carried by two of Janice's relatives and two of Frank's relatives, all women. Frankie stood up in the wedding, and a relative in a wheelchair served as flower girl.
"I had a friend who said it was part wedding, part telethon," Janice laughed. At the rabbi's suggestion, they videotaped the ceremony. Eventually, he predicted, her parents would want to see it.
That videotape, it turned out, got good play in South Carolina, where Frank's mother would invite friends over for "showings," as few people there had ever seen a Jewish ceremony. Up north, the ice melted more slowly but surely.
Two years after getting married, Janice got sick with Budd-Chiari, a serious liver disease, and had to stay several weeks at the University of Chicago hospital in Hyde Park. Several times a week, Frank would drive from their home in Oak Park to pick up her parents in Rogers Park to visit Janice in Hyde Park, and then he would reverse the circuit to drop them off.
After several of those long commutes, Janice's father confessed to one of her cousins, "How can I not love somebody who loves my daughter that much?"
When, in 1991, Frank and Janice became the parents of a baby girl, Rachel, the grandparents fell in love with the family for good. "I think they realized the similarities were more than the differences," Janice said.
"We became the best of friends," Frank said.
Though they came from different worlds and have quite different personalities — Janice is the chatty one, Frank the quiet one — what united the pair were shared values: a commitment to family first, social action, a moral center. And, ironically, rather than dilute Janice's religion, the mixed marriage made it stronger.
When Rachel was born, Frank insisted she be raised knowing a religion, to ground her in a sense of right versus wrong. He didn't mind if she was Jewish or Baptist, as long as she was observant. So for the first time in her life, Janice joined a synagogue and steeped Rachel in Judaism, wanting her to feel secure in her identity as both a woman of color and a Jew.
As it turned out, the racial and religious differences never caused them any strife. The hardships they did face — Frankie's disability, Janice's liver disease and subsequent liver transplant, the fire that completely destroyed their home and all of their belongings — brought them closer.
Now both retired, the Pattersons live simply, happy that their kids are happy — Frankie, now 37, volunteers daily at West Suburban Medical Center — and grateful for their close circle of friends.
"We've had a wonderful life," Frank said. "A wonderful life."
Love lesson: "Don't just assume that because people look different, they are wrong," said Janice Patterson, white and Jewish, who has been married to Frank Patterson, black and Baptist, for 24 years. "We probably have a lot more in common than a lot of people of my same race and religion."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun