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My family’s love story

By Dr. Jill Biden

Dec 20, 2019

Every family has its own mythology — the stories we tell, again and again, the stories that define us. While my parents simply fell in love, their marriage became our family legend. Donald Jacobs and Bonny Jean Godfrey were two young star-crossed lovers from literal different sides of the track, up against the world. They weren’t quite the Montagues and Capulets, but because my father was the son of a blue-collar immigrant family, my grandmother on my mom’s side was dead set against their relationship.

My dad’s father, Grandpop Jacobs — the warped Ellis Island interpretation of Giacoppa — was an Italian immigrant who made deliveries for a furniture store in Hammonton, New Jersey. He and my grandmother Jacobs lived in a modest home that always smelled like burnt Italian bread toast. Grandpop Jacobs loved to fish off of Seven Bridges Road in South Jersey, and would leave dozens of rockfish spread on the kitchen counters after a good haul, a habit that inspired Grandmom to learn a few curse words in Italian so she could better express her thoughts on the matter.

Ma and Pa Godfrey, on the other hand, owned a drugstore across town where Pa was the pharmacist. They had a pristine, middle-class house, with a more formal living room that was meant to be seen. Both of them had been to college, and my grandmother couldn’t stand the idea that her daughter might end up without a college degree and married to someone like my dad. What kind of life could such a working-class kid provide? What kind of home? What kind of opportunities would they find together? So whenever Donald dropped by the drug store to make eyes at the pretty young soda fountain attendant, Bonny Jean, my grandparents did everything they could to keep them apart.

In the end, however, my parents knew their hearts and eloped. They lived separately as secret husband and wife for the first year of their decades-long marriage. My grandparents went to their deaths not knowing of their daughter’s deceit.

Despite my grandmother’s lack of confidence in him, my father did make something of himself. He served in the Navy as a signalman in World War II and used the G.I. Bill to pay his way through business school in Philadelphia. He eventually became a bank manager and bought a nice house in the town of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, while my mother stayed at home to raise five daughters.

We lived the American Dream, a life where military service guaranteed educational opportunities. Where, in one generation, the son of an immigrant could join the middle class. I grew up watching the Phillies play on a black-and-white Philco TV with my dad. In high school, I spent summers working at the Jersey Shore to save money for college. We had supper together every night — warmed up TV dinners or Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks served on a china platter, with Jell-O for dessert. And I was able to reach for my own dreams: a marriage like my parents, full of love and laughter, and a career.

My parents’ love story, and the sweet life they built together, has always seemed like destiny to me. But fate didn’t change the course of my dad’s path. He was able to provide a better standard of living for us because America offered him the opportunities he needed to do so. I see reflections of his grit and determination every semester in the faces of my community college students. His America is still their America; a place where you can work hard and make a difference for yourself and your family.

As we gather to count our blessings at the end of 2018, I am grateful to those who believe everyone deserves a chance to work hard and build a good life for their families, no matter who their family is or where they come from.