Early Marriage

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die…”
(Eccl 3:1-2)

Early Marriage

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Maryam and I were married on November 24, 1984, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Shirlington, Virginia. This apartment was located within walking distance of King Street where my family lived during our first year in Washington in 1960 and not far from my office in Southwest Washington. Our families helped us purchase our cars and donated most of our furniture. We did not have much debt, but we were eager to pay back our family loans and to begin saving for a place of our own.

Not being finished with my dissertation, I started work with the government at a GS-11, which was simply meager relative to the cost of living in Northern Virginia. The Shirlington Apartments, where we lived, were solidly built, probably in the 1940s, with a stone exterior and hardwood floors; the rent was affordable, but misbehaving neighbors and an encroaching urban environment made the area fairly sketchy. At one point, the police chased an African American man in a stolen car into the neighborhood where he crashed the car and took off on foot. Drug sales were common a block from us and a clerk was murdered during a robbery in a shopping center down the street. As an evening jogger, I was sensitive to the chances that I had to take, but I worried more about Maryam being exposed to such things. When my mother in law visited and suffered verbal abuse from a relative of the owners of the apartments, we became anxious to find a place of our own somewhere else.

Between my meager income, the sketchy environment, and our desire to find a place of our own, Maryam was eager to find work in her field—chemistry or chemical engineering—but professional work was tied to defense contracting and she did not yet have a green card. At one point, she interviewed with a company looking for a chemist outside of defense, but when the interviewer learned that she was married, the interview was over. While we began the byzantine process of applying for her green card, it became obvious that we could not successfully navigate the process alone—in the Reagan years following the Iranian Revolution, resentment against Iranians was bitterly deep. Maryam began working retail and, later, substitute teaching primarily because no one asked for about your immigration status when they had no one else willing to do the work.

Maryam was a talented sales representative for a fashionable woman’s store, Thimbles, at Tyson Corner shopping center. She routinely outsold the other sales staff, was a featured store model, and was asked to help out in other stores throughout the region. She also accumulated a substantial wardrobe of suits and dresses bought at a deep discount on account of her bonuses.

During this period, my schedule was tight. Maryam dropped me off in the office at 6 a.m. and drove to the mall where she hung out until the store opened at 10 a.m. Later, she picked me up and we had dinner together. Then, I worked until 8 or 9 p.m., went jogging, and worked a bit more before going the bed. In May 1985, when I returned to East Lansing, Michigan to defend my dissertation, I learned that no one expected that I would ever return and that I finished my doctorate before most of the colleagues that I had left behind me at school. With my dissertation behind me and with both us of working and saving everything, we entered 1986 looking for a home of our own [1]. We purchased our first home at 5519 Shipley Court in Centreville, Virginia later in 1986, even though I had not yet been promoted—Maryam’s hard work was instrumental in our being able to afford a house [2].

More important than her hard work in retail, however, was Maryam’s experience teaching. Most substitutes cannot assist in teaching mathematics and chemistry classes, but Maryam was different—she not only taught these lessons, teachers began requesting her from high schools throughout Fairfax County and she soon was offered long-term, substituting opportunities. What’s more, she loved teaching, was good at it, and was quickly able to bond with troubled students, many of whom were also immigrants. She soon decided to study for a teaching certificate and later earned a master’s degree in education at George Mason University.

At some point, I received a flyer in the mail from Senator Paul Trible which described his legislative accomplishments and solicited feedback on issues that we were concerned about. I responded to his solicitation describing our problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Not long afterwards, we received a letter in the mail from Senator Trible asking us to call his office about the INS problem. When we called, his office intervened on our behalf with the INS and Maryam soon had her green card.

After we purchased our first home and I entered finance, I felt confident enough to train for and run the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. My logic was that I did not need to worry about promotion, because I was new to finance but I was nonetheless promoted that year! I trained for the marathon again in 1988 and received a second promotion! At this point, I had the financial wherewithal to pay family expenses without Maryam’s salary and we began thinking about children.

We put off having children for close to five years both because of the financial pressure and because we needed to settle into our relationship. Outside of the usual challenges that newlyweds faced, we were both strong-willed individuals; we came from radically different cultures; and we married much later than most of our friends—age brings maturity, but it also makes relational growth more challenging. In spite of being Muslim, for example, Maryam promised to attend church with me and, for the most part, kept that promise, but we did not share the same level of commitment in attending. Bringing children into the relational mix required special care making financial security especially important.

By 1988, the groundwork had been laid for us to think about kids and we took the plunge. Shortly after announcing that we were expecting, Maryam spontaneously miscarried leading to a bit of embarrassment. All eyes in my family were on us, because I am the oldest child in the Hiemstra clan and so our child would be the first to make my parents grandparents. Being the youngest sibling, Maryam did not receive quite so much scrutiny in her family.

In any case, Maryam was pregnant in 1989 as she applied for citizenship and when my brother, John, married Julie Oweis on November 25. Our first child, Christine, was born a short time later on December 14th. Maryam accordingly took the oath of citizenship in the Alexandria Courthouse on a snowy day after Christmas that year with a week-old newborn in her arms.

[1] We spent almost none of our earnings other than for necessities. When we sat down with a loan officer to purchase a mortgage, he could not believe how much we had saved and insisted on documenting everything. His assumption was that someone lent us our down-payment, which was simply not true. He was not accustomed to seeing newlyweds coming to the table with a 10-percent down-payment that was saved on their own.

[2] Finishing my degree in 1985 did not result in immediate promotion—a sore point at the time. However, when I entered finance in 1987, I received three grade level increases in three years. Having started government as a GS-11, by September 1989 when I began work at the Farm Credit Administration I was a GS-14—an usually rapid progression not often seen in the Economic Research Service in USDA where I started out.

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