For 24 years, Ellen Wade and Maureen Brodoff did not celebrate an anniversary.
There were other events to mark in memory, like a study date at Ellen’s apartment that stretched into a marathon session when the Blizzard of ‘78 struck. There was the day three years later when they rented an apartment in a Mission Hill double-
decker, their first home together, which they shared with an adopted Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Rudy.
The moments were turning points in their relationship, sentimental markers of a growing and abiding love, but not the sort of thing that fit neatly into a champagne toast or a card.
“We acknowledged the passing of time,” Maureen said.
Marriage, 10 years ago, changed that. This Saturday, the pair will host a brunch to celebrate the day in 2004 that they were allowed to wed in Massachusetts, the first state to allow same-sex nuptials. They will be joined by fellow plaintiffs in a landmark case that carried the day before the Supreme Judicial Court and propelled a once-fringe idea into the mainstream. Today, same sex-couples can marry in 17 states, plus the District of Columbia.
For Brodoff and Wade, the 10 years have brought joys. They have watched their daughter Kate earn a bachelor’s degree from Bates College, join AmeriCorps and settle in Brookline to work at a nearby health clinic. They have toured France’s Romanesque architecture by bicycle. There have been dark spells, too, the death of parents and Ellen’s second bout of breast cancer.
They could have managed without the official certificate. “We had already weathered a lot without the institution of marriage,” Maureen said, “so a part of us felt like marriage wouldn’t change much.”
They were taken aback when it did. New acquaintances no longer wondered about their relationship status. A label made everything clear. When Ellen was diagnosed in 2009, they did not have to provide the hospital with legal documents to ensure that Maureen would have decision-making powers, the maddening hurdle they faced when Ellen had her first episode of cancer a decade earlier. Now, as a spouse, Maureen had the power without the ado.
More profoundly, marriage provided psychic comfort. “Suddenly, it wasn’t a relationship between two people, but a relationship in a community of people,” Maureen said.
Between them, they say, marriage solidified a core, so much so that after years of dutifully attending Red Sox games with Ellen, often toting The New Yorker for some not-inconspicuous reading, Maureen recently bowed out. She now sits home reading medieval European and Greek and Roman history while Ellen cheers at Fenway.
“I’m more clear about the things I like and don’t like,” Maureen said.
Ellen, who is 65, and Maureen, 62, found their way to each other from across the country. Ellen grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the daughter of a lawyer who had been a World War II prisoner of war and a mother who was a homemaker. Her family hoped she would attend the University of Texas, but she had other plans. She enrolled at Mount Holyoke College.
Maureen grew up in Orange, Conn. Her father was a doctor and her mother also a homemaker.
The parents of both women struggled when their daughters came out as gay and were unsure what to make of the news. For Ellen’s parents, her choice to move East felt foreign. Maureen’s mother told her she felt uncomfortable. “This is not what they had imagined for their daughters,” Maureen said.
They met the first day of law school at Northeastern University when a crowd of fellow first-years were mingling between classes.
Maureen and Ellen talked about a shared friend in Hartford and another in Western Massachusetts. The banter was light and breezy. Maureen sensed that the moment mattered, in the way that some do.
“I just instantly thought she was wonderful,” Maureen said.
There were Ellen’s looks. Her high cheekbones, her willowy frame. “She was beautiful.” She also sensed serenity in Ellen. “It comes out in her solicitude and attentiveness.”
Ellen is fuzzier on details. But this much stayed with her. “I remember liking Maureen.”
They both got jobs in Boston and soon moved into the Mission Hill apartment. A few years later, they bought a foursquare in the Ashmont section of Dorchester. With neighbors, as with colleagues and even some friends, Ellen and Maureen were vague about their relationship.
“We weren’t closeted, but we weren’t out of the closet,” Maureen said. “I would not have denied my relationship with Ellen, but I didn’t know how people would accept it. I always felt like: Do you want your first encounter to be an educational experience or do you want to get to know them first?”
All that changed when they decided to have a child. Maureen got pregnant using an anonymous donor. Kate was born in 1989. Maureen’s mother’s friends threw a baby shower. Their parents and sisters visited. Neighbors cooed over Kate. At work, Maureen took a six-month maternity leave, then Ellen stayed home until Kate was 18 months.
“It was like a marriage back in the day,” Maureen said. “We were having a kid together. Everyone understood.”
Four years later, GLAD brought a lawsuit on their behalf to secure parental rights for Ellen. They won. Ellen adopted Kate. A decade later, when GLAD brought the lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage, Ellen and Maureen again served as plaintiffs.
“We had this really great relationship and were really proud of our family, and we felt we deserved to be married,” Maureen said.
The lawsuit propelled them to think deeply about what marriage would mean to them.
“Marriage for anyone is a public declaration,” Ellen said. “But we had to also explain publicly why we wanted to get married.”
The first day that same-sex marriage licenses were issued, they married at Newton City Hall. Ellen wore a robin’s-egg blue silk blouse and pants, Maureen wore black silk. The mayor hosted the ceremony in his office. A rabbi offered a blessing, and a justice of the peace officiated. The pair emerged from the building to the cheers of hundreds. A tiered white wedding cake perched on a table, and balloons fluttered in a rainbow formation tethered to the building columns.
“It was this miracle of a day,” Maureen said.
In their Newton house, mementos tell the story of what came before marriage. Kate’s kindergarten drawing of Fenway Park hung on the dining room wall. The bowl a neighbor made out of wood from the old bannister in their Dorchester home. Rudy’s dog collar draped across a framed photo of him in the foyer. Others tell the story of what came next: photos of Kate at graduation from college, Ellen speaking at her law partner’s wedding, Ellen and Maureen embracing on their wedding day.
Ten years on, they view May 17, 2004, as a kind of re-commitment ceremony, not to marriage, of course, but to who they are. Back then they did not miss what they could not have. Now they cannot imagine it another way.