Inside Actress Marlee Matlin's Silent World

My dad and my mom dated off and on, from the time they were fifteen, though as my mom says, "We did a lot of breaking up, too."

My dad tells this story of why they finally got married:

"We'd been engaged quite a few times, and Libby finally said she didn't want to hear from me again unless I wanted to get married. I knew she was out visiting relatives in California and heard that there was a big earthquake. I called to make sure she was alright and she said, 'I suppose you want to marry me since you called…' "

So the Kern County earthquake in July of 1952, a 7.3-level shaker that would twist highways, crumble buildings and do more than $60 million in damage, triggered what would become my family.

***

THE WEDDING ON November 2, 1952, was at noon on a Saturday at the Belmont Hotel in Chicago. Around a hundred guests were invited. On their wedding day, my dad was in a dark suit, and my mom wore a powder blue dress that she bought at a department store for $17. The veil she borrowed. With a rabbi officiating, they said their vows, Don crushed a wineglass and they both dared to dream a little.

The couple settled into a nice, bright apartment on Chicago's north side, furnished with $5,000 that Don's bosses had given him as a wedding present–a fortune at that time. My mom was soon pregnant with my brother Eric, and four years later my brother Marc was born. Not long after, the family moved to Morton Grove, to the house I would grow up in.

My dad, by then, was selling used cars, a business he would stay in for the rest of his working days. It was hard work, long hours, but the money was enough to afford us a comfortably solid middle-class life. My parents developed an active social life–Wednesday and Saturdays they always went out, Thursdays my dad played cards with the guys…all night.

Over the next few years, my parents would try without success to add to the family. My mother had one miscarriage, and more devastatingly they lost a baby, a boy, who was premature, born the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

By the time my mom was pregnant with me, Libby and Don were hoping for a girl, but, like most parents, what they really wanted was a healthy child. Eric was twelve and Marc was eight when I came home in August 1965.

My grandmother Rose is indirectly responsible for my name. She wanted Libby to name me after Molly, her half-sister, the aunt who had helped bring Rose and her two oldest children here from Poland. Although my mother really despised this aunt, she agreed–sort of. Sometime before I was born, she attended a luncheon where the speaker was a British woman named Marlee. The woman was attractive, self-possessed, and impressive and was kind to Libby when they met that day. My mother came home and told my dad that if the baby was a girl, Marlee would be her name ... close enough to Molly to satisfy my grandmother's request.

For a time there was a nurse-- I guess that was 1965's version of a nanny-- to help take care of me, although in my brother Eric's memory, her main function seemed to be to keep him and Marc away from me. But she soon left and my care and feeding reverted to the family.

To Eric I was just the baby in the background. He was busy becoming a distant teenager, out with friends as often as he was allowed, which was a lot. Marc, though, remembers he was fascinated by the new addition to the household and hung around to help out:

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