Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

50 Gifts for 50 Years

When Mary Lesyna said “good morning” to Mark Robben at the coffee machine at St. Louis’ Forest Park Community College, she knew exactly who he was.

“He was the most beautiful boy in the college,” she said. For her, it was love at first sight.

Mark, then 21, was also struck by the blond 18-year-old who approached him.

“I don’t know if you can print this, but it was lust at first sight,” Mark said.

That was on Oct. 24, 1968.

“I remember that date, believe me,” Mark said. He asked one of his fraternity brothers to find out Mary’s phone number. Both born and raised in the St. Louis area, they began dating immediately. Ten months later, Mark got drafted in the Vietnam War. He didn’t want to risk Mary becoming a teenage widow, so they didn’t get married before he shipped out. But he did propose.

He made it back home after more than a year, and they got married a month later -- Jan. 29, 1971.

They ended up buying a home in St. Louis and raising two kids, Allyson and Eric. Mark worked in construction for a dozen years, then drove a truck and worked on loading docks. Neither of them finished college, so they pushed education as the top priority for their kids. Mark took an extra job delivering pizzas at night to put them through private schools. Mary worked in a doctor’s office, and also helped Mark deliver phone books for extra money.

Both of their children graduated from college, continued with additional schooling, got married and had children of their own.

Mark and Mary’s long marriage hasn’t been without some hardship and tragedy. The death of their daughter 5 1/2 years ago is still too painful to talk about. And the pandemic put a stop to travels and get-togethers.

“The trash goes out more than we do,” Mark joked. But, he added, “the bottom line is, we made it 50 years.”

In normal times, they might have taken a trip with the entire family or thrown a big party. This year, their son, Eric Robben, who lives in Wheaton, Illinois, sent them flowers and had dinner delivered.

He also had another surprise.

Eric heard a story about a woman who bought gifts for all the guests at her 80th birthday party, thanking them for enriching her life. He was inspired by that spirit of generosity.

He did the math and decided to mail 50 of his parents’ closest friends an invitation and a check for $50. They could donate the money to any charity of their choosing. He only asked that they send an email to an account he created, Happy50thMarkandMary, sharing the name of where they donated the money and their good wishes for the couple’s milestone anniversary.

“I thought seeing all those points of light, those little bits of joy, would be meaningful,” he said.

It took some detective work to create the list and hunt down all the addresses. He hand-wrote each check, and sent the stack out in early January.

By Mark and Mary’s anniversary on Jan. 29, there were already dozens of emails in the account. Eric joked that the hardest part of pulling off the surprise was walking his parents through logging into the new email account over the phone.

The responses overwhelmed Mark and Mary. Their friends and family shared memories, loving words, old photos and funny stories. Most of them matched the $50 donations.

“I cried half the day reading it all,” Mary said.

They had planned on going to Cancun to celebrate their 50th, but canceled it because of the pandemic.

“This was actually better,” Mark said. “We can go on a trip anytime.”

Their pride in their son is evident when they talk about how accomplished and kind he and his wife are. Eric graduated from Notre Dame and earned his law degree from Washington University, Mark told me. (He added that his kids got their smarts from their mom.)

In his email to his parents, Eric wrote that he remembers his dad leaving for work before they woke up and coming home from delivering pizzas after they were in bed.

“They always talk about how smart I am, and how proud they are of me, but I’m 100% sure none of that would have been possible without their love and example,” he said.

The way he decided to honor his parents reminded me of that old adage about parenting:

Apple, meet Tree.