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WEDDING BELLS

The time eventually came that just as Papa had promised all those years before Sherry and I got that “pretty piece of paper” that legally made us “man and wife”. It was hot that year, even for May in East Texas . Most people who were old enough said that it had already been the hottest spring since the end of “the war”. Of course even with Vietnam still raging, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind which war they were referring to. It promised to be a real scorcher of a summer. Not a sign of a breeze was stirring. The twenty-year-old air conditioner in our church struggled mightily – aided by antique ceiling fans – to keep everyone as comfortable as possible. Outside, the sun beat down from a clear blue sky and shimmering ripples of reflected heat rose lazily upward to meet again their source. The service was set to begin at two o’clock but as usual people began arriving a little after noon.

We had gotten up around six am and it had already been a long day.  Several months before, while everything was still in the ‘planning stage’ Sherry had found Mama Carries old wedding dress – perfectly preserved – and had decided that it was the ‘only thing’ to wear for her own wedding. Fortunately the two were about the same size and no alterations had been needed. Still, on the morning of May 19th 1972, exactly  67 years after it had been worn for the first time, it took us six hours to shove, cram, prize and push Sherry into it and all of the accompanying petticoats and other accessories.

It’s supposed to be ‘bad luck’ for the groom to see the bride just before the wedding, but that little bit of superstition came a little late for the two of us. Besides, if I hadn’t been there it would have taken a week for her to get dressed.

“Can’t you hold your breath Baby Girl?

“I am holding it Jimmy.”

“No you’re not, you’re talking.”

“Am not.”

“Are too, now shut up and hold your breath. Why in the name of God do you gotta wear all these damned drawers and petticoats anyhow?”

“The dress won’t hang right if I don’t.”

“Won’t ‘hang right’? Like who’s gonna know?” I pulled and tugged while she struggled and grunted.

“I will.”

“You don’t count. Now shut up and hold your breath and help me.” She clammed up and began to wiggle her bottom as I continued to pull at the recalcitrant petticoat. “Jesus Christ Baby Girl. We’ve still gotta get the dress on you over all of this.”

“We’ll make it.”

“Why couldn’t we get married at some nice nudist colony?”

She began to laugh. It was a good five minutes before we could resume the struggle.

Papa and Mama Carrie were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. They weren’t about to come into the bedroom while we fought the battle of the gown. Every once in a while we’d hear one of them laughing. Finally Mama Carrie got up and walked to the door, opened it just a crack and stuck her head inside. “What’s keeping you two? It’s eleven o’clock and we’ve got to be at the church by twelve-thirty.”

“Mama Carrie, her butt’s bigger than yours was when you were her age. We can’t get this stupid petticoat pulled up.”

“Shut up Jimmy. My butt is not big!”

“Yes it is,” I grinned, “but I like it that way. Now you shut up and help me pull.”

“I never have this much trouble with my ‘Halloween’ dress.”

“Mama Carrie was a year or two older when she bought that dress.”

“Not that much older.”

“It was enough. Now shut up and help me pull. Quit  breathing for heaven’s sake.”

Sherry exhaled hard and with four hands pulling we gave it another try. Still no luck.  The petticoat kept hanging just as we got it up to the lace frill around the bloomers that went with the outfit.

Mama Carrie walked slowly into the room and surveyed the problem. “Now Baby,” she smiled. “Jimmy’s got a point. You are… just a tad… bigger than I was when I married your Papa Pete… in the hips anyway. She shook her head and made little clucking sounds as she traced a circle around us and appraised the situation. Finally she came to a decision. “Jimmy, hold this for a minute”. With Sherry’s help she removed the petticoat and handed it to me.

“Now Sherry, shed the bloomers.”

She did.

“Here Jimmy. Hold these and give me the petticoat. We’ll put it on her first and then pull the bloomers up under it. She needs the petticoat to make the dress hang right but if we can’t get the bloomers up nobody’ll notice that. She can put on a pair of regular panties and pull them up under the petticoat.”

I nodded and took the bloomers.

It was still a struggle but with six hands working we got finally got the thing pulled up and in place. Finally, she stepped into the bloomers and carefully pulled them into place. “See… it worked. Thanks Mama Carrie.”

I grinned. “Yeah, thanks.”

It only took a few more minutes for her to slip the gown on over all of the underclothes. I buttoned as she smoothed and straightened. I smiled as I eyed the end result. “You’re beautiful Baby Girl,” I winked at her. “Even if your butt is too big for that petticoat.”

“Shut up Jimmy.”

“Why? I told you I like it that way.”

We both started to laugh.

Mama Carrie just shook her head in resignation and went back out into the kitchen to her now cold cup of coffee.

The six hour ordeal finally ended with Sherry standing in front of the full length mirror on our closet door and admiring herself as she pinned her veil into place. It only took me about five minutes, as usual, to put on my dress blue uniform jacket and adjust my cap. We walked out of the bedroom arm in arm, just as we would walk down the isle in less than two hours.

Papa and Mama Carrie rose from our tiny kitchen table and admired us as we walked into the room but they didn’t waste too much time doing it. As soon as both of them had decided that we both looked the way we should we loaded into Papa’s little Ford and set off for the church.

Our church had been built in the middle of the last century and air conditioning was a – much later – addition to the original plan of the little white frame building. With Papa being the only doctor in the county for so many years everyone knew him, and us, and the place was packed to the rafters. Even the parish hall, where we were supposed to wait for the services to begin, had people milling around in it. Now we were glad to have so many well-wishers, but it was hot. There’s no way to exactly describe how hot it was. You just have to live in East Texas to truly “appreciate” it. The ancient air conditioners wheezed and the even more ancient ceiling fans whirred and it was still blistering.

Papa wiped sweat from his brow and combed his unruly silver mane for the tenth time in as  many minutes and scowled. “I hope Ronnie keeps this short. Even the statue of the Holy Virgin’s breaking out in a sweat.” He tugged at his necktie while I ran two fingers down the front of my high collar hoping to let a little air inside my jacket.

Only minutes before the services began, Papa stepped over to the church proper and collared Father Brandley, our old parish priest, at Divine Infant  Catholic Church – and one of the guests of honor — and his young replacement Father Ron in the foyer as they greeted arriving guests. He had intended to let both of them know that we all wanted them to keep it short, but he didn’t have to.

Father Brandley had served our congregation for over forty years before his retirement, and naturally knew everyone in town. The old priest wiped has brow as his piercing eyes swept the crowd. “Jaysus wept, it’s hot today.” He crossed himself briskly. The inside of the church was like an oven. Even ceiling fans going at full tilt, the residual heat from a packed-to-the-rafters congregation was oppressive. He reached into a tiny cabinet, took out a pitcher and glass and poured himself a drink of tepid water. He then passed it on to Father Ron. “Here Ronnie, take a sip.” He nodded, as much to himself as to the younger man. “Take th’ pitcher an’ glass t’ th’ pulpit wid ye’ — Yer no after knowin’ how dry this wark can be as yet, but yer soon t’ be after larn. “Now, as I was sayin’ Ronnie. Keep in mind th’ farst rule o’ effective preachin’, which is this. Allus remember that th’ moind can only absarb tha’ what th’ arse can endure. Keep it shart. Tis too ‘ot fer ye t’ be windy.”’

The younger priest nodded as he wiped sweat from his own brow.

Papa came back to the parish hall and made his report. After about five minutes we heard the first strains of the processional and went to take our places in the foyer as we waited for Mrs. Harrison to begin playing the traditional ‘wedding march’.

The dear old soul did things right. She played four choruses of “ruffles and flourishes” and then went into the wedding march. We set off down the isle. Papa and Mama Carrie waited proudly on either side of the altar for us to complete our march arm in arm. We had decided not to have bridesmaids or groomsmen because we had so many relatives and friends who would be offended by not being chosen. We walked our last few yards as “officially” single people alone, save for each other.

As we passed the section where our relatives sat we both stifled laughter as a tiny hand clapped my cousin Beverly on the shoulder. “Mamma?”  She ignored him. “Mamma?”  The little voice began again, this time just a bit louder and shriller. Still, she continued to ignored him. At least she tried. “Mamma?” This time the child was loud enough to be heard by the entire pew, by us, by Papa and Mama Carrie and by Father Ronnie. The five-year-old boy’s voice was pleading. “Mama, I gotta pee.” Beverly was mortified and looked it. “Shut up Mikey,” she hissed. The child grimaced.  “Mama, I gotta pee bad”. She grasped the child’s hand and squeezed tightly – perhaps a bit overly so – perhaps intentionally. “I thought I told you to shut up Mikey.” Then we all started snickering again when we heard a tiny, apologetic “uh-oh”.

We couldn’t help laughing that time. Neither could Papa, Mama Carrie or Father Ronnie.

We reached the front of the church right on cue and Father Ronnie began the ceremony immediately. He never missed a beat. We had already been to confession and taken communion the night before so we had been spared his homily, which had also been kept short due to the heat. All we had to endure was the actual recitation of the vows. I really don’t remember them. I know what they say but at the time, Sherry and I were too lost in each other to pay much attention except for answering when we were told to and waiting for the ‘big moment’. Finally he reached the point that everyone had been waiting for all afternoon – and Sherry and I had been waiting for all our lives. He pronounced us man and wife. He  then smiled and said. “You may now kiss the bride.” I did. We left the church running as the good Father intoned his benediction. He made a flourishing sign of the cross over the assembled congregation. He then raised his right hand in the symbol of the Holy Trinity. “And now may the grace of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” he solemnly intoned, “abide with each and every one of us now and forevermore – Amen.” We were already half way across the parking lot by the time he managed to get out that “amen”.

***

We didn’t go on a “honeymoon”, after the ceremony we just went home as usual. We were still camped out with Papa Lee. By that time Papa was over 90 years old and had long since given up his medical practice. He wouldn’t admit it but he needed someone there with him and we were glad to take that place. In any event, when we got home that evening after the wedding and reception at the parish hall, Papa and I headed for the kitchen and a cup of coffee while Sherry made a bee-line for our bedroom. In ten minutes flat she reappeared clad in her usual “fashion” for the home – when Papa was at home — barefoot, with her hair down and wearing one of my green Marine Corps tee shirts over what God gave her. Now when you consider that it took both of us over six hours to prize, pull and shove her into that wedding dress, the time it took her to get out of it was nothing short of a miracle. She had a devilish grin on her face and something hidden in clenched left her hand. She walked up to Papa and hugged him. “Papa, we’re married now y’know.”

I knew something was coming. I just didn’t know what. I sat at the kitchen table, sipped at my coffee and watched the show. I knew better than to open my mouth.

Papa smiled and nodded. “Thank you Jesus.” The old man rolled his eyes comically, looked up to the ceiling and crossed himself.

“Well,” she went on with her usually bubbly voice and that evil grin getting bigger by the minute. “I’ve been waiting over three years for this.”

“Funny, I thought it was loner than that.” He chuckled.

“No… not to get married, Papa, to do this..”

What’s that Little Sqaw?”

“This.” She walked over to the kitchen sink, turned on the cold water tap and flipped on the disposal. She turned toward Papa and opened her clenched fist revealing half a package of birth control pills. She then very flamboyantly opened box, took out the plastic topped card inside, then very carefully popped each little plastic bubble and dumped the pill inside into the palm of her hand. “You remember these Papa Lee?”

Papa nodded. “Yeah Little Squaw. I sure do.” He could tell what was coming and unfortunately so could I.

Then, without another word, my new, but not-so-new bride walked back over to the sink and dropped them down the drain one by one. There was a rattling sound that stretched out into infinity as each pill was converted to dust and useless slush by the whirring blades.

Papa shook his head slowly and began to chuckle again. He smiled knowingly at her as he walked over to the table, sat down and began sipping at his coffee. “Somehow I was expecting that.” Then he glanced over the table at me and said “Grandson, you’ve got troubles.”

As soon as the last pill hit the grinder, Sherry came over, plopped down in my lap, picked up my cup, took a long sip of my coffee and said “Oh, it’s no trouble at all Papa.” Then she put her arms around me and chirped merrily “Is it Jimmy?”

“Oh no… No, it’s no trouble at all.” I tried hard to look as happy as she did.

Papa grinned. “Then why does your face look like she just said ‘my, doesn’t he look natural’ or ‘look at all the pretty flowers’?”

My attention was fixed on the three miserable stripes on the sleeve of my dress blues and the equally miserable salary that accompanied them.

It’s a matter of definition really. You see, Sherry and I both being “only” children we had long before decided that we wanted a big family. The problem was our definitions differed considerably. Mine was something like three kids. Hers was a personal baseball team or rifle platoon. It was no secret, especially to my grandfather. It was also no secret that our roles in this ongoing project were, and had long been well defined. I was expected to nod my head in agreement, smile broadly and perform on demand. She was expected to look pretty, be cheerful at all times and swell up as required. The typical Marine Corps couple — something else that in spite of the old man’s wisecracks and ‘knowing’ looks, we had learned, and learned well, from him and Mama Carrie.

A little over ten months later,  with everyone who knew us counting backward on their fingers, in March of 1973, Sherry proved that it really wasn’t any trouble at all. And… there really were a lot of pretty flowers. When our Sammi was born, their room at the Camp Lejune base hospital looked like Sherry had just won the Kentucky Derby. Papa was about to turn 93 years old at the time and Mama Carrie was 86 but they were able to fly out and be with us. Both of them hung around long enough to see her produce one more of their great-grandchildren too.

© 2008 by Dr. J. Lee Choron; All rights reserved unless otherwise specified or granted by the author in writing.