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The Wedding Backstory

By John Ballantine

Something happened as we walked up the aisle, awash in the August sunlight streaming through the Gothic windows. The euphoria of love filled many seats in the church. Faces turned with thoughts of other weddings and the marriage path ahead, our witnesses. The backstories lingered behind their smiles. The white train of imagined virginity and vows carefully composed were not so straightforward. Weddings begin the story; the marriage follows.

“You do not have to marry, you know,” instructed my mother on the phone as I told her of our engagement that bright May day, just past my twenty-seventh birthday. Not, “I’m so happy for your love,” or even, “I don’t approve just now, since I have not met Ann.” No, just “You do not have to marry, you know.” What marriage lesson was she trying to pass on to me?

In March, we were told, “You can live together for a couple of years, try it out,” as Ann’s mother took the zucchini béchamel out of the oven. Peter, her father, opened his eyes wide, objected strongly: “Grab him while you can; you’ll do no better.” I stood there, bemused by the less-than-ringing endorsement of our engagement. We were joining hands with our disjointed families, as we weaved our way through wedding dates and restaurants for the rehearsal dinner.

My father, far away in Florence, wrote something more prosaic, mostly supportive. He met Ann in Chicago for lunch—two weeks into our romance. I knew then, actually after the first date, that we were going to marry. So, my father was my bow to convention—here’s my bride-to-be. He was passing through town, returning from brother Arthur’s funeral, so it was an opportunity to introduce Ann. I thought he approved. We did not talk then of the future male issue or extending the long tradition of our family name. No talk of male children until years later.

What were our parents saying back then? What messages did not get through? What did we, another bride and groom, not hear?

I understood nothing of wedding backstories. Alone at twenty-six, I wanted a companion, love that held my eyes and tingled through my hands as we touched, shaking our bodies as we lay together, binding our souls as we looked into each other’s hearts—finding a new certainty in each step along our future ways. Love held us aloft; our feet did not touch the ground in graduate school. Love took us beyond the rumblings of our uncertain futures. We heard only the pounding of our hearts, nothing more.

The backstories of other weddings did not concern us. I did not know such currents existed. We were getting married, and that was it. To me, china patterns, crystal goblets, family dowries, and registries were an elaborate invention of society. In my world, this was the tyranny of commercialism, not the stuff of love. And ministers, who instruct you about the meaning of marriage and sex on the second meeting, pretending they knew you, were crazy.

The back door opened that May morning when we announced our official intentions to marry in separate letters to our parents. I composed my letter on my twenty-seventh birthday, assuming that the May 7 date would have significance to my divorced parents. “You don’t have to, you know. Why not try living together some more? There is no rush to marry, you know.” And “The date that you have carefully selected, August 28, does not work for me or Sebastian. I won’t be there without Sebastian.”

What was my mother trying to say? What was Ann’s mom telling us?

Rody, my mother’s younger sister, with a beloved husband dead just six months, tried to persuade sister Lucia: “This is love; this is your only son marrying a wonderful girl. Their smiles light the room. Wendell, my oldest son, and John’s roommate, and first cousin, will witness their love. He is John’s best man.”

I called my sister, Chia, for help: “Get Mum to say hooray…and come to the wedding.”

The backstory took front page in May of 1976. Battle lines were quickly drawn. My mother could not, would not, after her third back operation and recuperation in Capri, make the long trip back to Pleasantville, NY, a week before the wedding. Ann’s parents thought August 28 was good, just before school started and the tyranny of fall schedules. I thought that the end of August was the most convenient date.

Letters flew back and forth; there were many phone calls, and even a summit meeting in NYC among parents with my sister Chia as the mediating witness, representing me. I held firm to the date. After all, I chose August 28 in my week-at-a-glance calendar as I drove to Chicago one winter night, January 3, 1976. This, I said to myself, is a good date to marry if our love, our living together near the University of Chicago, passes the test. On that cold January night, I marked the date as trucks rumbled past the roadside stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The snow was flying. All alone that night in my blue VW wagon, my joy fueled the fourteen-hour drive to Chicago. I only saw images of a new life ahead. The wedding date was set by me that night before anyone was told.

Ann did not know what to think about my proposal. “This is a good date to get married, don’t you think? See, it is circled here in my new week-at-a-glance calendar. Saturday, August 28, is just before your mom goes back to school and my mother returns from Italy. Let’s get married before we begin our working lives in New York City.”

But the backstory erupted that May morning. No pealing bells of joy or warm embrace across the aisle; this was not the dream of marriage, of weddings that I had imagined. I did not see beyond my heart; I did not know what lurked ahead.

“Why are you marrying in August, why don’t you put it off for, a couple months, even a year, why not rethink your intentions?” My mother suggested other actions; I thought she was talking about me, about Ann, and our wedding. The phone lines broke; the letters were shorter. Everyone’s battle lines were firm.

What was the ritual of asking, betrothal, and weddings all about? Ann’s introduction to my mother and Sebastian did not go well. “You are taking John without my permission; he did not even ask me,” whispered my mother’s eyes. Was I supposed to do that? Sebastian sat at the table poking holes in our University of Chicago master’s theses—our minds were still forming, but he wanted center stage to show he was the most clever U of C grad. The lunch did not work; the “This is Ann, my fiancée, we are in love and getting married in August. We want your blessing” was never said, asked for, or given.

Our wedding was an Elizabethan drama, full of asides and silent soliloquies. I did not understand the cross talk. My date, August 28, was special to me. I pushed back, held my ground, argued. Others tried to find a compromise. Our hearts were gripped tight. I thought weddings were about us. Love.

The wedding details were totally beyond me: gowns, bridesmaids, hand-sewn dresses, music yet to be composed by my stepbrother, wedding lists, extended families to be told, even second cousins. Who should be invited, how many invitations does each family get—all three families? “Don’t worry, they won’t come, but they should be invited. They will send a gift.”

What about the bridal dinner, the reception, the food, and the toasts? At twenty-seven, I did not realize this was the wedding dance. Step back, they said.

Then we were told that they did not have a band for their 1943 wartime wedding in Cambridge. No money, no band, and few toasts to the happy couple. Ann’s parents would not budge. We pleaded. We are not at war. No money for the band, that’s it. I called my sister for a loan.

Why were we getting married? Why the family, why the elaborate dress patterns in pink and the dark morning suits? What was this wedding stuff all about? I thought the ritual of marriage was about love, not the twists of family psyches or meanness beyond our hands. The wedding scenes were cloaked in deep disappointments; marriage, it seemed, was not that easy. The joy of love was not ever-present. I looked out my window and wandered in the woods, trying to make sense of all the strained sounds.

“This they said is what love is all about, not the two of you with hands joined, eyes intertwined in a rainbow of gold, just beyond. This may be what you felt as innocent lovers in the hidden bower, but you are coming out of the forest; your world has changed, fiercely so. The wedding feast is about us, the family, and the friends that made you. We will devour your love, if you don’t watch out, stand guard.”

I stared in astonishment. My mother said again—tears welling up— “I am not coming to your wedding, your marriage to Ann on August 28, 1976. I will not be there. I will travel to Capri and recuperate with Sebastian.” Rody, my aunt, born twenty-one years earlier on our common birthday, also said she would not be there. Her heart was too broken; her love had collapsed in a bathroom in December that year and she could not celebrate love so soon. Others rose up saying maybe.

I turned my shoulder to these ghosts and elaborate dramas. Ann and I did not choose to hear what they were saying. All the currents of the living conflated for a special place at our table. Let me tell you my story, they’d whisper. I turned away from these backstories. I did not understand the warnings, the anger, the sadness, the joys, the love, and the deep disappointment of others. The lessons of all their wedding tales did not stick.

I raised my glass instead to the hands, the eyes, and the body that held me. Weddings and marriage, I declared, are for us, and not them, or even you, our parents. Ann and I danced into the warm August night, flowing with our love under a crepuscular moon, swinging with the beat of a Dixieland Jazz band. We slept for three days in the romance of Paris mornings. Love, I said, will beat back the stories that haunt you. I do not want to hear your lessons or meet those demons.

            We held hands and said I do on August 28 in the steaming sunlight. I love you, too. Ann and I marched out to the joys of being together, all these years now.