Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Letter from Harrisburg
On a nasty winter night we pulled our wedding dresses out of sewing-room closets and out from under beds, slid them into clean garbage bags, and brought them to Rosie’s house, along with teapots, fruit trays and the fixings for a chocolate fountain.
Rosie hooked the hangers onto the heavy curtain rods above the picture windows on the west side. The dresses hung in a long row of hope, pure white, cream, yellowed with age. Tucks, buttons, gathers. Plain capes, ruffles, a row of covered buttons. Long skirts, just-below-the-knee skirts, satins and cottons and tone-on-tone flowers. A sleek cascade of cream-colored lace.
To the left hung Great-Aunt Alice’s, a simple knit dress with cutwork on the bodice that she wore at her wedding on the beach in Hawaii, love and marriage having arrived later in life when a big church wedding wasn’t a high priority.
Rachel’s was the fanciest of all, a heavy mass of late-’80s beads and gathers and ruffles with a big bow on the back.
“The only one I would wear, right now, is Annie’s,” said our daughter Emily, scanning them all and indicating the innocent eyelet dress from the ’70s with a rounded yoke and long, gathered skirt.
The three brides-to-be sat at one end of the living room just below three of the dresses. They smiled in a glowing haze of happiness while the rest of us handed our gifts to Rosie’s bright little girls wearing the pink-and-cream dresses that their cousins, one of them now a bride, had worn to their mother’s wedding. We hugged aunts and in-laws, bustled to the kitchen with our food and found seats in the crowded living room.
“Have you ever seen the likes of all these weddings?” we asked each other. “No!” “Never!” Three weddings in the Smucker family in three months’ time. Eight weddings altogether of young people we know well, involving, with some overlap, two nieces, one nephew, six of my husband’s former students, numerous friends of our children, lots of former little Sunday school students and Bible Memory Campers, ranging in age from 20 to 24 and suddenly engaged to be married.
I feel like my Aunt Vina must have when my sister and I were at this stage: “These little girls,” she had said in disbelief, “They actually think they’re getting married!”
“This is not going to be a normal bridal shower,” announced Rosie, my husband Paul’s youngest sister. “We’re all Smuckers, so first of all we’re going to sing.” And we did. Hymns, in fact, sung with the astonishing volume and skill for which Smuckers are known.
Outside, the drenching rain fell and the cold statistics blew — 60 percent of marriages at this age end in divorce, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Inside, we radiated hope and happiness.
It was time to share the advice we had brought for the brides.
“Forgiveness is really important,” said Jolene, herself not so far removed from being a newlywed. “Just letting go of the past and not hanging onto it.”
Annie said, “Some of the best advice I ever got was this — focus on what is, rather than on what is not.”
The brides smiled politely. Their mothers nodded solemnly. Yes. Mmm-hmmm. Very wise words.
I said, “Look in your own heart first. If something he does irritates you way more than is reasonable, look inside to see why this is such an emotional trigger for you.”
On around the circle we went. “Put him first,” Sheila said. “You won’t regret it.”
I leaned toward Linda. “This advice is more for us than for them, really. They don’t think any of this will ever apply to them.”
Linda whispered back, “They’re sure their marriages are going to be different!” We giggled.
Are we crazy, I wondered, to sit here, giddy in this bubble of expectation, knowing not only how rewarding marriage can be, but how unbelievably hard?
We have been through deep waters and loss and struggle, and times when we did not like each other at all. We have reached out for help and we have prayed hard and we have come out the other side still keeping our vows and believing that marriage is good.
We still love our husbands, and are loved, many years in. We still laugh.
We also know that the time for caution was months ago, back when Justin had serious talks with Kayla’s dad, and Chris flew to Oregon to show Stephie he really was serious about this, and Kelly decided it was time for action and asked Lisa that fateful question.
We have a lot of faith in these young women, all full of courage and good sense. Maybe you are more careful what sort of young man you choose when you know that 10 aunts and your mom will ask you hard questions about his character, attitudes, faults, goals, finances, driving record, history, church and treatment of his mom.
And if you have lingering delusions about one soul mate who will always meet your heart-deep longings, as 88 percent of young Americans apparently do, those same aunts will quickly scrub that notion out of your mind.
I put the kettle on for tea and warmed the teapots. Linda melted the chocolate for the fountain. The brides began opening gifts. Jenny and Allison, the two peas-in-a-pod 14-year-old cousins, already pledged to be each other’s bridesmaids, begged for stories.
“Tell about when Uncle Jim proposed!”
Linda sighed and smiled.
“OK, so we were driving along a freeway in Virginia, and all of a sudden he just turned to me and asked if I’d marry him! And there was this really noisy truck passing us right then, so I wasn’t sure if I’d heard right, plus I couldn’t believe he would just ask me like that, so I said, ‘What did you say?’ I was upset. I didn’t say yes right away. I said, ‘Well, I’m only 18. You’ll have to talk to my dad.’”
The girls howled. Linda said, “For years, I just hated it when women would start telling their engagement stories. I did not want to tell mine.”
Today, 24 years later, Jim is one of the most attentive and romantic husbands around. Linda is devoted to him, and she tells her proposal story with humor and grace.
We nibbled on pineapple wedges dipped in chocolate, sipped tea and told of wedding-dress regrets and wedding-day fiascos and the father-in-law who refused to wear a boutonniere, not that we’re still bitter about this.
Great-aunt Alice told of her and Rick’s 12 years together, all of them happy. “I can’t relate to all your advice about getting along, because we never really had disagreements to work through. Rick was just that sort of man.”
We nodded, still missing him.
The gifts, all new and untested, sat in three large piles. The brides posed for pictures, a triad of wisdom, innocence and hope, endlessly smiling.
We rinsed dishes, poured the last of the tea and said goodbye, with a quick hug for each bride. Then we gathered our things and headed out into the storm, holding our precious wedding dresses tight, shielding them safe from the wild wind and rain.