In the best of all possible worlds I’d be in a state of presence 24/7, that in-the-moment place where time really has no measure, here and now one and the same. Not that those six turtles sunning themselves on a log don’t stop me dead in my tracks when I’m walking around the lake, (almost) a slave to that spinning turntable of thoughts. Or that the unmistakable sound of a heron taking flight doesn’t make me turn around. Just to watch it soar. Is it possible that, only now, ten minutes into my walk, I’m first hearing the birds, one song so different from another? The leaves on the trees are dappled with sunlight today, the air, after days of rain, makes me lift my nose like a dog. I don’t want to miss a thing.
And, yet, no sooner am I past the turtles and the heron than the volume on the turntable pumps itself up, a force all its own taking me out of the moment. On my mind is a family wedding, with its anxious mix of melancholy and joy. Melancholy for what’s gone—those aunts/uncles/cousins/grandparents, my mother and father—whose presence at any family gathering was a reminder that rituals (for better or for worse) were a kind of glue that held us together. Joy for what’s to come, a bride and groom in love, all the promise of a fresh beginning.
In the next best possible of all worlds, I’d leave anxiety out of the mix, the qualifier riddled with what we keep to ourselves—the echoes of gatherings just like this in the past, family dramas cast into the shadows of glittering gowns and crisply pressed suits. We drink to forget, eat to remember. Schmooze to keep the dark spirits at bay, dance to be lifted by the lighter ones.
Just like this . . . but not exactly. This wedding is an Orthodox Jewish one, a three-part affair. First the reception, where the bride sits on a ‘throne’ surrounded by women—until the moment the groom is brought to her, at which time a veil is placed over her face. The bride and groom know each other’s faces well by now, but this touch of symbolism is to put physical attraction in its place, raise the bar on the deeper bond marriage is supposed to signify. It’s enough to bring tears to anyone, including the bride herself.
Next, the ceremony outdoors, under a Chuppah (canopy), fortunately a beautiful May day. Then back to the reception room for dinner. A makeshift wall separates the men and women, making two parties of one celebration. Drinking and nibbling, we wait for the bride and groom, who have had their first brief encounter, alone in a room, as husband and wife. When they arrive, the women greeting the bride, the men greeting the groom, a cousin of mine says it outright: “Wouldn’t you want to dance with your husband at your wedding?” A cousin of the bride brings a different kind of wisdom to the plate: “Barely five months from being engaged to being married, and not to someone she knew for much longer. Couldn’t they have waited?” This is no idle gossip. These are words rooted in experience and observation and love. Another wedding, similar circumstances and the dialogue would not differ by much. I easily hear echoes of my aunt (the bride’s grandmother) and my mother.
Everybody’s got an opinion, a frame of reference, views that change over the years (or not). Even if it’s hard to fathom, as in this case, how a twenty-three-year-old brought up in a modern world has chosen to embrace a very Orthodox way of living so rooted in the past, we celebrate. More to the point: Is there any ritual that better embodies past/present/future than a wedding?
What’s gone is gone. And, yet, all I have to do is look into the eyes of a favorite cousin of my mother’s, frailer with age but as beautiful as ever, to know that every moment we live encompasses every moment that came before.
Her husband has Alzheimer’s. He greets me with a big smile of recognition and a hug. He dances with my brother and the groom. I stand at the threshold that separates the men from the women, no sin in looking. I snap a photo or two. A different kind of joy.
And those girls, so many of them, dolled up in their pretty pretty dresses! Hard not to be reminded of myself, a flower girl at the wedding of the very cousin of my mother’s sitting next to me.
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The weekend following the wedding finds me in Newport, RI, celebrating the 60th birthdays of two of my husband’s childhood friends. I’ve been to Newport twice before, the first time for a romantic winter weekend in 1982 with the man who would become my husband. Years later, a trip with my daughter and a good friend, both in high school at the time. Walking the cobblestone streets now with friends has me somewhere between a dream and déjà vu: we visit familiar sites, eat lobster roll at a shack on the beach, drink the best martini (hibiscus) at a place called Yesterday’s. I kid you not.
You can’t go to Newport without visiting Cliff Walk, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch overlooking the ocean, some of it closed off because of hurricane damage. The mansions gated and set back from the cliffs may be a reminder of opulence but the ocean belongs to everyone, the view even more beautiful with age.
Home now, unpacking, easing back into reality (whatever that is), settling down for some Sunday night TV. There are any number of movies we can watch via DVR but the one that fits the mood best happens to be on network TV. So much to love about Back to the Future—its spirit, Michael J. Fox so young and handsome and Jack-be-nimble as it gets, Christopher Lloyd in the role he was made for. Not to mention the overriding message: one moment—make a left turn instead of a right, say no instead of yes to a date—and everything turns out so differently.