The autumnal morning chill promised to warm quickly with the rising sun, making for a perfect wedding day. My heart was pounding. My knees felt so weak I thought my legs would no longer hold me.
By: Dr. Carroll James
My heart was pounding. My knees felt so weak I thought my legs would no longer hold me. Tara hooked her arm through mine and I patted it with my moist hand.
My eyes watered, and feeling light-headed I wondered, Was I this nervous at my own wedding? Tara, my beautiful daughter, had become an independent young woman.
The rehearsal last night had been emotional for me, but it was nothing compared to standing here at this moment, despite Reverend Winston’s natural ability to put folks at ease.
That was why folks loved him.
Tara radiated poise while her handsome, soon-to-be husband, Hans, exuded dignity and composure, waiting at the altar for his bride. The small country church was filled to capacity with family and friends, including the groom’s Ohio kin and his college buddies. A vision of steadfastness and stability, he was a good catch: Tara couldn’t have snagged a better husband, and Kate and I were thrilled.
The autumnal morning chill promised to warm quickly with the rising sun, making for a perfect wedding day. Nevertheless, the father of the bride—me—freely perspired in his vested black tuxedo. I had long overwhelmed the antiperspirant.
My little girl was no longer mine.
Do all fathers feel this way?
While Tara and I waited in the tiny vestibule for “The Wedding March” to begin, Pastor Winston leisurely lit the fourteen altar candles, giving my mind a chance to wander to other ceremonies Kate and I had attended over the years . . .
Joel’s Saturday-night babysitter was a big-haired, bleached blond gal who, despite being underage, drove around the countryside in her dad’s pickup. When I insisted that her older boyfriend drive her to the house when she watched our youngest child, she didn’t put up a fuss. I guess I had forgotten my own adolescent years.
The boyfriend was polite and their behavior was never blatantly unsavory, but whenever Kate and I arrived home from our date, Ida Mae’s overly teased hair was flattened in the back. Our driveway alarm—a metaldetector—always warned the two young lovers to sit upright and effect innocence on the family room couch.
After Ida Mae graduated from high school, her life’s goal was to be barefoot and pregnant and in a home of her own. To help her achieve that lofty objective, her high school beau—Beau—was the logical choice. (I thought it was a nickname but later discovered that was his given name.)
Ida Mae’s dad, Ben, was a carpenter who had framed a new sunroom on the back of our house, a job too big for me. One of his admirable traits was that he was consistent when scheduling work on our house: if he said he’d be over early on Thursday, I knew he wouldn’t be. In fact, he was never early, and it might be a week or several weeks down the road before he would show up—but it would be on a Thursday.
Repeated phone calls did little more than stoke my frustration. “Ben, I’ve been waiting half the day for you,” I would say after he finally answered the phone. “The backyard is all dug up and turning to mud in this rain. I’d like to get this job finished.”
“Sorry doc,” he’d answer. “It won’t happen again. I got tied up with baseball.”
Baseball in the rain?
Ben ran the Up-County Little League and was great with kids. Well, at least with boys who played baseball. His daughter was a different story.
After repeated no-shows, he stopped by the house late one evening to seal his guarantee with a handshake. “Those little guys sometimes give me fits,” he lamely explained. “I’ll be here Monday, for sure.” Again, he didn’t stipulate which Monday. Ben was the most unreliable fellow I’ve ever known except when it came to coaching Little League: he was always on time for practices and games.
As the time drew near for Beau and Ida Mae to exchange vows, which promised a tremendous hoedown, Kate and I were invited, basically so they would get another wedding gift. All their relatives, including third and fourth cousins, twice and thrice removed, would be attending. I wondered if Ben would show up on time, or even on the correct day.
I returned home from Rockville one evening to find a scrap of paper crammed into our kitchen doorjamb. Ben had dropped off hand-scrawled directions to the old Methodist church in Middletown. “Turn left at the corner store,” it said.
I had to hope only one corner had a store on it.
The note continued, “If you see the feed and grain market, you’ve gone too far.” And if a sign says Welcome to Indianapolis, I’ll know we’ve gone too far, I thought. But Middletown wasn’t that big, and how many Methodist churches could there be?
While we cruised slowly through town, Kate kept a sharp lookout. Despite never noticing a corner store, she finally spied a large, old church, all decked out for a wedding. The parking lot overflowed with trucks of all shapes and sizes: pickups, dumps, gravel, fertilizer, tow trucks, and two midsize RVs, all of which suggested a monster truck rally. Each one was parked helter-skelter: sideways, longways, and catawampus—on the asphalt, on the grass, and on the sidewalk, where jacked-up, enormous tires came in handy.
A wide assortment of beat-up sedans cowered in the midst of all that muscle. Most were multicolored with wide swaths of primer gray waiting for the appropriate paint. Rust was a common denominator.
On some cars, dual oversized exhaust pipes competed to be the shiniest of them all, as highly polished chrome gleamed in the afternoon sun, despite the vehicle’s need of bodywork. In fact, every truck pipe was in perfect condition. Even vertical exhausts mounted on small pickups were notable (though clearly extraneous).
Minivans and small foreign jobs were nowhere to be seen, so I parked my 1976 BMW 2002 across the street out of harm’s way.
One monster truck blocked the sidewalk directly in front of the church, where the double-arched doors would later swing wide to make way for the wedding party at the end of the ceremony. It seemed inconsiderate to park there, until it occurred to me that this was probably the wedding limo. Its black finish—no rust—glistened under a brand-new wax job.
What blushing bride could ask for more?
A team of ushers, sporting mullets cut from the same barber, smoked cigarettes and extended greetings with broad, partially toothless smiles (a dentist notices that sort of thing). Decked out in the tackiest of white tuxedos, one of them tossed his butt into the bushes and offered to escort Kate and me to a pew.
“Good afternoon. Friends of the bride or Beau?” He came so very close to getting it right.
“The bride,” Kate coughed through a nicotine cloud that threatened her asthma.
The crowd within included starched, beehive hairdos vying to be the first to reach heaven, and a sea of leisure suits. I should’ve worn the string tie I used at those two-step classes Kate and I were taking. Those lessons promised to pay off big time at the reception.
Seated toward the back of the church on a well-worn pew, I fidgeted while more folks were ushered in. Selfconsciously playing with my Windsor, I glanced up at Kate’s hair, which somehow looked out of place: hers was a gentle hill of auburn that cascaded onto her shoulders, while others formed a range of jutting mountain peaks.
Finally, everyone was seated and waiting for the ceremony to begin.
When the clock struck half past the hour, the beehives began to buzz, starting as a low murmur that hung lightly in the air and gradually increased beyond socially acceptable levels. Ben quietly emerged from a small door off to the side of the altar. Dressed in a shiny purple tuxedo that somehow complemented the omnipresent leisure suits, he strutted boldly up to the pulpit. “The organist ain’t showed up yet, but oughta be here any minute now,” he announced. “We’ll git this show on the road shortly. Ya’ll sit tight.”
It was then that I realized soft background music was missing, which was yet another oddity.
Ben had just turned toward the side door when a young man in a white tux burst through the front doors and ran down the center aisle. “A light blue Corvair jist caught fire in the parkin’ lot! Flames is shootin’ from under the hood!”
Three guys popped up and ran out (presumably to see if it was their Corvair). Every other guy in the place made eye contact, and soon a passel of good ole boys were climbing over old people and jostling decked-out ladies, hustling to be first on the scene. You can see a wedding anytime, but a car fire—now that’s something special.
I was the only youngish male left inside; even Beau and his ushers had filed out. Not wanting to be conspicuous, I casually followed the crowd and joined them around the flames. One thickly painted lady came out to take advantage of the delay by stealing a quick smoke. Most of the guys had already lit up.
The Corvair’s multicolored hood spewed thick black smoke that curled skyward, followed by an occasional lick of flame. The stench of burning rubber and plastic contrasted starkly with the sweet scent of bridal flowers bedecking the church.
Several guys grabbed fire extinguishers from their trucks, while one had the presence of mind to call the fire department. Sirens wailed from the nearby firehouse as monster trucks roared to life and parted to make way for the fire engine; diesel fumes contributed to the symphony of odors. Firemen unreeled a long hose and connected it to a hydrant while several others hacked away at the car’s hood.
When the fire was finally out, the guys seemed a little disappointed (maybe they were hoping for an explosion?). They shuffled back inside and were greeted by the same silence they had left, being that the organist still hadn’t arrived.
Someone made a decision and announced, “We’re gonna start the show without music.”
Ida Mae did look lovely as she and her dad strolled down the center aisle—though without the accompaniment of “The Wedding March.” Kate hummed it in hopes that others would join in.
No one did.
The newlyweds kissed after the short ceremony and were presented to the congregation. Rice was thrown. Birds divebombed the sidewalks, as well as some beehive hairdos that had trapped a few grains. The happy couple escaped into the back seat of the black king-cab parked on the sidewalk out front, and the crowd dispersed to their respective vehicles, except for the guy who no longer had a car. Several attendant tow-truck drivers offered him their services. “Maybe later,” he sheepishly replied.
The American Legion Hall just up the street was decked out and awaiting the long-delayed revelers. After all the excitement, folks had worked up an appetite, more than ready for the party to begin. The thrill of spontaneous car combustion had faded, overshadowed by grumbling stomachs.
Cowboy boots, freshly teased hair, and wide lapels filed into the downstairs reception hall. Nut bowls were quickly emptied while drinks were downed. The libation of choice was beer, and restlessness turned to impatience.
“How long does it take to snap a few crummy pictures anyways?” some guy complained, lamenting that the meal couldn’t be served before the wedding party arrived.
I leaned over and whispered, “They need a picture of Ida Mae seductively draped over the burned-out Corvair.” Kate hit me.
Along the back wall of the cave-like room, a couple of long tables, placed end to end, were covered with white butcher’s paper. The roll was too narrow for the tables, so masking tape sealed the two strips all the way down the middle. Atop this festive table covering, fried chicken under a layer of cling wrap accompanied American cheese—the slices still individually wrapped and decoratively fanned on disposable serving dishes. Paper bowls overflowed with mayonnaise and yellow mustard. On the far end of the table, past the white sandwich rolls and potato chips, a serving plate featured ham and chicken cold cuts. A small plate of roast beef hid behind a veggie platter. At the end of the evening, the celery and carrots were barely touched.
Presumably, the Saran Wrap kept things fresh and discouraged the flies, but it also prevented hungry guests from sneaking illicit bites. Dining before the bride and groom would be a faux pas, but I found it hard to believe this crowd would care, hungry as it was.
People milled aimlessly while several guys circled the table, then sauntered over to the refreshment table and drank more—on empty stomachs.
Two large women, maybe in their late thirties, stood hard by the feed trough. These banquet cops were deep in serious conversation when I noticed one nod and the second acknowledge it. The first one looked around, then reached a pudgy hand under the plastic wrap to grab a piece of cheese.
The second guard sent hers in and came up with a ham slice. Starving women can’t be denied.
An elderly lady of social bearing witnessed this overstep and looked horrified, then followed suit. With age, however, she wasn’t as deft of hand. Hence, she simply peeled back the wrap. With ham and cheese in hand, she returned the barrier to standby mode.
These moves weren’t lost on the crowd, and hungry folks edged toward the table to repeat the act without fully returning the cling wrap. Shortly after, a take-charge woman bowled her way to the table, yanked off the Saran, and threw it into a Hefty-bag-lined trashcan positioned at the end of the table.
The herd descended.
Eventually, the bridal party arrived and found a few morsels remaining—but not much. They weren’t any more interested in the veggies than the guests had been.
The DJ fired up the turntable and played all the greats—“Achy-Breaky Heart,” “Tush-Push,” and “Electric Boogie.” The crowd two-stepped with joyous abandon, regardless of which song was blasted from the speakers. In the end, a great time was had by all. Surprisingly, no fights broke out, despite the massive quantities of beer consumed.
Ida Mae and Beau were happily married for well over a year.
Earlier on the morning of Tara and Hans’s wedding day, Kate had applied the final coat of stain to our new front door, thinking the porch would make a nice setting for informal pictures. But she hadn’t counted on the puffy bridesmaids’ dresses that might brush against the wet doorframe. So I escorted Tara in her billowing taffeta, followed by the young girls, up our new front sidewalk. The pictures came out great without any mishaps.
I was inwardly grinning about this close call when “The Wedding March” began to play. My feet, nailed to the floor, only moved when Tara gently tugged on my arm. In a trance, I walked down the aisle with my lovely daughter. It all seemed so surreal until I saw the numerous smiling faces that filled the chapel.
“Who gives this woman in holy matrimony?” Winston asked.
“Her mother and I,” I said with conviction. My palms were soaked as I let go of Tara but she didn’t notice—she was looking at Hans.
It was time for me to take a back seat—forever.
I sat in the front pew between Kate and my ex-wife as Tara stepped up to the altar and faced Hans, her handsome young groom greeting her with a broad smile.With my role finished, I managed to calm down. And although everything was going smoothly and according to schedule, my mind flashed to another unfortunate wedding a few years back . . .
Jane, our new receptionist, had been referred to our office by her fiancé, whom I’d met at a party. As usual with my job searches, I was desperate. The guy seemed decent enough, so his girlfriend probably was? I should’ve done a background check.
Jane was never on time and cut out early whenever she could manage it. And she wasn’t very good on the job. But despite her lack of work ethic, labor laws made it hard to fire a person; unemployment taxes were a killer for small businesses.
I’d recently taken up still photography and had also purchased one of the first home video systems, a bestial VHS machine with two components: a heavy camera that rested on the right shoulder and a lead-filled box for the tape, which could be either hung on the left shoulder or set on the ground. I also bought a twenty-foot cord so I could leave it parked, but I frequently tripped over it, once nearly breaking a toe.
Knowing about my amateur film experience, Jane asked Kate if we’d film her wedding, giving me an opportunity to flex my artistic muscles
I agreed to do it gratis for the practice. “I’ll take the still shots,” I said, “while Kate mans the video on a tripod.”
Kate and I arrived at the old brick church a half hour early and found only one car in the lot, parked in the pastor’s spot. We pulled in next to him and lugged our bulky gear inside: two 35mm cameras with wide angle, standard, and zoom lenses, including a soft, dream-like filter I wanted to try out. The video camera sported a top-heavy floodlight. After noting where the sun came through the stained-glass windows, Kate and I were ready only minutes before the wedding was due to begin.
But not another soul was at the church—not an usher, greeter, ring bearer, or flower girl.
“What if we have the wrong church?” I asked Kate.
Kate double-checked the invitation. “This is definitely the right place. But where the heck is everyone?”
“Are you sure?” I questioned. “There’re no flowers and the family pews have no bows.”
At Ida Mae’s wedding only the organist was missing; at this one, everyone was.
“Did you check the time?” I further inquired.
“Of course I checked it,” Kate said, more irritated than worried.
I scratched my head. “Well, I don’t know what to say.”
I was gazing out a window at the empty parking lot when a creak from a disguised side door made me jump. Do all old churches have secret entrances? I wondered.
Ducking to avoid hitting his balding pate on the low lintel, a towering minister emerged from the side door in full vestments. With a stern look, he impatiently asked, “So where is everyone?”
“Dunno,” I said, shrugging.
“Look, this wedding is supposed to start in a couple of minutes.”
“My wife and I are just the photographers,” I explained. “We’re ready, though.”
“Fine, but I’ve got a funeral right after,” he huffed as he ducked to exit the secret door again. “This thing better start soon,” I heard echo from an inner chamber.
Kate looked at me and mouthed, What should we do?
With a grin and a shrug, I said, “We wait.”
Ten minutes past the appointed hour, I heard car wheels crunch on gravel and looked out to see a handful of inebriated ushers spill out. The wedding party apparently didn’t realize that the reception took place after the ceremony.
Tuxedos manned the musty aisles while a few more cars came. Jane’s preteen son, drafted as an usher and the only sober one in the bunch, sulked in the back. Perhaps because this was her third marriage and her family probably had little hope for this one, few guests were present.
The pastor’s sharp nose poked from behind the door.
Frowning and shaking his head, he took center stage.
Jane finally marched down the aisle—she did have an organist—preceded by one attendant, a pregnant maid of honor. The pastor rushed the ceremony and, clearly thrilled to be done with it, hurried off with long strides to the funeral. Although Kate and I did a bang-up job of recording her nuptials, Jane never even thanked us. After her honeymoon, she was still chronically late for work, and I finally bit the bullet and fired her—the first time I’d fired anyone.
Pastor Winston was three-quarters through Tara’s wedding ceremony when a pregnant pause ensued.
Did Winston lose his playbook? I wondered.
Then Hans stepped away from Tara and, without a word, hesitantly walked off the platform.
Oh no! The proverbial cold feet! my mind screamed.
A low murmur swept through the church as Hans headed toward the side door that led past the piano and outside. As he slowly approached, the pianist stood and relinquished the bench. When Hans sat at the keyboard, a hush descended.
He coughed nervously, adjusted the bench, the sheet music, then the bench again. From my vantage point, I saw his hands slightly tremble but then steady before striking the first note. His confident fingers moved gracefully over the keys, releasing the lilting strains of “Clair de Lune” to the packed country church.
Not listed in the program, Hans had kept this moment to himself in case he lost courage. The pianist and Pastor Winston knew but had been sworn to secrecy. It was quite a feat for Winston to keep anything to himself, an odd trait for a counselor. But everyone knew everyone’s business in Gloyd anyway.
The haunting melody floated flawlessly throughout the sanctuary and up to heaven. My eyes welled; Kate whipped out a Kleenex and wiped her check. My new son-in-law playing classical music for my daughter during their wedding.
. . . could it have been any better? Well, there were exceptions . . .
When our friends Ruth and Joe got engaged, they encountered a small dilemma. Ruth was Jewish through natural progression, while Joe was Gentile by upbringing and persuasion. Neither was particularly religious, but familial decorum required the trappings of a religious ceremony, so they looked into a Unitarian ritual, which is to say, no ritual at all.
Unitarianism is neutral ground for those seeking some sort of spirituality but want to shy away from any hint of dogma. Most Unitarians, as suggested by the name, believe in one Supreme Being rather than a pantheon of gods. Most I’ve met don’t seem to know what precisely they believe, opting for the “I guess there’s something out there, but who’s to say what?” idea of God.
Two members of our diverse Bridges for Peace delegation to the USSR attended the church where the wedding was to be held. On the Aeroflot flight halfway across the Atlantic, a jovial Presbyterian pastor, Lon, shouted to another member of our team, “Hey Jim! They tried to run a Unitarian family out of my neighborhood.”
“You’re kidding?” Jim looked horrified, as did everyone else within earshot.
“Nope. They burned a question mark on their front lawn.”
Yes, Lon’s dry wit helped relieve the tedium of a long flight.
Ruth and Joe met while working for the phone company. Although Joe repaired residential phone lines, he aspired to be a musician: a folksinger, a balladeer, a songwriter, or any combination that might sell. Ruth was upper management and liked her position. They both enjoyed their dentist (me) and his assistant (Kate) and invited us to their wedding.
On the blessed day, Kate and I arrived at the church and took seats toward the front on the bride’s side, having known Ruth longer. The groom’s parents were escorted to the front pew (by ushers who were sober and on time). Ruth’s dad, Saul, had sadly suffered a stroke and been seated early with his wife.
The church was nestled in a picturesque patch of suburban woods. Looking out the side window, I gazed at the blazing autumn color. The ceremony was due to start any minute when I was rudely yanked from my reverie. From a few rows back, some old codger—probably hard of hearing—yelled up to the front, “Hey, Saul! How the hell’s it hanging?”
Karen smiled while I quickly looked down to avoid laughing out loud.
Poor old Saul, confused by his stroke, struggled to turn around but beamed upon spotting his old friend. “Great. My daughter’s getting married—finally!” He shouted back. “Some working-stiff goy. So, how the f*** are you?”
You could’ve heard a pin drop—if not for Kate’s laughter. I leaned into her and whispered, “Stop,” but didn’t get any further before I lost it. We tried to stifle ourselves by covering our mouths, but it didn’t do much good.
Wiping my eyes, I noticed a tripod-mounted video camera trained in our direction. The little red light was blinking. Not only was the father of the bride caught on tape, so were we.
The tittering crowd finally settled down when the organ began to play “The Wedding March,” redirecting everyone’s attention.
The almost secular ceremony proceeded smoothly until, about halfway through, Joe stepped back from the bride, much the way Hans would a couple years hence. An usher brought a microphone to the platform and gave it to him. He smiled at Ruth and, glowing, she smiled back. It promised to be one of those touching moments.
Then he opened his mouth.
Accompanied by canned music from an eight-track player, Joe belted out “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg. Not only did it sound like bad karaoke, but the aspiring musician was apparently tone-deaf. The gravelly resonance that screeched from within him bore no resemblance to anything human.
What’s more, it was loud.
Still seated in the line of fire, Kate and I saw the blinking of the video camera’s red light and tried hard not to laugh. “Turn away,” I admonished, which only caused my lovely wife to spit through her nose. Unable to contain myself, I followed suit and wiped tears from my face.
It was all caught on tape.
Surprisingly, our friendship with Joe and Ruth lasted. Neither incident—dad’s foul language or the misplaced karaoke—was ever brought up. We were not, however, invited to watch their wedding movies.
With the last notes of “Clair de Lune” hanging in the air, Hans returned to his place beside Tara where they exchanged rings and kissed. Winston pronounced them husband and wife, after which they glided down the aisle arm-in-arm and exited the old Gothic doors, greeted by smiles and loud applause from the crowd. The reception was a blast with a live band. Thankfully, they didn’t play “Longer.” I would have lost it if they had.
The following morning, the happy couple was off to Bermuda.
Sadly, their wedding wasn’t recorded on video, but it was imprinted on my heart. And they gave us three wonderful grandchildren.
About the Author:
Dr. Carroll James and his wife, Kate live in their rural Maryland home. Hanging up his high-speed drill for good following forty years in private dental practice, he’s now the author of I Swear To Tell the Tooth, The Whole Tooth & And Nothing But the Tooth. Publisher’s Weekly’s review states, “James’ episodic collection of adventures is wonderfully entertaining and offers delightful insight into one dentist’s irreverent mind. The author’s profession is only one of many sources of the comedy and drama in this rollicking journey through a life that embraces the unexpected.” For pleasure, Dr. James hikes the mountains of Greene County, Virginia, travels, gardens, frequently entertains by trying out new recipes on The Big Green Egg (his retirement gift to himself to Kate’s delight!) and always has a good book in hand. Family reunions center around annual crab feasts in the backyard and snow skiing in the winter. Awarded a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College and a Doctor of Medical Dentistry from Farleigh-Dickinson University. For more information on him and his books, visit: www.drcarrolljames.com