Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Anatomy of a Wedding, Part Two

Eric and I returned to Hadley and began packing. I kept hoping Marya, one of our housemates, would show up. Marya often wore her mother’s old wedding band. Having just told a complete stranger we were married, I was keenly aware that I had no wedding band to prove it, let alone an engagement ring. Maybe Marya would lend me her wedding band for the weekend. Of course, I’d have to devise a convincing story so she wouldn’t think my request was totally weird.

When we had packed and Marya still hadn’t returned, I persuaded Eric to make a quick stop at the greasy spoon where she worked as a waitress when not pursuing her true calling as a sculptor.

“We’ll tell her about the free weekend at the Northfield Inn, “I said to Eric, “but we’ll say we had to pretend to be married to qualify.” Never mind that we were married.

We found Marya at the restaurant, but she wasn’t wearing the wedding band after all and, although she believed our story and would have been glad to lend it to me, we didn’t have time to return to the house and retrieve it from her room. So we drove on to the inn, an old New England resort built in the grand manner. We deposited our bags in what seemed to us an incredibly luxurious room, furnished in colonial style and painted an historical shade of green. The two double beds would have to wait until later.

By the time we arrived on the verandah, the cocktail party was in full swing. We'd been too nervous to eat much during the day, but it was still warm and muggy and we were very thirsty. Eric, who ordinarily didn’t drink, headed over to the bar and ordered us both screwdrivers. When he returned, I was being introduced to our sponsors, a middle-aged couple from Greenfield, Tom and Joan. They were specially assigned to us to make us feel comfortable. Just what we needed on our wedding night—ersatz parents. I took a sip of my drink, and Eric swallowed his in one gulp. Tom was in the fuel oil business, we learned, and he and Joan had three children.

"And what about you?" they asked. "What brings you to Massachusetts?"

"We were just married," I couldn’t resist answering, "and this is our honeymoon trip." Eric rolled his eyes at me and excused himself to go get another drink. I asked Joan and Tom about Greenfield, and they told me we'd get to see a lot more of it during the weekend. There would be a tour starting right after breakfast the next morning.

"When was your wedding?" Joan asked. A natural question. I panicked. How could I tell these people we'd gotten married three hours ago? No wedding gown, no wedding reception, no family in sight. These were nice conventional people, who represented pretty much everything Eric and I had rejected by deciding to get married secretly. I'd have to invent.

"The wedding was last week, on Sunday."

"Oh, what date was that?" Joan was nothing if not persistent. Frantically, I tried to count backwards to last Sunday.

Eric returned. "What date was our wedding last Sunday, honey?" I asked him. What woman doesn't know the date of her own wedding? I was sure by now that Joan thought we were lying about being married at all, and I couldn't blame her, especially since I had no wedding band. Eric gulped his second drink down and was about to give some sort of answer, when we were saved by an announcement that dinner was served.

We entered a wide corridor and began walking toward the dining room at the other end of the sprawling inn. I was endeavoring to explain to Joan why I'd forgotten my wedding date, some fantastic story about the wedding having been postponed and how I always got the dates mixed up, when I realized that Eric wasn't beside me. I glanced back and to my horror saw him staggering blindly toward the wall. I rushed over just as he fell in a dead faint, and caught him before he cracked his head on the marble floor. He lay there, looking an historical shade of green and sweating profusely. I was wondering what to do for him, when a woman rushed over crying, "I'm a nurse!" She took his wrist in her hand. "No pulse," she said.

No pulse? My God, had my husband died on our wedding day? But no, surely he was breathing. And he was still sweating, buckets. Slowly, he regained consciousness, and appeared to recognize me. After a short consultation, during which most of the captured tourists and their sponsors gathered round, it was determined that a few of the men would help bring Eric to our room, where I would stay with him.

There we spent what was to be our idyllic wedding night, Eric lying spread-eagle on one of the double beds, overcome with nausea, only getting up sporadically to rush into the bathroom. Someone thoughtfully had dinner sent up for me. I ate while Eric tried to sleep it off. Whatever it was. The screwdrivers? The heat? The wedding itself? At one point I tried to lie down next to him along the edge of the bed, but my merest touch brought on more waves of nausea. So I spent the night in the other bed, consoling myself with the thought that I had probably saved Eric's life by catching him before his head hit the marble.

By the next morning, Eric felt better, though still a bit queasy. He didn't think he was ready for breakfast. But I convinced him. The people of Greenfield, I pointed out, had made us their guests. How would it look if we didn't appear at breakfast, if we skipped the tour of Greenfield's landmarks?

We arrived in the dining room to find other tourists greeting each other and sharing tables. As a concession to Eric, who was certainly not feeling sociable, we sat at an empty table in the corner. Before long, though, we were joined by a somber-looking family of four. We soon learned they were somber with good reason. They had just endured disastrous flooding in their hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Their house had been virtually destroyed, they told us, but they had nevertheless persevered with their vacation plans. Not knowing what state their community would be in when they returned, they were living in the moment and claimed to be enjoying Greenfield’s hospitality. However, the entire family spoke in such affectless tones of voice that I could only conclude they were suffering from some kind of shell shock.

We were rescued from this gloomy conversation by the appearance of our sponsors, Tom and Joan.

"It's good to see you all recovered," Tom said, clapping Eric on the back. I watched anxiously, hoping Eric wouldn't barf up the meager breakfast he'd managed to get down.

"Eat up," Tom said. "It's almost time to head for the bus."

We had quite a day in store, with stops planned at the Greenfield War Memorial and the new Western Massachusetts Electric hydroelectric power plant. Tom and Joan didn't ask us any more questions about our wedding. I guess they'd decided to leave that subject alone.

When we arrived at the War Memorial in the center of town, everyone piled out of the bus. Eric noticed a photographer hovering nearby.

"You planning to take a picture of us?" Eric asked, stating the obvious.

"Sure am. You'll probably make the front page of the Greenfield Recorder."

"I guess we're pretty big news around here," I murmured to Eric, momentarily relishing the idea of being on the front page.

Eric pulled me aside and reminded me that our marriage was supposed to be a secret. How secret would it remain if we were identified in print as a married couple? Against my will, I felt a thrill. Soon we would be out of the closet. But I could see Eric wasn't ready for that, so I reassured him that no one we knew ever read the Greenfield Recorder. And the story wasn't likely to be syndicated, big deal though it might be in Greenfield. Our secret was safe. We joined the group posing in front of the War Memorial and smiled for the camera.

The rest of the day was interesting, but no honeymoon, in the ordinary sense of that word. It was more like fieldwork, with Eric and me as anthropologists exploring the heartland. Although virtually all the tourists and their hosts were white middle-class Americans, like us, we felt different and, from our counter-cultural perspective, superior. We thought we knew what was important—love, not propriety; justice, not power; inner peace, not material wealth; youth, not old age. The people we met were pleasant enough, but so conventional and dull, we thought. We somehow avoided noticing that we too had opted for the conventional in getting married, however unconventionally.

And, though we felt alienated, we hid it well. By lunchtime, Eric was talking business with Tom, even though Eric's business was two bins of used records for sale in a friend's music shop. And I discussed the vicissitudes of raising children with Joan, even though I couldn't yet imagine having children. I could barely imagine anything beyond getting through this experience.

The crowning event of our stay came that evening—a barbecue at the local Lion's Club. Eric and I, wanting to avoid a repeat of the prior night, decided beforehand that we wouldn't drink, which put us further beyond the fringe. Liquor flowed freely and the more sober we remained, the more smashed everyone else became. During dessert, the speeches began, first by members of the Chamber of Commerce, extolling all that Greenfield had to offer, and then by us, the captured tourists. There was no escaping. One by one, the guests stepped up to the microphone, full of gratitude and praise for our hosts. When our turn came, the crowd was hushed, expectant. By then, we'd become known affectionately as the "newlyweds," and Eric had gained special notoriety due to his fainting episode.

"Greenfield is totally unique,” Eric said. The crowd burst into drunken applause. “There's no place like it in the world." More raucous applause.

It was my turn now. "This has been an amazing weekend,” I said, wanting to tell the truth without offending anybody. "One I'll never forget," I added, as everyone cheered wildly.

We didn’t remain at the farmhouse long after our return from the Northfield Inn. Although outwardly nothing was different, we felt as if everything had changed. However uncelebrated our wedding had been, we’d taken an enormous psychological step, into the realm of commitment. It was time to move on.

Eric had saved some money playing in a rock band during his college years, and we both wanted to travel, so we decided we would spend a year in Europe. We had no idea what we’d do there. Perhaps Eric would join a band. I would soak up the local cultures. Most important, we’d be far from both family and friends and could avoid the question of whether and when to divulge our secret.

But first we had to deal with Eric’s beloved Saab Sonett, a sports car which had been handmade in Sweden and purchased with part of Eric’s hard-earned band money. Eric wouldn’t hear of putting it in storage. He preferred to drive the car to California, where he could leave it with his parents while we traveled. This scheme would have the added benefit of enabling me to meet my new in-laws, so in early July we headed west.

* * *

Once in California, we moved temporarily into Eric’s old bedroom—his parents seemed to have no qualms about our sleeping together despite our apparently unmarried state. They were delighted to have Eric back home and, as I gradually realized, they were determined to keep him there. If that meant allowing me into their son’s bed, they were willing.

Eric and I quickly fell into a pleasant routine—days spent by the pool or exploring the Stanford campus on bicycles; in the evening, leisurely dinners with Reggie, Joe, and sometimes Mark. Over white wine, crab legs, and artichokes, Reggie initiated intense conversations about Eric’s career options. This parental “guidance” seemed a small price to pay for such opulent hospitality, and we politely refrained from discussing our European plans. After a few weeks, Europe began to feel very remote, and our plans began to seem a bit self-indulgent. After all, our savings didn’t amount to much, only a few thousand dollars. Besides, we were finding the California lifestyle very agreeable.

We began to think about moving into our own place and soon figured out how to do that without dipping into our savings—we answered an ad seeking a married couple to manage a garden apartment complex in East Palo Alto. In return for performing managerial duties, we could live rent-free. To the man who hired us, we were a conventional married pair, but Eric and I agreed that we would still keep our marriage secret from family and friends, who assumed we’d lied to get the job.

Since we’d been hired as a married couple, though, we introduced ourselves as married to the tenants in our building. We were leading a double life, but at first we felt we could handle it. Then a young couple moved in. We hit it off with them immediately and they soon became friends as well as tenants. Having introduced ourselves to them as husband and wife, we now found ourselves with new friends who thought of us as married, while our old friends, as well as our families, viewed us as unmarried. The line between our true (married) and false (unmarried) selves was becoming increasingly blurred.

We began to fantasize about revealing our secret. We imagined how surprised people would be, especially our parents. Finally, in late October, we gave in to the urge. We told Eric’s parents in person, then immediately called my parents. They were all, as expected, shocked but not, alas, uniformly pleased.

My mother, who had been the most opposed to our living together out of wedlock, was the most upset at having been excluded from the wedding. Joe was perplexed, and wondered why we hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him. On the other hand, my father was happy that the wedding had already occurred—perhaps relieved at having dodged a financial bullet. Reggie showed delight over the union by running up to her bedroom and emerging with a gold and amethyst ring, which she insisted on giving to me as a wedding gift.

In the end, Reggie’s exuberance prevailed, and what resulted was something approaching a conventional wedding without the ceremony. Reggie and Joe invited friends and both our families to an afternoon reception in December. Eric and I registered for gifts at a local Scandinavian housewares store where, ever the non-conformists, we selected stainless steel flatware instead of the then-customary silver. We took a similar stand against tradition with our wedding announcements, which we designed in the unusual format of a newspaper article. Entitled “Secret Nuptials Revealed,” it detailed the story of our wedding and unexpected honeymoon.

The party was a great success. A lot of champagne was consumed, but no one fainted. Eric and I found that we actually liked being the center of attention. We even enjoyed showing off our new wedding bands. After all, we never had been as unconventional as we liked to think. Moreover, by following our own weird path to the altar, we’d managed to conform quite well to the prevailing ethos of the seventies—do your own thing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Anatomy of a Wedding, Part One

Eric and I arrived in California during a heat wave. It was July, 1972 and we were newlyweds, driving west from Massachusetts in our blue Saab Sonnet, without air conditioning. We left Nevada, climbing through the Sierras. Eric kept assuring me that things would cool off soon. He'd grown up in the Bay Area, so I took his word for it. But the air only grew more stifling as we descended into the San Joaquin Valley, heading toward Palo Alto.

"Wait until we get through the Valley," he promised me. "It's never hot like this in Palo Alto. Wait until we cross the Bay."

So I waited and sweated, mostly from the heat, but also from nerves. I was about to meet my in-laws. They knew I was coming, but they didn't know they were my in-laws. Eric and I had gotten married without telling them, or anyone else. It hadn't been an impulsive decision. We'd planned ahead, taking the blood tests required in Massachusetts and obtaining our license at the Hadley Town Hall. We'd set our wedding date by opening up a calendar to the month of June (it was April at the time), closing our eyes and pointing to a date—June 28th, as it turned out.

Not that we thought either of our families would oppose the marriage. We were both recent college graduates of the same religion—how could they object? We just thought marriage should be a private affair, untainted by a wedding party. Since our married life would involve only the two of us, we reasoned, so should our wedding. Eric said his parents would totally understand, once we told them, which we didn’t plan to do for a while. I wasn’t so sure about my parents, but I figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

We pulled into my in-laws’ driveway, the scent of eucalyptus washing over us, the air like a sauna under a blue-white sky. Eric opened a redwood gate stained pale gray, revealing a patio bordered by curved oriental screens and a hedge of star jasmine. He led me through sliding glass doors into the kitchen, where my mother-in-law, Reggie, sat drinking ice water with my brother-in-law, Mark.

Reggie looked surprisingly young, not much older than me, although she was in her mid-forties. She was full of enthusiasm, despite the heat.

"Oh, hi, come on in, isn't this heat incredible. Would you like some ice water?" They had an automatic ice maker, the first I'd ever seen. Its apparently limitless supply of ice seemed a portent of things to come in California.

After we'd each downed several glasses, Reggie suggested we go for a swim. Mark said he’d join us.

"I'll have to dig my suit out of the car," I said.

"Oh, don't worry about that," Reggie said. "Just jump right in. You don't need suits." So this was my mother-in-law. To my relief, she chose to remain in the house while Eric, Mark, and I took a dip in the buff.

I didn't meet my father-in-law, Joe, until that evening. He was arriving from out of town and Eric and I drove to the airport to pick him up. He was delighted to see Eric and pleasant to me, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in getting to know me. To him, I was just the latest in a string of Eric’s girlfriends, and he probably figured that, like the others, I wouldn’t last.

* * *

Our decision to get married made Eric and me an anomaly among our friends. The only married couple we knew had recently split up. Other couples had been living together for years without feeling the need to tie the knot. After all, this was the seventies and the idea of marriage seemed hopelessly outdated. Nevertheless, when Eric proposed I was thrilled, even though I was sure our friends would disapprove. Keeping the wedding secret solved that problem—they wouldn’t know.

Our wedding day dawned hot, sticky, and overcast at the farmhouse we shared with several of our friends in Hadley. I had no premonition about the strange turn events would take that day, only a bride’s nervous excitement as I dressed for the ceremony. I wore a floor-length flower-print granny dress with an empire waist. Eric put on blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a long-sleeved gold shirt with French cuffs, his dressiest clothes.

Our plan was to drive to nearby Historic Deerfield and find a justice of the peace, but Deerfield turned out to be more a museum than a functioning town. We couldn't find anyone to marry us. By mid-morning, we realized we'd have to devise an alternate strategy. We located a phone book and looked under the heading “Justice of the Peace” for Greenfield, a neighboring town. We found a listing for a Mr. Cunningham and called him. He agreed to perform the ceremony at four that afternoon.

It was before noon and already we were sweltering. My dress, which was made out of a cotton hopsack material, felt itchy. I suddenly wished I had a special dress for the occasion. And a wedding ring. Since our marriage was to be a secret, I couldn't wear a wedding ring, but at that moment I wanted one. And a honeymoon. We certainly weren't going to get one of those.

"My dress is all sweaty," I said. "Let's drive to Northampton. Maybe I can find something new to wear for the ceremony."

"Fine," said Eric. "It'll give us something to do." When we got to Northampton, I searched through racks in Peck & Peck and other stores on Green Street, right next to Smith College, not knowing what I was looking for, not finding anything remotely appealing. I gave up and we went back to the farmhouse, where I changed into a brown-and-white cotton print dress, one that I'd bought several years earlier when I had a summer job as a billing clerk on Wall Street.

We drove to Greenfield and arrived at a white colonial shortly before the appointed time. Mr. Cunningham, a cheerful elderly man with thin white hair, invited us into his living room. I don’t remember much about the short ceremony, only that he married us according to the authority vested in him by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After the ceremony, he filled out the marriage certificate in a wavering hand, then said he had some important advice for us. We waited expectantly, hoping for something momentous.

"Don't drink and drive," he said, possibly because we looked so spaced out.

Outside, it had started to drizzle. That meant good luck, I remembered, or at least maybe some relief from the heat. We stood under a big maple tree and took each other's photograph, first mine, then Eric's. Before heading back to Hadley, we decided to return to Historic Deerfield for a celebratory dinner. We were pretty sure they had a functioning restaurant in Deerfield.

But we never made it to the restaurant. As we drove along Deerfield's main street, we were flagged down by a middle-aged man in red slacks and a short-sleeved plaid shirt.

"Are you folks from Massachusetts?"

"Yes," said Eric.

"Gee, that's too bad." The man looked very disappointed. "If you'd been from out of state, we would have invited you to be our guests at the Northfield Inn."

"Actually, I'm from California. We're just staying in Massachusetts for a while." Eric showed the man his driver's license, which really was from California.

The man looked extremely pleased. "That's wonderful. Then you're eligible. I represent the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce. Every year we ‘capture’ a group of tourists and give them a free weekend seeing the local sites. It's almost dinnertime and I was afraid I wasn't going to meet my quota. You are married, aren't you?"

We nodded, dazedly.

He peered into our tiny sports car. "Do you folks have any luggage?"

"Yes, we do," Eric said, thinking quickly. "But we don't have it with us. We left it at our friends' house, where we've been staying."

"Where's that?"

"Just south of here, in Hadley."

"You should have plenty of time to get your bags and make it back for cocktails at the Northfield Inn."

Our free honeymoon was about to begin.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Six: Catching Rides with Manolo as Nixon Rides to the Presidency

During the late sixties, limousines were an uncommon sight on the roads. If one drove by, it invariably aroused curiosity, since limos were then generally used only by V.I.P.’s—Presidents, movie stars, and the like. When Julie offered me a ride home for the Thanksgiving holiday, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be riding in style until the Nixon limo pulled up at the front door of Baldwin House.

Richard Nixon had dispatched his valet and chauffeur, Manolo Sanchez, to transport Julie back to Manhattan. Julie suggested that Manolo drop me off at Penn Station. From there, I could easily catch a train to Long Island. So, off we went, cruising down Interstate 91, chatting about school and holiday plans. All the while, I kept noticing the people in other cars staring at us as we sped by. Just riding in such a fancy vehicle with the daughter of a famous person induced in me a heady, albeit unmerited, sense of self-importance.

In my recollection, Manolo was a bit of a crazy man, or at least a crazy driver. On that trip, he zoomed along at breakneck speed and made it to Manhattan in record time. But, the next time I hitched a ride home with Julie, Manolo managed to get totally lost in the wilds of Westchester. He kept insisting that he knew where he was going as he careened from one exit to the next. I began to fear we’d wind up in Pennsylvania, with Manolo protesting all the while that everything was fine. Despite his faulty sense of direction, Manolo remained with Richard Nixon throughout his Presidency, serving as his valet.

During that second ride, before Julie and I had to focus on getting Manolo back on track to Manhattan, we talked about her father, who was busy campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination amid rising anti-war sentiment. Julie said he had received a number of unsolicited letters from soldiers at the front, voicing their support for him and their confidence that if Nixon were elected, he would find a way to end the war honorably.

I was quite moved by this conversation. Not because I thought Nixon would really end the war if he were elected, nor even because I was touched by the soldiers’ naïve faith in his ability to bring about peace with honor. What moved me was Julie’s passionate belief in her father’s goodness. I thought her confidence in him was misplaced, but it was impressive all the same.

Back at Smith, Julie survived geology and Professor Burger urged me to select it as my major. At the time, I foolishly thought pursuing subjects that came easily was tantamount to cheating and instead gravitated toward the ones that came hardest. I never took another geology class and wound up majoring in English.

At the end of first semester, Gloria and I switched roommates. We separated amicably and, as a parting gift, I gave her my llama rug, which she’d made good use of during our sojourn together. My new roommate was tidy and quiet, but moody. In retrospect, I missed Gloria’s weirdness, accompanied as it was by her invariable good humor. At the end of freshman year, I learned that she’d managed to flunk out of Smith, no mean accomplishment, as the college bent over backwards to help its students succeed. My next (and last) sighting of Gloria occurred in the mid-seventies, when I was married and living in Palo Alto, California. I ran into her on the steps of the local Post Office. She told me she’d just arrived from Hawaii, where she’d been living. She had a job selling Shaklee Vitamins—a healthy progression, it seemed, from the drugs she’d been into back at Smith.

My freshman year marked the last time I shared a dorm with Julie. The following fall, she took first semester off to campaign for her father, then married David Eisenhower in December, 1968, shortly after Nixon’s election. When Julie returned to Smith, she and David moved into an apartment across the street from Baldwin House, so I still saw her from time to time. She occasionally came over to Baldwin House for dinner, which created quite a stir, given that she was accompanied by Secret Service agents, who sat discreetly at other tables. I remember one dinner in particular, when a handsome young agent sat at my table. I found him articulate and pleasant, except for a few odd moments when I asked seemingly innocent questions, only to watch his demeanor stiffen as he replied, “Sorry, that’s classified,” in a clipped voice.

A few years later, as Watergate unfolded, I sometimes told friends the story of meeting Richard Nixon and his odd remark about the plumbing in Baldwin House. They often urged me to do an exposé of Julie and her father, but I could never bring myself to write such a piece. I simply liked Julie too much and didn’t want to take advantage of her friendship. A lot of time has passed, and I offer these chronicles as part of my personal history. I hope if Julie ever comes across them, she’ll read them in that spirit.