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.


Anonymous said...

My god, Barbara, I'd almost forgot about the "granny dresses." What a clear and accurate portrait of the times. I love the details, i.e., the eucalyptus, redwood gate, oriental screens and my favorite--the hedge of star jasmine.

You have no idea of the possibilites my fiction-seeking mind is coming up with. Is the man who stopped you for real or is he an ax-murderer or some other scammer. It just occured to me as I wrote that of how trusting we were back in those days.

I had to laugh at the swimming pool scene. I'm certain that if my new mother-in-law (back then) had had a pool we would have been required to wear full body suits before entering!

I truly am looking forward to the next installment. Bonnie

Anonymous said...

I'm so excited to have the next installment to look forward to and love the story and remember some of the detail from one you gave me years earlier--but it didn't have the California piece I don't think. Anyway, as always, I love the writing and happily await the next installment from my very talented friend. Judy

Anonymous said...

Barbara, your story brought tears to my eyes and so many memories of that time. I forgot the details and as they come into play I gasp at the daring you both had. Actually, many today would envy you as wedding plans take an enormous emotional toll and expense. But anyway you plan it the memories are precious in retrospect.

The mother-in-law

Anonymous said...

Bravo! and courageous!