Wayne Scott, AB’86, AM’89, reflects on the winding path he and his wife followed on their way down the aisle.
We were not supposed to get married.
When my girlfriend and I moved into a dark, cramped one-bedroom apartment on a traffic-congested street on the north side of Chicago, one mantra united us.
No marriage. No kids.
We had bonded over readings from Feminist Theory and Practice, the first class of its kind offered in the College. She had a postcard autographed by Adrienne Rich, for which I offered substantial money on that first date. She refused, setting in motion a lifetime of spirited conversation. She was an ardent feminist, someone who worked at a nonprofit for survivors of sexual assault. The child of a divorced mother, she knew that a strong woman didn’t need any institutionally sanctioned bond with a man.
Like her, I had a mother who had left a difficult marriage. I didn’t fit in any neat category. In a decade polarized by sexual identity politics, to append the word bisexual to one’s self was to risk raised eyebrows and behind-the-back teasing. So I didn’t, even though I played on both sides of the fence. A graduate of the School of Social Service Administration, I was a therapist working with families struggling with violence and addiction. Because I had seen so much tumult arise from it, I had my doubts about marriage as a convention. A heterosexual idea that banned sexual minorities, the word had never been part of the story I told myself about who I would be.
No marriage. No kids.
When five years later I had the option to go to graduate school on the East Coast, it offered an escape from an exhausting, bewildering job. For my girlfriend, our uncomplicated cohabitation became suddenly complicated.
Her father, George, was a first-generation German American who grew up in one of the city’s white ethnic neighborhoods, in the long, dark shadow of the Great Depression. Gruff and curt, he was a printer who had landed a union job, a coup for a child of the 1930s, which brought him into home ownership and the middle class. He cared about financial stability. He worried about bad things happening again. For all his grouchiness, I never doubted what we had in common. We were devoted to his daughter.
One night, in his musty basement, under a flickering fluorescent light, he puttered at his workbench, making no eye contact with me, and I tried to tell him our plans.
He had a wide-eyed look of alarm. Move? Leave a stable job? Take his unmarried daughter with me?
I chickened out. “Well, it’s an idea,” I lied, though we had committed to the path.
Even though my girlfriend had always insisted she didn’t want to get married, she was his only child and she loved him. Was she making a crazy decision? It would look that way to him.
Move 700 miles away to be with a quirky, unemployed 30-year-old dandy, a man with unprofitable, incomprehensible degrees: general studies in the humanities (Don’t even try to explain it.) and clinical social work (Why do people need to talk about feelings?). Add in the fact that the man she had lived with for half a decade—without mention of a ring—would be getting another graduate degree in (What the hell is that?!) creative writing?
Couldn’t she have found more marriageable material at the University of Chicago?
We had to throw the guy a bone. We started to think about getting married.
In spite of the ups and downs that 20-somethings have, the idea of leaving town had catalyzed a realization. I couldn’t imagine going on this adventure—any adventure—without her. But we had to render the terms of our commitment into words and symbols her middle-class German father would grasp. It was like an act of translation, we rationalized. The language and symbols of weddings wasn’t our primary tongue, but the strange words—“bride” and “groom” and “bridesmaid” and “groomsman”—would reach the people we cared about, who most needed to understand the strength of our bond.
The spring before we would need to relocate, my girlfriend and I made a secret pact. Between ourselves we would think of ourselves as “engaged,” even though the word made us blanch. In the mornings, I would whisper in her ear, “Fiancée.” She would shudder and wake up.
If after 30 days we could still stand to live with ourselves, we would go public. We would tell her father and relatives. We would really get married.
The next thing I knew, we were driving to the big event on a hot, bright summer day.
We had chosen to have the ceremony—we never actually said the word “wedding”—in the Chicago Theological Seminary. In all our finery we climbed into my mother-in-law’s car for the drive to the chapel.
There had been so many hand-wringing arguments leading up to this moment.
What kind of dress could she tolerate, that would make her look like a bride but also not like a bride? If she stayed in a bridal shop for more than 15 minutes, she became nauseous.
Everything was a despicable, glittery, lace-exploding meringue. One of her girlfriends would scout out shops first, select the sleekest, least lacy concoctions for review, to maximize our narrow time window before my sweetheart bolted. (I liked shopping for wedding dresses. This irony helped no one.)
Would we ruin the ceremony if she didn’t carry a bouquet? You will, insisted the florist, a man of certain, high opinions. Probably, agreed the photographer. With so many elaborately dressed women, and a spouse-to-be who eschews a traditional gown, the guests will be confused. Fire the florist, my girlfriend whispered.
Would male relatives resent being without boutonnieres? Without a doubt, insisted the florist. I wouldn’t do it, agreed the caterer. It is a beloved tradition, said the Episcopal priest casually. You will be encircled by resentful men who don’t know who they are.
Did you have to include God in your vows, even if you had questions about God?
Including God was a sine qua non for the priest, a family friend, who would officiate for us only if we killed that debate.
As we neared 57th Street, my girlfriend asked, “Do you remember that argument that we had about what time to schedule the ceremony?”
Amid the swirl of arguments, I did recall the dispute. Would our older relatives feel slighted by a midafternoon reception with light hors d’oeuvres, or did we need an earlier event with a full-blown lunch? We had switched the hour at least three times.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
Before she could answer, I could see. On the front lawn of the Chicago Theological Seminary 100 guests, in their finest attire, languished under the July sun. In the one sliver of shade, four musicians, brows glistening, rehearsed, like the musicians who played while the Titanic slipped under ocean waves. Furious, the florist leaned against a van, monstrous wilting flower arrangements at his feet.
I dashed inside the seminary followed by my two brothers and the photographer. The first-floor chapel was impenetrable, locked behind iron bars. Inside I could see wooden chairs in rows; the stone walls; a bar of sunlight, coming through the stained glass, piercing the shadows, insisting on an antique stillness.
In my cream-colored linen suit, with the embroidered vest that I would never wear again but that conferred specialness if not ridiculousness on this day of days, I grabbed the bars. Like a mad prisoner on the opposite side of his confinement, I rattled them and grunted. It made a metal jangling sound.
One brother, who had smirked at our discomfort at all things wedding, muttered, “I thought you didn’t care about this stuff.”
In the basement of the seminary at that time was a famous bookstore. The labyrinthine passageways and narrow crannies were crammed with colorful titles and curious words like “grammatology” and “phallogocentrism” and “historicity.” In these rooms, during my undergraduate days, I loved to linger, delightfully lost, thinking and exploring. That Saturday, students waited at the check-out, books in their arms.
I shouted. “Does anyone have keys to open the chapel?”
The two cashiers eyed me pitifully in my fancy garb. “Sorry.”
“Do you know anyone who can find the people who can open it?!”
Again, they were useless.
An impatient undergraduate hissed, “Heteronormative sheep.” (Of course, memory is fallible, but I feel certain I heard it.)
Back outside, guests melted like ice cream cones. I found the priest, who lived in the Episcopal Center around the corner, and whispered, “Do you know any place where we can get married?”
Along the tree-canopied, mansion-lined streets of Woodlawn Avenue a long line of guests and musicians and florists and amused brothers traipsed to the backyard of the Episcopal Center for an impromptu service.
It was a mad, loud beehive of consternation. Everyone knows what a wedding is supposed to look like. With an authoritative sense of feng shui and an impeccable sense of last-minute design, the priest gave orders. Chairs appeared in rows on the grass. A path was marked for the bride and groom. The photographer positioned himself behind an azalea. The bouquet was thrown against a tree. Musicians settled and played under an awning. The proud papa and his wife sat in front. Other guests stood behind them, sweating. The priest wiped his brow with a handkerchief and the music began.
The service started only an hour later. We said our vows under the hot sun on the bright green grass.
People took many lessons from the day we were locked out of the church. The photographer confessed that he thought the chapel was a dungeon; for weeks he had had nightmares about terrible, shadowy photos. A pious aunt said, “It was so beautiful and perfect, like it was supposed to happen that way.” A therapist friend consoled, “Sometimes it is a gift when beautiful things begin imperfectly.” A college buddy mused about the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi that values flaws as a part of the beautiful. The florist determined never again to work with couples who couldn’t use the words “bride” and “groom.”
For me the lesson of the botched wedding took longer to distill.
Four years later, I was in a sterile white room in an assisted living facility holding my sleeping daughter, who was almost two. (Our original mantra—no marriage, no kids—had withered beyond recognition.)
It was me, my sleeping daughter, and my bedridden father-in-law. George was riddled with cancer. He couldn’t talk anymore. He could barely move. But his eyes were wide and he was alert. He had expected to have so many more years. In this stray, atypical moment, he was alone with his literary do-gooder son-in-law who was still so different than who he imagined his beautiful daughter would marry.
In only a few hours I would be getting on a plane with my family. Almost certainly this was the last time I would see him alive. The gravity of the deathbed confounded me. For years we’d struggled to communicate. Now I had to figure out the last thing I would ever say to him.
There was a long strained silence. I shifted my daughter in my arms. Perhaps it was the new, humble wisdom that accompanies having one’s first child, but I wondered, what would I want someone to say to me, if I were on my deathbed? And it came to me, miraculously, the promise I needed to make, an echo of those vows we made on that improbable lawn when the chapel was locked:
“You know, George, I am always going to take care of her.”
It was no longer an act of translation, but the truth, stripped bare of any distracting decoration. He couldn’t respond with words, but his eyes teared and he squeezed my hand.
Wayne Scott, AB’86, AM’89, is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He dedicates this essay to Elizabeth Thielman, AB’86, AM’91, on their 22nd anniversary.