N is for Nuptial
When my late husband and I got engaged, Dave announced he wanted to get married in a Catholic Church. Since Dave and I never went to church and agreed that religion seemed like an excuse for people to boss other people around, I was surprised. Even more shocking was that he insisted on a full nuptial mass, the Roman Catholic equivalent of the director’s cut. I shuddered at the thought of my friends traveling from far and near to sit, stand and kneel for over two hours.
“What about my gay friends?” I asked.
“We’ll invite them!” Dave said cheerily. I conjectured that Dave’s insistence was based on pleasing our mothers. Both of our mothers were devout Catholics, attended Catholic schools and considered being nuns in their younger years.
Since marriage is about compromise, I relented, but on the condition that I could take control of the reception that would include a Cajun band, a fish fry and a carrot wedding cake.
Now, I am sure my Catholic readers are shaking their heads in dismay and you’re right. I am a terrible Catholic. I can’t help it. For someone like me, who has the attention span of a tired toddler, I find church painfully boring and always have. Listening to a monotone priest with a lisp rattle on about how I am going to burn in hell is pure torture. If I were Pope, (which obviously I couldn’t be), I would require mandatory story telling classes, acting classes and diction classes for all my priests. I would have them work with playwrights to perfect their homilies and teach them how to smile and spice up the communion. I am sure attendance would increase.
In order for Dave and I to qualify to be married in a Catholic Church, we had to attend “Pre-Cana” classes. By the time Dave realized this, we were too late to register for classes in Manhattan and had no choice but to attend a weekend retreat upstate.
“I’d rather gouge my eyes out,” I told Dave.
“Like St Lucy,” he mused.
“You’re not funny,” I pouted
“It’ll be fun.” He said pulling me to his broad chest.
“Only if I get to pick our song, make the seating arrangements and choose our honeymoon
“Deal.” He agreed.
On a humid Friday in August 1996, Dave and I drove up to Croton-on-Hudson for our Pre Cana retreat. We were singing loud to U2 with the windows down when Dave suddenly got serious.
“What?” I asked.
“I really need you to be on your best behavior this weekend.”
“I always am!” I said unconvincingly.
I am irreverent, inappropriate, and impudent and a lot of other “I” words.
I can’t help it.
I was born that way. My mother loves to tell the story of how she dressed me up for Easter and took me to St Patrick’s in Manhattan when I was three years old. Somehow I had managed to crawl under all of the pews and make my way to the front where I stood directly under the pulpit, facing the congregation and imitated the priest. My mother only realized when she heard everyone laughing.
“I’ll try to be good,” I said. “But seriously, since when did you get so churchy?”
“I’m not. I just…” he stopped pressing his lips together, his thick eyebrows furrowing. “I feel really lucky and I just feel like God has something to do with it.”
“Well that’s cool,” I said. “I think that too.”
“I keep Psalm 23 in my firehouse locker because I just..It makes me feel like he’s with me.”
“I don’t think I know it.”
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”
“I do know that one. It’s beautiful. It’s like he is responsible for your happiness.”
In the late afternoon, we pulled into a circular driveway where a large cinderblock building sat on a bucolic hillside. The sun cast long shadows on the lawn where a few people mingled.
“Oh God,” I couldn’t help say.
“Exactly,” Dave said, leaning in for a kiss.
The lobby was large and pale yellow with an inordinate amount of bulletin boards and a statue of Mary in the corner. A giant desk dominated the entrance where a woman sat, her blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.
“Welcome! Welcome!” she said. She smiled, revealing crooked teeth that stood in stark contrast to her smooth white skin and blue eyes.
“My name’s Jill and I’m one half of your host couple,” she said handing us red folders with crosses on them. From a side room, a man entered. He was tan, with thick blonde curls that made him look like a 70’s porn star. I erased the thought from my head and squeezed Dave’s hand. “…And this is my husband Dan. My other half.” Dan smiled and reached across to shake Dave’s hand. His teeth were equally bad making me wonder if perhaps there was a lack of dentistry in town. I just as quickly felt guilty for thinking negative thoughts about a couple that seemed perfectly nice and volunteered to teach us how to be married.
“Let me show you where our dormitory is,” Jill said gesturing for me to follow her to the back of the lobby. I turned back to see Dave being led a different way.
“Did you guys have a long drive?” she asked, her sandals echoing as they flapped in the cold stairwell.
“Brooklyn,” I said as she opened a door to a long hallway that led to a large, square room lined with two rows of cots. Minus the giant portrait of Cardinal O’Connor on the wall, the room looked exactly like a room “Madeleine” would sleep in. “In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.”
“Well that’s not too long of a drive.” Jill said cheerily. “This’ll be your cot.” She said gesturing to a bed in the middle covered in an itchy woolen blanket. Noticing my expression she continued. “I know it’s hard to be separated from your fiancé but I’m sure you know the Catholic Church deems premarital sex as a sin.”
My thoughts were like pinballs of all the retorts I could make, of the sarcastic responses, the snide comments, but I simply said “I did hear that once.”
After dinner, about eight couples sat in a room where an affable looking priest with a red face and easy smile introduced himself as Father John. He told us he would be leading the exercises over the weekend and that Jill and Dan were his assistants, “The “example couple” he said smiling at the two dentally challenged blondes. “With a lot of love and a lot of talent,” he continued as Jill took out a guitar and positioned it on her lap.
“Oh no…” I whispered and Dave bit his lip to keep from smiling.
Jill tilted her head and started singing.
“Jesus died for everyone
Jesus didn’t die because it was fun.”
Now I was the one biting my lip hard to keep from laughing. I have always struggled to stifle giggles in churches, schools, concerts, and funeral homes. It is a curse and as Jill sang her heart out, staring at me, I squirmed and used my technique of thinking of something sad so as not to laugh. Dave squeezed my hand hard and I saw his shoulders bouncing and was shocked that he too struggling to keep from laughing.
“Think of something sad,” I whispered as I closed my eyes and imagined my sister was gone forever.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. An overweight librarian from New Jersey was snoring loudly and the Buddhist from the Upper West Side in the corner kept rolling over, making her cot squeak. The room was dark, but when my eyes finally adjusted I could feel Cardinal O’Connor staring at me, judging me, feeling superior.
The following morning the eight couples gathered on the lawn in front of the center. It was a hot day and we clustered in the shade of a sycamore fig tree whose finger like roots stretched across the lawn. Father John led writing exercises, “the thing I love about my partner is….”
That was easy. Dave doodled next to each of his answers.
a) Her humor
b) Her beauty
c) Her smile
“If your partner found out they were pregnant you would…”
I wrote, “…Say DAVE! Congratulations! You are a special because you are the first man to have a baby! Yes! That’s a whole new twist on the Immaculate Conception and I for one, am very excited! I don’t have to fear childbirth, I can decide what we watch on TV, make a better salary and even become president! Who Hoooo!
As Dave read my entry he chuckled, his dimples flaring. Father John passed “Laughter is an important part of marriage,” he said smiling at us.
“We do a lot of that,” Dave assured him.
“What Saint is that?” Father John asked pointing to the silver necklace Dave wore.
“St Florian,” Dave fingered the medallion with his thick fingers.
“Patron Saint of Firefighters,” the priest said. “God bless you,” he said continuing on.
I slept well that night. The woman from New Jersey had gone home. It turned out she didn’t know her fiancé as well as she had thought and they decided they needed more time before committing to marriage. In the dormitory, as she packed her bag, her eyes red from crying she said, “There were only two things on the list of things he loved about me.”
The following morning after breakfast, we reconvened in the meeting room where Father John played a video about Family Planning.
“NFP” the voice over said, as a couple walked hand and hand down an empty beach. “Now that you have made your marriage vows, you can engage in Natural Family Planning.”
“Oh God,” I whispered rolling my eyes. Dave stared ahead as a woman appeared squinting at an empty calendar. “A woman’s menstrual cycle is anywhere from 26 to 32 days long” the voice over said. The woman on the television circled a day on the calendar. “Circle the day of your period as day 1, then mark the same day of the week, one week later, as Day 8 and circle it. Count forward to Day 19 and circle it. For these twelve days (days 8 through 19), abstain from all sexual intercourse, if you wish to avoid conception.”
“12 days of the month?” Dave whispered.
“NFP. It stands for no freakin’ pussy for two weeks of every month,” I whispered back.
“Think sad things. Think sad things.” Dave said trying not to laugh.
On September 11th, 1993 on a crystal blue-sky day, Dave and I were married at St Peters church on Staten Island. My Jewish father walked me down the aisle and kissed me on the cheek as he gave me away.
“You’re standing on my train,” I whispered to my dad.
“What?” he asked wondering why I wasn’t moving.
“You’re standing on my train,” I whispered louder.
“Get off her dress,” my sister said from the altar.
The priest spoke eloquently reading Psalms Dave carefully chose including his favorite, 23. My father recited a poem and my friend sang a Roberta Flack song while my sister played the flute. “And I knew our joy would fill the earth and last till the end of time, my love”
When Dave died exactly eight years later, there was a lot of talk of God. I was in churches every day for funerals and I thought often of our Pre-Cana weekend, how I learned that Dave’s favorite bird was a hawk, that he wanted to visit every National Park in the country, that he wanted three kids, two years apart.
I held a Memorial for Dave on his birthday in the same church where we had our son baptized four years earlier. Father Bartley presided over the mass. He was a family friend and shared Dave’s Birthday. The service was long, beautiful and profound. My dad read a poem, the same friend from our wedding sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and Dave’s mom read Psalm 23:
“….Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”