06 December 2011

The Odds

I've had the song "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof stuck in my head for a week now. The local community theater is performing that show next spring...but moreso, perhaps one of the things that's driving this earworm is the realization that shrill Golde, skeptical Golde, is the same age as I am now. And her inability to assert her love for her 25-years husband, as touching as it may be, differs so profoundly from Pete's and my origin story—which has a Christmas moment as one of its highlights.

[This long and winding tale has pictures. Gather 'round.]

Peter and I bandied about the idea of getting married within two weeks of falling in love. Incredulously, sheepishly. At that juncture—freshman boy, senior girl—it was ludicrous, and we told no one of our wild notions. But by 1988, it wasn't outlandish anymore. We'd be living together in my apartment that fall, as a trial run. We were inseparable and still quite amused by each other...in fact, I doubt we had ever argued. And passionate, for certain...like crazed weasels. So with all of those factors in mind, we went to Peter's parents' summer home in Nova Scotia, during a gathering of extended family, and we announced out loud for the first time that we intended to get married.

The response was enthusiastic and warm; I can still hear the joyous peal of my mother-in-law's exuberant voice, and can still taste the fizz of the James Ready lager we toasted with. Much to my surprise, we immediately found ourselves discussing rings and dates and locations—topics Peter and I, not known for our pre-planning skills, had not been seriously considering. Our relaxing vacation thus morphed into a strategy session for an event we'd purely been imagining in terms of us.together.always. Calendars whipped out, family diamonds discussed...a dress?? a tux?! And of course, the elephant in that rustic, wooden-walled cabin: what religious denomination would be guiding this ceremony?

Well, no-brainer: we wanted our wedding to have a decidedly Quaker feel. This, despite the numerous Catholic weddings-of-friends I'd already attended, and despite my mother's probable distress at this prospect. I wondered if perhaps we could combine our traditions a little, to soften the blow...?

And herein, the fly landed in some unexpectedly gooey ointment. As relaxed and free-thinking as Quakers may appear to be, they are, in fact, governed by centuries of gently stated, deceptively simple rules. Which my mother-in-law Pat handed to us (and we still own), embodied in a slender, red-bound book called Faith and Practice. (Don't let that "slender" part fool you: they've cogitated on these things and forged them by consensus into softly brushed steel.) And what's more, Pat explained to us, as an elder of her meeting, she'd seen that combo-platter marriages didn't have a great track record. She advised that we stay within the straight-and-narrow channels of Quaker tradition. This meant:

1) the bride enters the meetinghouse alone, not with her father;
2) there is no music, none, zip, during the ceremony;
3) there is no ceremony to speak of, just an exchange of vows between the couple in the context of a silent meeting for worship; and
4) there is no officiant.

Oooooooookay. Deep breath. That's a steep shopping list to sell my mom, who would essentially be footing the bill for this departure-from-centuries-of-Catholic-family-marriages. "No music?" I squeaked.

Pat said (and would reiterate numerous times in the months to come) that the closer a couple stays within the proscribed traditions of the Germantown Monthly Meeting, the more likely the marriage is to succeed.


If you're Catholic, you know what pre-Cana is. My sweet young husband-candidate did not. As we reviewed the suddenly shocking strictures of the Religious Society of Friends, we began to reconsider: should we do this in the Catholic Church instead? But I knew in my heart that Peter would never survive the indoctrination protocol that Catholics require: the pre-Cana sessions wherein a couple had to prove themselves, basically, and learn all of the rules and regs of a successful Catholic homelife. And, like, swear to raise the kids Catholic, which was never our intention.

Good God. Whose idea was this marriage thing...?

In hindsight, I suppose we might have rebelled against Pat's somber pronouncements and crafted a marriage ceremony that incorporated poetry, our own vows, and "Horizons" by Genesis (the music I wanted to march down the aisle to, on my brother's arm). But I didn't want to launch this marriage oppositionally, and I mean, have you met Pat Reifsnyder?! So as 1988 went along, we settled on a Quaker pathway. The location would be our then-hometown of Brunswick, Maine, and the ceremony would be arranged under the care of Peter's parents' meeting of Germantown (PA) Friends.

Now, I said there'd be no officiant...true statement. But a Quaker wedding requires the couple to be interviewed by elders of the meeting—a married couple themselves, who assess the readiness of the intendeds, and render a judgement of "clearance" on the marriage-to-be. Back at Lake Annis, in the lamp-lit wooden cabin, Pat Reifsnyder assured us that this would not be arduous or obstructive like pre-Cana; it was just a one-off meeting, a formality.

And thus we come to Christmas 1988...my fourth consecutive holiday among the Reifsnyders in Philadelphia. I'd come to adore these rollicking gatherings, felt completely at home with everyone. Reifsnyder holidays were 100 times more joyous and 100 times less stressful than the events of my Queens childhood. I mean: no drinking, no arguing, no physical violence. Pretty sweet. From the very beginning, the Reifsnyder fabric wove me in. 

Christmas 1988 would be the perfect time for our Clearance meeting with the elders, it was decided. Our wedding plans were barreling along; an old, worn estate diamond glinted on my left hand, purchased with Peter's hard-earned pay as a grocery bagger. A date selected: the day after Pete's college graduation. (Yeah, I'd snag this morsel without delay, and ba-boom: adulthood.) Flush with holiday cheer, Pete and I drove over to the E---s' house: a couple he'd known for years. He'd babysat their children. I detected his comfort level with them immediately, and when the conversation started, I was as honest and talkative as I usually am.

The E---s were interested in my origins. So I told them my child-of-divorce story, my mean-stepfather-who-used-to-rule-the-roost story, my scholarship-kid-kicks-ass-and-gets-into-little-Ivy story. The little Ivy, Bowdoin College, being the point of intersection for me and the gangly Quaker boy over there.

Mr. E--- sort of hijacked the conversation at this point. "You know, sometimes people meet, and..." he crossed his index fingers into an X. "In the middle here, that's when they've met and found common ground, but you see, after some time they diverge again..." Blah blah blah "life experiences..." blah blah blah "challenges..."

My face pinched into puzzledness. What was the point, Mr. E---?

Well, I'll cinch it up for you: Peter Reifsnyder and Nessa Burns were deemed unready for marriage by the elders of the Germantown Friends Meeting. This meant, basically, that the wedding as we'd been planning it was off. "WHAAAAAT?!" Pat bellowed as she heard the news. Peter and I just gaped, wallowed, and mentally grappled. Instead of a triumphant train ride back to Queens, wherein I would tell Mom all about Reifsnyder Christmas #4 and update her on marriage preparations, my insides were leaden with a bewildered failure as I stared out the window. Every Christmas light I saw seemed fuzzy and dimmed. Worse, I truly felt as though I were no longer the person I'd thought I was. Not worthy. Not Peter's equal. 

But never mind what I felt. Patricia Reifsnyder was absolutely aflame with indignance. She believed that her youngest and his chosen ladylove were more than ready to be wedded. And so, she yanked strings at the Quaker meeting and had a new elder couple assigned to our case: Betty and Steve Cary. I had no idea who they were at the time, but let's just say they're like Quaker royalty (seriously, check out Steve's obit: http://www.haverford.edu/publicrelations/news/stephencary.html). I returned to Philly just before New Year's, still weighted and terrified that our plans were derailed for good.

There was one tiny bright spot in my pocket when I headed back south: a mixtape. And even better: a mystery mixtape. You see, one of the points of intersection on those crossed index fingers was Peter's and my mutual love of obscure, cheesy oldies. We used to make each other unlabeled mixtapes (ON CASSETTE, YES WE'RE OLD) and play them in the car, so that the recipient would have to guess each song as it played. Many a long car ride from Maine south flew past as we pondered the songs and plundered our trivia brains for answers.

The mystery mixtape I carried was our Christmas gift from a demi-god of obscure music, Bill Feis. One of my brother's best friends at the time, Bill had a collection of dusty, cranky vinyl that was unparalleled. Peter and I had only begun to collect vinyl ourselves, and we aspired to the kind of indiscriminate archives that Billy had assembled over in Staten Island. It was actually quite an honor to be given this tape; handed down, if you will, by a respected elder. Billy had followed the rules: the tape box was unlabeled, and stuffed inside was a scruffy piece of notebook paper on which he'd inscribed the cassette's musical contents. I had not even peeked at this--I held onto it so that Peter and I could compete on "name the song and artist" as we drove home (triumphantly) to Maine. 

Except we had a drive to make to Haverford, first...to meet the Carys. And so, as the car wended along twisty, wooded Pennsy Main Line roads, we slid Bill's tape into the deck to calm our nerves.

I can still put myself back in that car...the laughter, the disbelief, the bonding. There we were, thinking we had music-trivia stones...and reeling out on an endless brown ribbon of tape were obscurities we couldn't have named with a gun to our heads. "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" by Whistling Jack Smith. "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo" by Sophia Loren. "Ode to a Critter" by Roy Clark. "Shoot Me With Your Love" by Tasha Thomas! My God, this was hopeless. Neither of us was gonna win this trivia contest. Who owns this stuff?! By the time we arrived at the Carys', we were dizzy from hilarity.

Thus fortified, I took a breath as we entered that Quakerly home (Oriental rug, check; wallsandwalls of books, check; folk art, check) and, despite my every tendency, roped in my chattiness. Answered questions briefly and calmly. Adult Nessa wishes I'd been able to really hang with these noteworthy people and get to know them, but way too much was at stake.

We passed with flying colors. And by that, I mean, we passed the William Feis test of compatibility: the couple that adores ridiculous old music together, stays together. Oh, and the Carys must have sensed our concord too, because they cleared us for marriage. (And a rockin' New Year's 1989 celebration.)

Coda: Bill put a song on his tape called "White on White". Do you know it? Yeah, we didn't either. (Nor the artist: Danny Williams. Dang! how are we supposed to know that!) But its lyrics made it clear: in Billy's inimitable, twisted-hipster way, he was congratulating us on our nuptials-to-be:

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

Here she comes in her wedding gown lookin’ like a queen.
She has been my only love since she was thirteen.
I’ve been dreaming of this day and how proud I’d be,
When she came walkin’ down the aisle and held out her hand to me.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

I’ll be waiting to kiss the bride when her name is new.
Standing oh, so close to her silently saying “I do.”
I’ll be holding back my tears till she’s gone away,
‘cause she’ll belong to someone else when the organ starts to play.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is ge-e-etting ma-a-rried today...

The summer 1988 Reifsnyder family gathering at Lake Annis, NS.

My mother-in-law's inscription says it all.

Feis' relic of a playlist. You'd better believe we still own that tape.