Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The truth is Michael didn’t really want to get married. He was opposed to institutions on general principles. Institutions became corrupt. Indeed. I always wanted to get married, ever since I was a kid. I was always a careful, monogamous person. I may have been living in the free love period but I was stingy with myself and cautious. I didn’t want to look back on my life with regret. Except for the requisite adolescent crushes, I only loved one other person before Michael. If he’d been ready to make a commitment to me, I’d have been his wife. But he wasn’t ready. By the time he was, I’d become Michael’s best friend and then his lover. There was no going back. But what to do about my intransigent anarchist? I finally recruited my father’s health as a weapon in my quest for marital bliss.
In early 1976, after I’d been living with Michael for 4 years, my dad had a heart attack. Subsequently he required 5 coronary bypasses. His father had died of heart disease when he was only 39. Aha. I told Michael that my dad’s anxieties and stresses would be eased by my marriage. Not to mention the fact that we’d probably get enough wedding money to buy him a real vehicle. He wanted something he could use to haul wood and big stuff for his many building projects. We’d been through a lot of beater vehicles.
One white Chevy Nova was so pathetic that when we got pulled over by a police officer for an “out” taillight, he looked inside and told us to drive home and never take the car on the street again. The car had no floor. Mostly it resembled a Flintstones vehicle, when stopping was accomplished by dragging your feet in the street. Our house was full of car parts soaking in smelly fluids as Michael did his best to keep us in wheels. So the plan was hatched. From the beginning we faced multiple problems. I wanted to marry Michael – his attendant family was another issue.
His parents were truly dreadful people. They were arrogant and snobby. They were too obtuse to tangle with me directly but they were rude when they met my parents who were clearly not in the same social stratum they occupied. I was verbally dangerous in those situations. But Michael and I figured they wouldn’t be near us often and hopefully they would be a negligible side issue. Ah, the wishful thinking of youth. The next problem was my father’s religious conservatism. Michael and I were both atheists.
My dad wanted us to have a traditional wedding. We spent weeks interviewing all kinds of rabbis but couldn’t find any who wouldn’t mention religion in their ceremony. Michael would step on the glass but that was about it. The tension was high. Finally we settled on being married by a Jewish judge. It took awhile for my dad to be assuaged by this hat tip to our heritage but my more liberal mother helped us. I think she was just glad for the two of us to make our relationship legal. We wanted to keep things simple. After finding an officiant, my dad got a venue through a friend of a friend.
We were going to be married at the Executive House on Wacker Drive in Chicago. The ceremony and dinner would take place in a reception room on a floor I can’t remember. But dad had gotten us the penthouse for our wedding preparations and the wedding night. We decided to limit the guests to family members and close family friends to keep the tab reasonable and make sure we got the cash for the vehicle. Our friends back at home had planned a major bash with all our peers that fit in with our more relaxed (read debauched) lifestyle – casual dress only. We relied on family to take photos, passed on live music for canned elevator background noise for the ceremony and the dinner and hoped for the best. Oh dear. Michael’s parents had planned a rehearsal dinner at their country club.
I had no clue what to wear and wound up with something like a sari which had bright colors. Michael had a crazy green sport coat and an incredibly garish tie. We were driving his barely suppressed, angry, jealous sister to the event. She was the older sibling and as Michael put it, his parents had spent so much time making her life miserable that by the time they turned their attention to him, he’d already mentally locked down and was just waiting to escape. As we drove to the club, Betsy was simmering away and exploding at every opportunity. I remember her screeching at Michael about his driving – we just kept quiet and hoped to lose her in the crowd. Michael’s few relatives and his parents’ friends were there, along with my family. What a bizarre and stilted event. The food was terrible, the kind you’d eat a rubber chicken event. Although my parents did their best to be sociable, the group was split into two camps. Only Michael’s sister, who decided to make my mother her favorite for the night, most especially to irritate her own mother, crossed from one end of the room to the other.
I was incredibly uncomfortable. I overheard Michael’s parents talking about my weight which at the time was perfectly normal. But they belonged to the never too thin, never too rich crowd and I was self-conscious. Nothing anyone said to comfort me helped. We were supposed to spend that night at their house but between his sister and their attitude, we bailed and stayed in an alarming and cheap hotel near my parents’ place which was crawling with my siblings and their kids. I was twenty four years old and grateful that Michael and I had a solid friendship to help us navigate the tension. He wanted to have his family but they drove him crazy and made him furious. The morning of the wedding we parted ways until it was time for the festivities. I went shopping with my sisters to pick out my mini-trousseau which consisted of an emerald green negligee with a matching robe. It seemed kind of absurd as Michael and I had been together so long. But it was pretty and felt like at least a bit of tradition.
I’d bought my wedding dress off the rack at a funky clothing store for $50.00. It was kind of Victorian, with a high collar, a deep neckline and a bodice that laced up the front. I didn’t wear a bra. I remember thinking how funny that was – we were getting married but I was still me. We all motored down to the hotel in late morning. We had the penthouse suite for the day and oh, what a penthouse it was.
We were in the Omar Bradley suite. There was a full length painting of Bradley in his general’s uniform and a cluster of flags, the US, Chicago and a bunch of others. A nice romantic militaristic touch. The suite had 2 spacious bedroom and 3 baths. Our balcony overlooked Wacker Drive and the Chicago River. We leaned over and watched all the workers marching in the May Day parade and wondered why we weren’t marching with them. Michael and I were each very nervous. I was able to think my way through it but Michael thought it best to get mellow by smoking a little reefer. He was mellow all right. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand through the ceremony. At about 4 o’clock, we went downstairs to do the deed.
My sister was my maid of honor and Michael’s best man was his dad. We’d written our own very modern, non-sexist and left wing vows. But Michael was so obliterated that he would just say whatever he could remember, most of which were my parts. After he’d stolen them, I tried to improvise as quickly as I could. The good news was that although annoyed, I began to have a little humor which relaxed me. We stumbled through the ceremony and then the judge, who had the personality of driftwood did his part. When he asked me, do you Renee I. Berger, etc., etc., it was so absurd I laughed out loud. And just like that it was over. Then it was time for a champagne toast and a little socializing before dinner.
Michael’s dragon lady grandmother was one of the most arrogant blue bloods I’d ever met. A dreadful woman. One time when Michael was vacationing in Florida he stopped by her home for a visit. She wouldn’t let him in her house because she didn’t like the length of his hair. Not too warm and fuzzy. I was standing with my father having a glass of champagne when she marched up to us. My dad said, “what a wonderful day this must be for you, living long enough to see your grandson married.” She replied that she was too young for such things and still had her own beaux to think about. Then she turned to me and said, “well, you might be all right but your family is a bunch of boors. Walking around with all those cameras.” Then she haughtily stalked off, leaving me pretty close to apoplectic. My dad told me to ignore her but I was too outraged. I put my glass down and went steaming through the crowd so I could find her and throw her out of the place. Michael had spied me from across the room and intercepted me. He begged me not to do anything at that point because he said it would kill his mother. I let him stop me but I was enraged.
When we sat down to eat I broke down in angry tears. I remember my mother saying, “tears of joy, tears of joy.” Right. My family rallied around me. And Michael’s father and godfather got the task of cornering his grandmother so she couldn’t say any more insulting things to anyone. Periodically my brother would stand in front of her and snap a few photos for fun. Eventually I pulled myself together.
Michael’s dad went up to my parents to apologize and told them that our dinner made theirs of the previous night look like garbage. That was true. My folks spared no expense and the meal was perfect. But it was a sour night. Everyone knew there’d be no melding of families. Our marriage would be one in which social distance and opposing values would make for challenging times for the rest of our life together. That night my sister and her future husband spent the night with us in our absurdly huge suite. After everyone disappeared, we had Uno’s Pizza brought in and we snacked and reoriented ourselves out of the conflictual parts of the day. We got back to ourselves. Unbeknownst to us my dad had ordered in breakfast for the next morning. I remember the looks on the room service guy’s face as he walked in and saw all the different pairs of shoes piled up at the door. He probably thought we’d had an orgy rather than a honeymoon night. My future brother-in-law took a picture of us on the chilly balcony before we left the hotel. We looked like we’d been through an ordeal but we were still together.
There was a brunch planned at Michael’s parents’ home but I refused to go. I called his mother and told her I never wanted to see her mother again. She apologized profusely, saying her mother had “always been that way.” I remember thinking that people who always were “that way” got to stay that way because no one ever called them out for their bad behavior. True to my word, I never saw her again. I went to my parents’ place while Michael drove home. He marched into their house and took his grandmother’s $200 check, threw it at her and told her to go home and buy herself some etiquette lessons. Then he turned on his heel and left to join me with my family. Life is so ironic. His grandmother came from old money and lots of it. But my immigrant grandmother, uneducated and illiterate, gave us the exact same amount of money as his grandmother. Mine didn’t write a check. She took it out of her freezer where it was wrapped in aluminum foil. My first brush with actual cold cash.
My uncle passed a kidney stone at my wedding. The little kids were all carted off by a babysitter, happily oblivious to the negative vibrations filling the room. My father let the bad stuff roll off of him while my mother wound up in one of her bouts of ulcerative colitis. I knew that Michael’s family would be a problem that wasn’t going away. But we were together and we were strong with each other. Our powerful bond withstood it all and lasted until the end of his life. And amazingly, beyond that. We got enough money to buy our new vehicle, the green Chevy Blazer. I learned how to drive stick shift in that big thing.
My dad lived on for another 13 years. He died too young, but was able to meet my two children who meant everything to him. When we came home, we had a rollicking wedding celebration that went down amongst our friends as one of the best parties ever. We were among the first of our friends to get married. The truth is, with all the bumps and challenges, I got to live my dream. And that is certainly more important than the weird wedding.