Years after this rocky start, we thought about having a renewal of vows to erase the memory of our unfortunate wedding. We never got around to doing it. In the end, I don’t think anything would have erased the memory anyway. The good news is that this messy event had no substantive effect on the quality of our relationship. And the bonus is that both of our kids had wonderful weddings which they can look back on with satisfaction. That helps.
The truth is Michael didn’t really want to get married. He was opposed to institutions on general principles. Institutions became corrupt. Indeed. But I’d wanted to get married my whole life, ever since I was a kid. I was always a careful, monogamous person. I may have been living in the free love era, but I was stingy with myself, and cautious. I didn’t want to look back on my personal life with regret. I was a witness to many relationships which had turned out badly, leaving deep scars in their wake. I didn’t intend to go that route. Except for the requisite adolescent crushes, I had only really 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 and that if he could feel I was settled, he’d feel more relaxed and might not suffer an early death. Too sweeten the deal, I mentioned the fact that we’d probably get enough wedding money to buy Michael a real vehicle, one that wasn’t a reclamation project. He wanted something he could use to haul wood and big stuff for his many building projects. And 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. Finally he acquiesced and the wedding plan was hatched. We’d get married on May Day in 1976. From the beginning we faced multiple problems. I wanted to marry Michael – the family that came along with him was another matter.
His parents were truly dreadful people. They were arrogant and snobby. Michael had a complicated view of them. He told me that he’d grown up feeling unseen. On the surface life seemed fine. But their family life was always about the surface. His parents spent no time learning who Michael was, but rather laid out their vision of his future, including their expectations for his career and his potential family life. In his twenties, Michael alternated between his desire to cultivate family intimacy and his outright hostility toward them, as he was perpetually annoyed by both their inability and lack of desire to truly know him. I approached them with trepidation. Although they attempted to be appropriate with me, I was instantly aware that I wasn’t the person they would’ve chosen for their son, at least the son they’d deluded themselves into believing they had. In our early years, they were initially too cagey to confront me with their judgmental arrogance, but they were rude when they met my parents, who were clearly not in the same social stratum they occupied. I could verbally dangerous in those situations. But as Michael and I planned our future, I restrained myself. We figured they wouldn’t be near us often and would hopefully be a relatively negligible side issue down the road. Ah, the wishful thinking of youth. We moved on to the next problem which was my father’s religious conservatism. Michael and I were both atheists. My dad was a traditionalist with a strong side of superstition.
He wanted us to have a religious ceremony. We spent weeks interviewing all kinds of rabbis but couldn’t find any who wouldn’t mention religion in as they performed their duties. Michael was fine with stepping on the glass, a custom at Jewish weddings, but that was about it. For awhile tensions were 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 the officiant, my dad secured 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 I do well remember that dad had gotten us the hotel penthouse for our wedding preparations and the wedding night. We decided to limit our 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 home had planned a major bash with all our peers that fit in with our more relaxed and slightly more 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 kind of like a brightly-colored sari. Michael had a crazy green plaid sport coat with an incredibly garish tie. We were tasked with 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 and the conversations were awkward. A palpable negative undercurrent was zipping through the room. 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 that time, was perfectly normal. But they belonged to the never- too-thin, never-too-rich crowd. I was far from both those things and incredibly 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 at the time, 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 all the tension. He struggled with wanting to have his family with him while the reality was that they drove him crazy and made him furious. The great moments in life do little to address underlying problems, generally exacerbating rifts rather than repairing them. But on we went. 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 lived together for four years. 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 dressed like myself than the typical bride. We all motored down to the hotel in late morning. We were finally able to explore that penthouse 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 along with a cluster of flags, the US, the Chicago one and a number of others. A nice romantic militaristic touch. The suite had 2 spacious bedrooms 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. But I couldn’t blame him for his anxiety. 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, egalitarian vows. But Michael was so obliterated that he just said whatever he could remember, most of which was my lines. After he’d stolen them, I tried to improvise as quickly as I could. The good news was that although I was a bit 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, middle initial and last name, etc., etc., he sounded so absurd that I laughed out loud. I felt like I was in traffic court. And then, just like that, the ceremony was over. Next was the 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 a very warm and fuzzy lady. 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 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 grudgingly let him stop me but I was enraged.
When we sat down to eat dinner, I broke down in angry tears. I remember my mother saying, “tears of joy, tears of joy.” Right. My family rallied around me. 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 recovered enough to get some pleasure out of our very peculiar nuptials.
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 during 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 for a late evening celebration. We were able to feel more normal, counteracting 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 look 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. A fitting end to the wedding weekend. My future brother-in-law took a picture of Michael and me on the chilly balcony before we left the hotel. We looked like we’d been through an ordeal but we were still together.
That Sunday morning 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 to his parents’ house. He marched into the brunch, took his grandmother’s $200 wedding gift 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 in attendance 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 from Chicago, we had a rollicking wedding celebration that was remembered amongst our friends as one of the best parties ever. We were among the first of our peers 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 and disappointing wedding.