In 1971 when we got married, a wedding was not the big deal it is today. As I remember, weddings back then involved reading a meaningful passage from The Prophet by poet Kahlil Gibran, standing barefoot together in a wooded glade, and wearing a wreath of wildflowers on one’s head. Yes, some couples had elaborate church weddings and took over ballrooms of fine hotels, but that was not done in our crowd. We followed what might have been called “Hippie Wedding Manual 101.”
Looking back on how little time I spent thinking about my wedding to Michael is rather shocking. Honestly, I just spent a month researching the best dishwashers at Home Depot but didn’t give the wedding anywhere near that much effort.
We planned to get married at my parents’ apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was free and familiar. Other than setting a date (October 25) and taking a New York City-mandated blood test to make sure neither of us was crawling with syphilis, we pretty much just turned the whole affair over to my mother.
To say my mother was creative, fanciful, or eccentric does not really do justice to her sense of style. Like a bower bird on LSD, she chose a sparkling this and a shiny that to decorate her high-rise nest. The spacious apartment with its sweeping views of the Central Park reservoir was liberally covered with my mother’s favorite medium of expression: ConTact Paper. There was hardly a piece of furniture that was not enhanced by a hodgepodge of shiny herringbone or Op Art plastic shelf paper. As an objet d’art, there was a small working cannon in the foyer and some hideous Giacometti-like statues she found in outdoor sale bins on Canal Street.
The simple fact that I said to my mother, “Just do what you want to do” was a spectacular leap of faith, opening a floodgate of wedding weirdness.
Let me start with the Here Comes The Bride wedding march. My mother assigned that to my grumpy 12-year-old cousin, Wendy, to blast away on her marching-band tuba: instrumental flatulence.
It was autumn, so decor was a no-brainer.
My mother’s favorite florist was a discount guy in a crappy storefront on the Upper West Side, a rather scary neighborhood before gentrification. The florist was Puerto Rican and did not speak a word of English; and my mother knew no Spanish. As visual aids she brought in magazine pictures of Halloween witches on straw broom sticks and scarecrows in flannel shirts.
My wedding bouquet was made entirely of basketball-size orange chrysanthemums fixed to what resembled a witch’s straw broom, it looked like if I changed my mind in the middle of the ceremony I could turn the guests into black cats and fly off to the dark side of the moon.
Michael did not fare better. His outsize lapel boutonniere looked like an old whisk broom with another outsize orange mum stuck in it. It was so heavy it pulled his jacket lapel down to his waist.
For the ceremony itself, we had a rent-a-rabbi who got our names wrong, railed on about the casualties of the Vietnam war, and spent the whole time sneaking peeks at his wrist watch.
Michael had planned to wear a trendy outfit, having hired a hippie tailor in New Haven to make him a pair of rust colored suede pants with silver conchos on the side. Sadly, the tailor skipped town three days before the wedding with the yardage of suede and our money. My mother sprung into action and rented a last-minute tux for Michael over the phone. Michael was six foot two and slim, but the tux my mother got was cut for a Barnum and Bailey stilt walker. The legs swooped to the ground, the sleeves covered Michael’s hands. He looked like an eight-foot giant who had shrunk but still owned only one suit: a shiny tuxedo.
I did not have such problems. I bought a cheap Mexican Wedding dress in an ethnic boutique on Lexington Avenue … which at least my mother did not try to cover with ConTact paper, chrysanthemums, or sheaves of wheat.
The best part of the wedding was the food. My mother had a housekeeper named Maggie, who took care of me and the East Side apartment, and another housekeeper named Millie who cleaned my stepfather’s West Side dental office. Both Maggie and Millie were African-American ladies from the pre-integrated Deep South, but they were as different as chalk and cheese. Maggie was a dedicated church woman and pillar of her Harlem community. Millie walked the other side of the street. She was the spitting image of “Lady Day” and her life was the living blues.
Maggie and Millie despised each other. The upside is that even by today’s standards they were the two best cooks I have ever known. They could have taught Edna Lewis a trick or two. Like a royal dual to the death they used our wedding as a long simmering culinary grudge match. Michael and I may have had droopy wedding clothes and held flowered whisk brooms, but no wedding has ever had better food.
Tables groaned with Coca Cola-basted hams. Pots of gumbo simmered; jambalaya perfumed the air; cornbread as smooth as velvet was slathered with honey butter. A huge steamship side of rare roast beef sided with horseradish sauce stood next to chafing dishes of shrimp and grits. The dishes were endless, each one upped the ante on the other. Maggie was unofficially declared the winner because at the end of the wedding Millie was passed out dead drunk on a pile of guests’ mink coats on my mother’s bed.
The only thing not made by these two culinary geniuses was a Mocha buttercream and apricot jam wedding cake from the local Hungarian bakery. My mother was intent on having the traditional wedding photo of the bride and groom cutting the cake. The problem was my mother could not locate the groom. He was outside in the hallway smoking a joint.
So to maintain her internal timetable, she dispensed with the idea of Michael altogether and dragged me over to the festive three-tiered cake. With a ribbon-bedecked silver knife she clutched my hand, smiled for the camera, and together we cut a huge slice of cake.
“Congratulations,” said Michael, who had returned from the hallway with bloodshot eyes. “You just married your mother. That will be ten years on the shrink’s couch.”
A truer statement had never been uttered.