The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 4: THE COUPLES
Kate: The redheaded one, fiery, stubborn, as smart as you are independent. No Cathy you, but a Kate to do a Shakespeare or a Hepburn proud.
Claire: Not a soupcon of Gallic blood in you and yet somehow you possess an indisputably French sense of style. Beyond that, you have a Frenchwoman’s blithe openness—things are so claire in your mind, if not always in your world.
Helen: A noble name for the warrior beauty that you were from the start, the girl who was hanging upside down on the jungle gym practically before you could walk, the ferocious sweeper whose soccer coach nicknamed you “The Helenator.” But I think we were even closer to the mark in your middle name, Louise, after your Grandmother Kunkel, whom you are all over again. Beyond the physical resemblance, like Grandma you feel very deeply about things, you are feisty, you have no halfway emotions.
And Grace: Just so—serene, sweet, so giving of others. Such a blessing when we least expected it.
Four children, four girls. And all four of you, through happy accident or brilliant parental intuition, well and truly named.
When you think about it, a person’s name is so important that it’s a shame we parents bestow it so quickly and at times so cavalierly. Society would probably be better off if parents just gave newborns bar codes or something until we get at least a clue about their personalities. Instead, we hang a label on them and then they have to go out into a judgmental world and live up to it or live it down.
Not all that long ago, of course, when couples were expecting, they had to come up with two names—one of each flavor. You didn’t know what you had until the kid popped out in the delivery room and you could check the parts list.
No more. By about halfway through the pregnancy it’s now commonplace for parents to know if they’re having a girl or boy. I well remember the afternoon Deb and I were first confronted with this brave new obstetric world. We were living in Miami at the time. Deb had undergone her first ultrasound, and the doctor was looking over the image to check that everything was progressing as planned. Then she turned to us and asked rather matter-of-factly, “Would you like to know if it’s a boy or girl?”
Deb was still lying there on the table, glistening belly up, with me standing next to her. We exchanged a startled look, utterly unprepared for the question. We demurred, said we’d talk about it, which for a few moments we did. And ultimately we decided we didn’t want to know. Tempting as that was, we preferred to be surprised upon delivery—just like the mommies and daddies in the movies.
And so it was a few months later that we were delighted when a healthy baby girl emerged: Welcome to the world, Katherine Rose. I want to tell you, when those wonderful, baby-doting, red-hair-loving Cuban nurses got one look at your coppery peach fuzz, it set off a stir in the maternity ward as if Lucille Ball herself had strolled through. You were definitely a redheaded Kate from the start.
Just a year and a half later we were going through the same drill, same city, same doctor. She performed the ultrasound and again asked if we wanted to know the baby’s sex. This time we adopted a more blasé attitude. We said, sure, tell us. “It’s a girl!” she said. I don’t even recall if we were ready to name you yet, but soon enough we had decided that you would be Claire Alise. Not for any real reason except that we just liked the names—and finding names that work with the inelegant-sounding “Kunkel” is not easy, let me tell you.
By our third go-around, we had recently moved to Columbus, Georgia, where Knight-Ridder, in a weak moment, had given me the opportunity to run its newspaper there. The doctor asked if we wanted to know the baby’s sex. We thought it would be nice to be surprised again, and when you were born we were—with another girl: Helen Louise, who was in such a hurry that Deb barely made it to the delivery room.
For our fourth, we were in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was editor and publisher of a monthly magazine. This time when Deb underwent the sonogram and the doctor asked us if we wanted to know, we said in unison, “We know!” We didn’t need high-tech imagery to tell us what by then was perfectly obvious: We produce girls! We had long since stopped consulting the male side of the names book.
Grace Regina was six weeks premature, and Deb had to stay in bed and take special drugs to hold her off that long. But when Grace decided it was time for her debut anyway, those same “stalling” drugs made it a kind of slow-motion labor. We watched the clock for what seemed an eternity until it slid past the midnight hour…and into Valentine’s Day, which we took to be a happy omen despite the baby’s early arrival. At not quite five pounds, Grace seemed tiny to her worried parents, but she dwarfed the other preemies in that ward, some of whom would have nestled comfortably in my hand. One week later she was home, and the band was complete.
A little more fatherly rumination, if I’m permitted, on the brides-to-be, and a few thoughts too about their young men. (For those of you who may be concerned that Grace is being ignored in all this folderol, not to worry. I will circle back to the “maid of honor cubed” next time.)
Katie is what Scarlett O’Hara would have been if she had been born in 1983 instead of 1845. Smart, shrewd, stubborn, goal-driven—a combination of qualities that produced a young woman who sees hurdles as challenges, not barriers. Like Miss Scarlett, Katie is pure focus when she wants to be and pure fiddle-dee-dee when she doesn’t. (After 12 years in the same neighborhood, I’m still not entirely sure Katie knows the way to the nearest multiplex, since she usually isn’t driving and therefore pays no attention. She would worry about that, well, tomorrow.)
She has a quick smile and a great laugh, both of which she lavishes on her many friends. She is caring and passionate.
I used to tell Katie when she was small that she was destined to be a lawyer, in that she had an intellectually combative nature—she could see all sides of an issue and argue any one of them for sport. For years she reflexively scoffed at the very idea of becoming an attorney. Then one day in her junior year of college at Maryland, where she was pursuing a double major in psychology and criminology, she rather sheepishly answered one of my period queries about what she might be intending with her life. Well, she said, I’m sort of thinking about …law school.
She chose George Mason because she was intrigued by its economics focus, but also because, politically, it was more conservative than she was by nature and she relished the challenge of that. A less attractive challenge posed by GMU, situated in suburban Virginia, is that you basically can’t get there from suburban Maryland. Her daily commute was a veritable trains, planes (okay, buses) and automobiles ordeal. But she prevailed the same way she always has, via sheer persistence.
The final challenge of going to law school in Virginia is that it doesn’t especially prepare one for Maryland’s Bar exam. So Katie had to spend several more months cramming for the test. That seeming Noreaster you may have felt in early November was actually a wave of relief spreading from Washington to De Pere when she learned she had passed.
One last observation about Katie. For a young lady who’d spent her teen dating career treating young men as the annoying amusements they tend to be, it’s been amazing to watch her go head-over-heels this past two years over Nick. But they do make a compelling couple. He is a generous and funny young man. He is analytical. And he is every bit as determined as she is, maybe more so—though where her passion is hot, his is cool. They know this because they debate issues endlessly, as only idealistic and energetic twentysomethings can. As mentioned earlier, Nick already is thinking seriously about public service, and perhaps politics. Such an outcome wouldn’t surprise me a bit, and in fact we will all be rather better off if he walks that path.
Now to Claire. She is our worrier. People have always relied on Claire because they know she has a highly developed sense of responsibility and order. But by the time she’d reached the upper levels of high school, sometimes other kids could push that reliance to the point of taking advantage. As Claire began to realize what was what, she figured out how to stand up for herself. The result is a young woman who has retained her strong maternal sense but can’t be pushed around—not a bad combination for a high school teacher, come to think of it.
One of the things about Claire I’m proudest of is that as a girl she was quite shy and then had to operate in the shadow of her older sister, whose excellent grades and outgoing personality made her a favorite of teachers and peers. But Claire worked hard to establish her own personality, and her self-constructed sense of confidence made her a favorite of others, too. For instance, though not especially venturesome as a child, she was the first of our girls to travel abroad on her own. She also quite determinedly learned strong study habits and thus made herself an excellent student.
Along the way she became a setter of goals. Lots of people—even dads—set goals, of course, but Claire actually goes about meeting them. She decided a decade ago that she was going to be a teacher, and that is precisely what she set out to do, and that is what she did. With an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree in education, “Ms. Kunkel” (as her kids call her) is now in her third year as a high school teacher in Montgomery County’s renowned school system.
And there’s no stopping her, because as she knows better than anyone, if you can command a room of high school juniors, you can do anything. That includes buying your own home when you’re just 24, which Claire did earlier this year. It was a huge declaration of independence, but she was ready. More to the point, she knew she was ready.
Claire and Sam also represent a fine match, albeit one they themselves will tell you sometimes sets off sparks. Over the years Claire developed the habit of surfacing whatever issue happens to be bothering her at the moment. Sam, meanwhile, having grown up back in Indiana, is much more like me, which is to say he has that deep Germanic quality of holding in concerns and irritations and just letting them brew. This dichotomy means they’ve knocked heads from time to time, but in point of fact it’s also been good for them; they are learning from one another—to be more open, yes, but to reciprocate with more patience.
As a college student Sam lost his father to a heart attack no one saw coming. He thus literally became the man of the family, and he is devoted to his mother and younger sister. Life has lent him a real strength, tempered by a sweet vulnerability. He is maybe the most earnest person I know, in the very best sense. Indeed, Sam’s current work—helping researchers and doctors figure out the underlying causes of emotional and mental illness—is an extension of his genuine desire to help people. That too is a quality he and Claire have in common, albeit one they are pursuing in different professions.
Then there is Helen. Such a wonderful paradox: Easily the most physically strong and athletic of the girls but also easily the most sensitive. For instance, her soccer tackles, while always clean (they were, weren’t they, Helen?), could be as violent as the slides you see in the World Cup competition. Yet her emotions work on a near hair-trigger.
We could see all this coming from the beginning. Katie and Claire had given Deb and me little direct appreciation of the “terrible two’s.” Then Helen came along and made up for all three of them at once—so headstrong, so contrary, so creative in her defiance. (For a while we thought her face might just permanently freeze scrunched up like Popeye’s.) She was the only one of the four who ever pulled over a Christmas tree, the only one we had to call Poison Control about—and not once but three times! I don’t know which was a larger miracle, that Helen survived those early years or that we did. But when she did emerge, she had retained the stubbornness but acquired a charm that Deb and I took to be our reward for sticking with her.
What caught us off guard, though, was the artistic ability. One morning, when Helen was perhaps in her sophomore year in high school, one of the girls walked into our bedroom and casually showed Deb and me a remarkable pencil sketch. It was a collective portrait of all four of the girls, each at the age of three or four. Each of the renderings was spot-on accurate. But where on earth had this come from? “Helen did it,” Grace said.
Her high school art teacher confirmed for us that Helen was in fact precociously talented. In no time we came to see that in addition to her sketching ability, Helen was an excellent painter who had unusually sophisticated notions of theme and composition. When it came time for college, Helen seriously considered attending the respected Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, to which she’d been accepted. But she was keen about architecture too, and that was the major she chose in going to the University of Maryland instead. And while she enjoyed that study, it only validated her original passion for art. So in the end she made that her major, with a specialization in graphic design.
As the most creative and sensitive one of the brides, it was hardly surprising that Helen had been planning a more elaborate wedding than her sisters before they decided on the “triple.” As such, they are absolutely delighted to let her be the chief planner for the brides’ team, and she is in almost daily contact with her collaborator back here in Wisconsin, her mother.
When Helen was a junior in high school, she happened to stumble across a television program that documented the little human dramas that play out every day at Baltimore’s airport. This particular episode featured a handsome, slender young man from Southern California who was leaving home for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The show also featured his mother, who was making the emotional trip across country with him. Helen remembers being moved by their obvious love for one another, as well as the young man’s mature sense of commitment to duty and country.
Fast-forward six months or so. Helen is visiting her friend Kat, whose brother was also a plebe, who introduced her to a classmate…whom Helen found strangely familiar though she had never met him. Then suddenly it dawned on her: this Mike Lindsey was the same young man she’d seen on television! Within days she had invited Mike to her spring prom, and they never looked back. Helen would come to appreciate that in addition to her initial instincts about Mike’s sensitivity and maturity, he is also highly intelligent, polite and funny. (Not to mention an excellent golfer who routinely outdrives his future father-in-law by about 75 yards.)
The past year has been difficult for the two of them, as Mike has undertaken flight training in Texas and Florida (he will specialize in piloting helicopters) while Helen finishes her education at Maryland. The lengthy separations doubtless have prepared them both for the uniquely challenging life of a Navy couple. That doesn’t make them any easier to endure.
But enough from me about the kids. What do they say about one another? I asked each of the couples this question: What makes your fiancé “the one”? Here’s what they had to say.
Mike on Helen:
“Helen is the one for me because she makes me laugh more than anyone, she loves me for me, and from the very beginning she understood what was in store for us with the whole military lifestyle and expressed to me very clearly that she was in this relationship for the long haul.
“Not very many 18- or 19-year-old girls have that same conviction as Helen had, and I found that very special. She is my best friend and I knew she was the one for me very early in our relationship.”
Helen on Mike:
“He is my superhero. He never fails to step up and help me.
“He’s got the best smile. I mean, he was Mr. Santa Barbara when he was a baby (I believe that’s the correct title although he may not want that in the blog!). Also, it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter how mad I am at him, if he smiles I smile right back.
“He says I am everything to him and doesn’t hesitate to show it. He makes me laugh all the time. He's a gentleman who still opens doors for me and lets me wear his hooded sweatshirt when it’s cold and pouring outside and I don’t have an umbrella.
“He is my best friend. He understands me and I can talk to him about anything.”
Sam on Claire:
“For me, Claire has always been my center, a rock, a steady presence in my life. I met her when life was not going so great for me. My dad had just passed, graduation was coming up and I did not know 100 percent what I was going to do. I was feeling not completely whole. She has just always been there, never letting me go for a second. There has always been a call, a text, an e-mail, or in a couple cases a surprise visit from her while I was still at college.
“What I love and respect about Claire the most is that she is completely honest, up-front—confrontational when need be—and will always give her heart out to what she believes in. She is a chance-taker, a calculated risk-taker, and plain and simple, she’s willing to let go and let God. We have had our ups and downs, and our share of disagreements and not playing nice. No matter what, I will and want to always be with her and love her at the end of every day. Like I said, she is my center, my home.”
Claire on Sam:
“Sam rocks because he embodies all I love about the Midwest—people who really care and will help out with anything. He is such a great friend, willing to go on any trip I dream up, and even take the dog along for the ride. He keeps me active and happy, always wanting to try new restaurants and go out with friends. I love that he treats my sisters well, because they are very important to me and I could never marry someone who did not get along with them.
“I know Sam will be a great husband and will always stand beside me. Things started out tough but we have been through so much already, with a hectic long-distance relationship, we both feel blessed to see our dreams come true!”
Nick on Katie:
“I’m not sure how to explain the simultaneous feeling of excitement and rest that I get upon returning from school or work and seeing Katie.
“In any event, I love Katie because she’s got an old soul. She likes how Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin can take you back to a simpler time. I love that although she’s a strong-willed and independent woman, she still likes to be swept off her feet.
“She’s a passionate debater, blessed with an inherent ability to see through the clutter and get to the heart of an issue quickly. Whether it’s health care, financial systems or trade regulation, nothing’s too complex for her. I’ve never seen it before. In short, I love Katie because knowledge excites her.
“People—friends and strangers alike—gravitate toward her, and it’s obvious why. She’s warmhearted and welcoming, but also filled with energy and life. But for all those aforementioned attributes—for all of her beauty, her style, her zest for life—there’s one thing I keep coming back to: she’s my best friend, the person with whom I want to share everything. I think that, together, we’re better people. Life’s not just more exciting with her, it’s also more meaningful.”
Katie on Nick:
“I had a crush on Nick from the first time I met him in college. I didn't think he returned my feelings. It didn’t even matter to me because we became such close friends. We were two peas in a pod. He is silly, funny, loving and sensitive. He has always been passionate about me. After I broke up with an ex-boyfriend freshman year, Nick wrote me a song to make me feel better. It was called the ‘Katie Kunkel Sizzong.’ He played it on his guitar and sang it in his John Mayer voice that I hate. He sang that ‘to know me is to love me.’ It was so sweet. We found that song about a year ago and had a good laugh.
“Nick loves to learn new things as much as I do. Even if we agreed on 99 percent of topics, we'd still find an area where we disagree and debate it until we are both exhausted. I can tell that I’m the most important thing to him just like he is to me. I’m really excited to marry my best friend.”
NEXT: The “Mother of All Maids of Honor.”Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.