The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 1: THE DREAM
The researchers and Freud tell us that all people dream, but I’m one of those folks who seldom remember their subconscious’ nocturnal handiwork.
About two years ago, however, I had a dream so vivid that it might as well have been on Reality TV in high-def, vivid enough that the next morning I recalled each little detail as if I were watching it again.
It began like a movie fade-in: Quite suddenly I found myself milling among a large, indoor crowd. I recognized the setting as the Memorial Chapel at University of Maryland-College Park, where I had worked for a decade and was then employed as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. A classically beautiful space, the chapel is a nondenominational building that can easily seat a thousand people or more. It was a sunny afternoon, judging from the light streaming into the high windows. The place was packed.
As I looked about, many in the crowd were young men, and most of them—dozens of them, or so it seemed—were wearing tuxedoes.
Then just as suddenly it dawned on me that there was an equally large number of attractive young women. They were not pretty in the casual, thrown-together way a woman might typically prepare for church. They were elegantly done up, hair styled and piled high, makeup right out of the beauty magazines. And they were wearing long, formal gowns.
Not just any gowns, but gowns a shade of peach that you don’t actually find in nature; you only find them at weddings. So the young ladies were bridesmaids—and I was apparently the world’s oldest wedding crasher! But whose wedding, I wondered?
I looked about for more peach gowns, but instead spotted some that looked to be similar in style to the others but in lavender. My dream-eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement.
Then more gowns, these a shade of sunny yellow. What the….
And finally, another set of gowns, these sort of lime-ish green, almost but not quite the shade of that shag rug we pulled out of the house we bought in Columbus, Georgia a quarter-century ago.
Yes, it was clear—there were four discrete teams of bridesmaids.
Which meant…four weddings? Who did I know who might have four couples getting married at one time?
The organ boomed the opening notes of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus (“Here comes the bride…..”). The members of the congregation, now all in place and neatly aligned in the pews, stood on cue and turned their attention to the back of the church, waiting for the bride(s?).
And here she came, a beautiful, fine-boned young woman with long red hair somewhere between copper and flame. If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought her Irish, but I did know better. In fact, I was stunned. The bride was Katie. And the somewhat proud but clearly dizzy-looking middle-aged man escorting her down the aisle was…me!
Before I could shake the cobwebs, the dream forwarded to my escorting of a second young woman down the same aisle, this one a trim brunette whose hair was cut in the style of the high school teacher she was studying to be: Claire.
Then a third, a brown-haired beauty with the athlete’s confident stride she has had since she started walking. This was Helen.
Then the final bride, beaming her infectious smile bracketed by dimples. This was our fourth and last child, Grace.
The four girls were now all gathered at the altar. I suppose their grooms were there, too, but with my focus on the girls I don’t even remember seeing the boys’ faces. I kissed my daughters, each one on the cheek, then stood back to join my wife, Deb. Meantime, bridesmaids and groomsmen flanked the couples in longer lines than I have seen anywhere this side of the DMV.
Then just as abruptly as it had begun the dream ended.
I woke up astonished and amused, and I couldn’t wait to share it with Deb. She heard me out, then snorted a laugh. You’d better tell the girls, she said.
Which I did, of course. And to a one, their reaction was identical—they were appalled. No other way to put it. In so many words, each one of them said to me, “If you think you’re going to get off that easy, you’re crazy.”
The first call came on a Saturday morning. It was July 18. Helen—our third daughter, age 21—was squealing into her cell phone. She was engaged! Her longtime boyfriend, Mike Lindsey—now Ensign Michael Lindsey of the United State Navy—had just popped the question to her during his family’s annual vacation near Lake Tahoe. Mike may be a tough naval officer, a helicopter pilot in training and aeronautic engineer, but he’s a romantic at heart. We’d had an idea of the elaborate scenario for the engagement, and he had pulled it off beautifully.
We knew that because photos proved it. All her life, when Helen has become overcome with emotion, she’s had the habit of holding her hands in front of her face and flipping them like little fans as if to lower the heat in her cheeks. The photographer caught her flipping away just after Mike had proposed to her. Needless to say, Mom and Dad were metaphorically flipping too. We had seen this moment coming almost from the time they began dating four years ago when Helen was near the end of her junior year in high school and Mike was in his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
A day or two later she told us that they were thinking about a wedding the following October in Wisconsin, where Deb and I moved in summer of 2008 when I became president of St. Norbert College, a highly regarded Catholic undergraduate institution located in De Pere, just south of Green Bay. The timing was about what we expected, as that would be a few months after Helen graduated from the University of Maryland.
The second call came exactly two weeks later. It was August 1, and Deb and I were on vacation at a little summer cabin we have near our hometown of Evansville, Indiana.
This one was from Claire, our second daughter, age 24. She was calling from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where she and her boyfriend, Sam Kaiser, had been hiking one of their favorite trails, accompanied as always by Claire’s devoted yellow Labrador, Chase. On a ledge at a particularly scenic part of the trail, Sam had asked her to marry him. Soon after, we were looking at the picture Sam took of Claire and Chase on that ledge, both looking very happy.
We’d always wondered if it wasn’t destined that Claire and Sam would wind up together. After all, it was a wedding that got them together in the first place. Several years ago Claire’s cousin, Michelle, was going to be married. Claire and Kate were back in Evansville for a visit when Michelle and her then-fiance, Matt, hosted their future bridal party for a night on the town. They asked the girls to join them, and that’s where Claire met Matt’s best man, his longtime friend Sam. They began dating immediately despite the fact that he was finishing school at Indiana University and she was pursuing her coursework in education at Maryland. Claire subsequently got her master’s degree and began teaching high school last year in the Montgomery County school system outside Washington, D.C.
Sam later moved to Maryland to be with Claire and work as a research assistant at a UM lab outside Baltimore that studies the physical and psychological causes of mental disorders. He’d gotten his degree in psychology at IU, and he is now figuring out whether he wants to apply to medical school or perhaps instead do graduate work in psychology. Either way it’s likely that he will continue to pursue his passion for helping the emotionally afflicted.
Claire and Sam told us their inclination was to get married in early July of 2010. This would be in Evansville, where Sam’s family is and where most of Claire’s extended family lives too. Since Deb and I were still in town, we even scouted out for them, then arranged to hold, a nice reception hall at the church they’d selected. So their planning already was on track.
The third call came just two days later—August 3. Deb and I were driving back to the vacation house after a bite of dinner. This time it was Katie. “I’m engaged!” Though I was driving I could hear the shriek through Deb’s phone. “I’m going to be Katie Stewart!”
Katie is our first, now 25. She had taken the Maryland Bar exam just days before, and after several brutal months of preparation she was more than ready for some sand and sunshine with Nick’s family on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Indeed, she had been grinding literally since her graduation from Maryland, going straight into law school at George Mason University, which she’d finished in May.
Like the other two boyfriends, Nick had a careful strategem. After the group had dinner, he took Katie for a walk that wound up above a particularly lovely cove. As the sun disappeared into the horizon, he went to one knee and proposed. Katie said it was as romantic as she’d ever hoped that moment would be. And she didn’t know it at the time, but Nick had arranged for his sister—who does some wedding photography on the side—to secretly follow them so she could capture the big moment.
Nick was in Katie’s class at the University of Maryland, and he’d just finished his second year of law school at George Washington University. (He’d spent the year after his graduation working as a speechwriter for Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley.) Katie and Nick had been friends as undergrads but only started dating about a year and a half ago.
Their initial impulse, they told us, was to have a small “destination” wedding at some exotic beachfront. But that was about as far as they’d gone with the details. Katie has always been a bit like Scarlett O’Hara—you know: I’ll worry about that tomorrow—and Nick is nose-down on his law studies. But they were pretty certain of the timing—August 2010, because that would be right after Nick would be taking the Bar exam himself.
So there it was: Three engagements in less than three weeks. Deb and I had had a strong sense that betrothals were in the offing, but it was only around late spring that it began to look like they might actually go bang-bang-bang in such quick succession.
We were thrilled, of course. All three of the young men are thoughtful, respectful, intelligent and compassionate people who happen to have what dads still like to refer to as “good prospects.” Too, all have committed their lives, in one way or another, to helping make the world a better place. Mostly, they love the girls and the girls love them. In our view—a subjective view, to be sure, but I believe an accurate one—all six have “picked” very well.
Three engagements, then, and now three weddings in one summer—and in three different locations, one of which we didn’t even know yet! The mind reeled….
After our week in Indiana, Deb and I drove to Maryland to visit with the girls for a few days and tend to some routine maintenance on the house we’d lived in there, and which we still owned. With the ’08 housing crash there hadn’t been much point in selling the house when we left for Wisconsin, and besides, Katie was still living there to save some money while finishing up law school.
It had been a long day of driving, more than 700 miles, exacerbated by the fact that someone decided it would be a good idea to repair half the highways in America all at once.
Once we’d arrived and said our hellos, we all went out to the three-season porch out back and collapsed into chairs in near-exhaustion. As the girls came out, we asked, Well, what’s the latest on the wedding particulars?
It was Helen who finally spoke up. “Um, we’ve been talking about something and we’ve got an idea. What would you guys think if we decided to”—another pause—“get married in a triple wedding?”
I sat up straighter in my chair, widened by tired eyes, and after a moment let go a laugh. I glanced over to Deb, who hadn’t responded—and looked as if she’d swallowed a pine cone.
A triple wedding? Why? I asked. What was the thinking?
They replied that once all the excitement of the engagements had died down a bit, they got to comparing notes and thinking about the weddings collectively. As they did, several things seemed to clarify for them. The first and most obvious factor, they said, was that a good number of family and friends would want to attend all three of the weddings, not just one or two, but that would be very challenging if they took place within three months, not to mention in three disparate locations. Second, they realized the planning could be consolidated into a single event, albeit one considerably larger than any of the individual ceremonies would have been. And finally, they just felt a triple wedding would be a unique occasion that no one involved would soon forget.
Certainly there was no arguing that last point.
Then an uneasy feeling came over me. The dream! What had I done? Did the dream have anything to do with this? I asked them.
The girls chuckled—they remembered Dad’s dream, all right. But no, they assured me, that didn’t have anything to do with their reasoning. And I suspect it didn’t—unless, of course, it did…. But I reminded myself that they are their mother’s daughters through and through, and as such they would not be doing anything they didn’t actually want to do.
So I said, and Deb concurred, that we would completely support the idea if that’s what they wanted. Indeed, the idea was genuinely exciting. Our only caution was that we didn’t want any of them to feel deprived of the “specialness” that brides and grooms deserve on their wedding day. Without question a triple wedding would be quite the event, but it also had the potential to trammel any individuality. Everyone involved would have to be very creative and thoughtful to make sure each of the couples had their day in every sense. Had they taken that into account?
They had. They’d agreed up front, in fact, that unless all six of the principals were completely on board with the idea, they wouldn’t pursue it.
Sam was on the porch with us for the discussion; he said he was absolutely in favor of the triple. Nick was at work, but everyone said he too was positive about it. The only real question surrounded Helen and Mike, the aforementioned romantic. Mike was in Texas in Navy flight training, so he had been hearing about this crazy idea from a distance and wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. He was concerned about the “specialness” quotient, especially for Helen. On top of that, he and Helen already had done far more planning for their wedding than the others, and it was clear they had a more elaborate ceremony in mind. For one thing, all of Mike’s groomsmen would be fellow naval officers, and at the wedding’s end they would form up a traditional “sword arch” for Mike and Helen to walk through. Would that be possible in a triple wedding?
Certainly, said the others. It was all just a matter of planning.
For her part, Helen said she really liked the idea of the triple. Indeed, Katie and Claire were quite surprised, although delighted, when it was Helen who first brought it up.
Then too, what of Grace? The lone non-engaged daughter, she was going to play a crucial role—maid of honor to all three of her sisters. But what did she think of the idea? Did she feel at all a kind of “fourth wheel”? Or more weirdly, might she feel any pressure to suddenly find Mr. Right and make it a quad?
“I love the idea” of the triple wedding, she said. And no, she had far too much sense than to start shopping around for an instant hubby, just to join in the fun—though she admitted that with three sisters marrying in one wedding, she ran the risk of scaring off any guy who got within a hundred yards of her. Talk about peer pressure!
We wound up the evening’s agreeing that Helen and Mike would keep talking about it. Helen also wanted to talk it over with Mike’s mom, Julie, with whom she already has a close relationship. Meantime, the girls were all going to come back to De Pere with us for a few days. They would look around at venues, talk about it some more and then decide.
A few days later Katie called her Grandma Kunkel—my mom—to catch her up on things.
So, have you and Nick picked a date for your wedding? Mom asked Katie. Well, we’re thinking about October 9, Katie replied. Mom paused a moment, and Katie could almost hear the wheels turning in her grandmother’s head. Mom already knew Helen was thinking about an early October wedding here in Wisconsin, so she must have been thrown by this—but she also knew she was more easily confused lately, so she couldn’t be sure.
And tell me again, when is Claire’s? Mom asked. And Katie said, well, she’s thinking about October 9.
All of a sudden Mom realized what was happening and burst out laughing, not only for having broken the riddle but at the sheer joy of the idea.
And that’s pretty much the reaction everyone has had since we started talking about the Kunkel girls’ triple wedding. Three sisters getting married in a single wedding. It’s happened before, but not often.
And though it’s more than a year away, any watcher of those “bridezilla” shows on cable TV will tell you that’s a mere nanosecond in Wedding Time. Thus has the planning started in earnest, and so far it resembles nothing so much as a military campaign. It would appear there are literally hundreds of things to take into account: the bridal gowns, the bridesmaids’ dresses, the mothers’ dresses, the church, the celebrant—celebrants!—the reception, the meal, the band, the photographer—photographers!—the save-the-date mailings, the tuxedoes, the weather.
And as important as anything from my perspective, the Dance.
Earlier in the summer we had some friends over and we were telling them we felt there were some engagements in our near future. That led to a discussion of the all-important Father-Daughter dance.
My friend related that several years ago, when his daughter was to be married, he got to thinking about the Dance. He’d been to a lot of weddings, he said, and he couldn’t bear the thought of just shuffling around the dance floor with his daughter in the sort of awkward, aimless, unstructured “dance” that we middle-aged white guys have trademarked. So he determined that whatever else he did, he would learn to do a proper waltz. For six months leading up to the wedding, he and his wife took lessons, and when the time came he acquitted himself as elegantly as he’d hoped.
As I listened to him describing the typical Father-Daughter Dance From Hell, I could see myself falling precisely into that sort of meandering trap—only three times over, perhaps!
I can’t be that guy, I decided. So I think in addition to the various and sundry other things I will be doing this year preparatory to a triple wedding, I will be signing up for dance lessons.
Although I do wonder if, in my dreams, I can already waltz.
NEXT: The Plan.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.