two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 3: THE PROPOSALS
A year or two ago at a party with some couples our age, the conversation turned to whether it is still customary for a smitten young man to ask his true love’s father for her hand in marriage. I hadn’t thought about it, frankly, but said I assumed young men did not, that that custom seemed about as quaint and outdated as donning one’s best wool coat, tie and plus-fours to play a round of golf.
Or maybe like any good journalist I was simply considering my personal experience—in other words, a sample size of one—and projecting it as representative of the culture at large. But I should have known better than that, if for no other reason than there was nothing whatsoever typical about the run-up to my own marriage.
For starters, Deb and I have known one another since we were five years old. That’s because that’s how old we were when her family moved in next door to mine on Virginia Street in Evansville, Indiana. We began dating at age 15, started talking about getting married around 17, and proceeded to “wait” to get married until we were 20. Looking back, it all seems such a natural and logical process, moving inevitably from our daily visits on her backdoor stoop to the high school prom to the church altar, that we never really had the “will you marry me” moment, exactly. We just understood that we would marry, as soon as the calendar caught up with our conviction.
And certainly I never asked her father, Virgil Niehaus, whether I could have her hand, or any other part of her, for that matter. Virgil was a good man—tragically, he died of a massive heart attack two decades ago at age 59—but he could be more than a little intimidating, at least to the neighbor kid. Maybe I didn’t ask him if Deb could marry me because I didn’t know what I would do if he said no!
In any event, my assumptions would soon be disproven in the matter of contemporary young men and their fathers-in-law-to-be.
The first clue came in April. Katie was about to graduate from George Mason’s law school after three stressful albeit successful years, and we were all heading back East in mid-May to attend the commencement and celebrate with her.
Several weeks beforehand, I got an email from Mike, Helen’s boyfriend. I didn’t save the email, but Mike essentially said, “I know it’s going to be a busy couple of days, but I hope we can find a little time because I need to talk with you about something very important.”
Now, I may not be the sharpest toothpick in the box, but I had a good idea what he had in mind. Deb and I felt Mike and Helen would wind up together from their first chance meeting. I replied, “Mike, of course I’m happy to talk to you about anything—except Helen.” I’m pretty sure I added a smiley icon at the end of that so he knew I was teasing him. (Or maybe not.)
Then I yelled to Deb in the next room, well, brace yourself, it looks like our first engagement is in the offing.
Just a week later, then, another email arrived. This one was from Nick, Katie’s beau. He wrote to the effect that, I know Mike has asked to see you while you’re in town and I know you’re going to be pressed for time, but I also need to talk to you about something important.
I wrote back that I was certain we could find time for that conversation. Deb by now was just this side of giddy, with another domino about to drop. “This trip is getting busy,” I said. “One more and it will officially be a trend.”
I met first with Nick, over lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Washington, and then the following morning Mike and I talked before breakfast out on the porch of the house. I have warm and comfortable relationships with them, but both were still a little nervous as they prepared to convey to me their carefully practiced professions. Mind you, neither asked my “permission” to marry—that concept, thankfully, really did go out with plus-fours—but they sincerely wished that Deb and I bless their intentions. (Of course, it was nicely old-school, I thought, that they wanted to have this conversation with the father alone, which made me feel not a little smug.) In different ways and with different words, but with precisely the same sweet earnestness, both told me how much they loved the girls, how they would care for them always, and how they wanted to live the rest of their lives with them. It was as moving as I imagined it would be, just what a dad would want to hear from prospective husbands.
But a little unsettling, too, I have to say. After all, until this point as a parent, the young ladies under discussion have always and forever been your “girls”: the four of them frozen in your mind’s eye, say, in that 1991 Christmas card photo you took with the cheerleader motif, holding up signs proclaiming that they are ages two, four, six, eight. Now you’re listening to strapping young men describe them as the kind of alluring young women who make them feel complete, excited, fulfilled. Does a dad really want to hear that? Yet your dismay evaporates instantly the moment you realize that they are articulating precisely the same feelings you had all those years ago for the freckle-faced strawberry blonde next door. Yours was a love nothing could keep apart, and so is theirs. And unlike you, they had the courage to go to their prospective father-in-law and say as much.
So it was now official, if still a secret: 50 percent of our daughters were about to be engaged. Beyond that, it was looking like there might well be two weddings in the summer of 2010. And those would likely be in two different locales…. Oy! Scenes of Steve Martin in Father of the Bride began playing in my head.
Now, at this point we didn’t really know what Sam and Claire had in mind—if they knew themselves. True, we had a sense they too were moving toward marriage, but much remained up in the air with them, including Sam’s possible pursuit of medical school. He and Claire were still sorting out all that. They had talked seriously of marriage, we knew, but nothing seemed imminent.
Then on a Sunday evening, Sam called and asked to talk to Deb and me together. Over the scratchy speakerphone connection he told us he loved Claire very much, more than anything, and wanted to marry her. He said he intended to ask her very shortly, but first he wanted us to know his intention, and he wanted our blessing. We conferred it enthusiastically.
And there it was: Three engagements, all converging like arcing fireworks in the summer sky. Deb and I just sort of shook our heads at what was happening, shell-shocked but elated. And truly touched that all three young men had sought our approval beforehand. They hadn’t needed it, but they wanted it. This merely reinforced the strong belief we already had about the fundamental decency and considerate quality of all our prospective sons-in-law. Besides that, the boys had chosen well—and so had the girls.
Looking back, the most remarkable part of the multiple engagements for me is that in every case, so many people knew ahead of time how the proposal was supposed to play out—the groom, the groom’s parents and families, Deb, me, and most incredibly, all the other Kunkel girls—in other words, everyone but the girlfriend involved. And she knew all about the plans of her two sisters. God love us, but we are not exactly a family known for its CIA-like ability to keep secrets from one another. Yet in every case, the surprise held.
The first engagement came courtesy of the fella who had been planning it the longest. Mike was determined to make the occasion something Helen would never see coming and could never forget. He succeeded.
It was early on the morning of Saturday, July 18. After a long day of travel, Helen and Mike had arrived in Lake Tahoe late the night before. They’d flown in to attend the wedding of Mike’s cousin later that day.
Mike informed Helen he would be awakening her soon because he had a surprise—not exactly what she wanted to hear as she went to bed, exhausted, at 1 a.m.
A few hours later he rousted her, and they drove a while to a marina, arriving around 5. It was still dark, but Helen could dimly make out a man in a red jacket—which had a picture of a hot-air balloon on it! She was thrilled by this realization; riding in a balloon was something she’d always wanted to do, which Mike well knew because she had dropped this hint to him maybe three thousand times. With a little research, Mike had found a company that lifts the balloons right from the middle of Lake Tahoe.
With the other riders they headed out on the large launching boat. The morning sky was beginning to brighten. When they stopped, the crew began to inflate the balloon on the upper deck of the boat, and the captain asked for “helpers.” Mike and Helen went up to take a closer look as the envelope rose. Then a crew member asked if they would like to walk around inside—just to snap a quick picture or two, Helen thought. Mike gave the guy his camera to take a shot of the two of them inside the balloon.
Mike’s plan was unfolding beautifully. There was just one problem: Helen was becoming visibly anxious. As the big, loud fans blew air into their faces, she suddenly had the faintly creepy feeling that the balloon might just stand up while they were still inside. She started to head back toward the opening, but Mike grabbed her arm and pulled her back. That’s odd, she thought. Then he told her he loved her, which she also thought was odd—not that he loved her, of course, but that he was professing the fact while she was trying to escape the envelope of an inflating balloon.
“Helen, I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Mike told her. Increasingly anxious and a bit flummoxed—not to mention seriously sleep-deprived—Helen still didn’t quite grasp what was happening. “Why are you telling me you love me now—we need to get out of the balloon!” she said.
Finally Mike pulled out a small box, revealed the ring, got down on one knee and proposed. The crew member—the balloon company having been in on Mike’s plan from the start—snapped the picture as Helen put her hands over her mouth in shock, mumbled an “of course” and started to cry. Then she started in with her patented hand-flippering, as she was borderline hyperventilating from a combination of happiness and relief.
From the time Claire and Sam first got to know one another, one of the things they have both loved most is being outdoors together. They hadn’t been dating for long when they took an extended trip together to see many of the postcard destination spots of the American West. Both love to hike and explore, and Claire especially enjoys photographing the natural beauty of the land.
Hardly surprising, then, that one of their favorite places is scenic Shenandoah National Park, just west of where they live in metropolitan Washington, D.C. “She has told me several times, Shenandoah is pretty much her favorite spot anywhere imaginable,” Sam says. “Next to the Eiffel Tower, it was the most perfect place for both her and me.”
So that’s where Sam planned to pop the question. This was Saturday, August 1.
The three amigos—Sam, Claire and Claire’s other constant companion, her yellow Lab named Chase (better known family-wide as “Chasie Baby”)—were hiking up a tree-laden canyon that offered one of the most popular and expansive vistas of the river valley below. This was the spot Sam had in mind as they set out that morning.
Even for midsummer, though, it was unusually hot. On top of that, Claire wasn’t feeling one-hundred percent, and Chase was being even more curious than usual about his trailside discoveries. That meant that Claire was more or less pulling him up the canyon, which in the heat exhausted her. By lunchtime they had only gotten about halfway up the trail toward Sam’s intended destination.
So he improvised. They took a lunch break on a large boulder that helped form a dam blocking the canyon creek. It was a picturesque spot, with a pleasant view down the canyon and a lovely blend of shade, sunlight and burbling water. They ate lunch, then lingered a while, taking photos of Chase as he cavorted around the creek beneath them.
At that point, with Claire preoccupied with Chase, Sam slipped over to their knapsack and pulled a ring box out of a pair of socks he’d put in there (clean socks, he emphasized later in recounting the event).
He casually returned to Claire on the middle of the rock. He got down on one knee and then asked her to marry him.
So what happened? “No screeches of joy,” Sam recalls, “no tears, just lots of smiles, many hugs, a couple kisses, and lots of ‘I love you’s.’ ”
They snapped a few photos as best they could, with no one else around, to record the moment. “Of course I was not looking my finest because I had hiked three miles before that point,” Claire says. “But I didn't care. I just wanted to be engaged to Sam.”
To celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary, Nick’s parents, Chuck and Marcia Stewart, were heading to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with their entire family. Katie, having been more or less adopted by the Stewarts some time ago, would be going along on this early August tropical idyll, to celebrate both the Stewarts’ anniversary and her own survival of the Maryland Bar exam, which she had just taken after two solid months of cramming.
Nick decided this confluence of symbolism and opportunity was too good to pass up. The trip would be perfect for his proposal to Katie. But getting things just right so that his inherently suspicious girlfriend would be completely surprised was rather involved.
On Monday, August 3, a few days after they had arrived on the small island, the group decided on dinner at a nice restaurant. This was actually Nick’s pretext for Katie to wear something dressier than the beach gear she’d worn thus far on the island. She noticed the men—Nick, his dad, and Nick’s brother-in-law, Mike Haaf—were suddenly cleanly shaven. And Nick’s sister, Kate, was wearing makeup, so Katie went back to put some on. When she came back down, her hair was still wet. Chuck tugged at it and joked, “You gonna do something with this?” Katie recalls that “I knew he was kidding, but for some reason that actually prompted me to go upstairs and blow dry my hair. Thank goodness he did that.”
Dinner passed pleasantly. Katie, in a Jimmy Buffett frame of mind, was ordering island drinks, but to ensure she kept her wits about her Nick playfully passed them around the table to the others.
When the meal was finished Nick asked Katie to take a stroll. The other family members headed back to their rooms—or so Katie thought. In reality, they were busily taking up their prearranged positions.
In the dying sunlight, Nick and Katie climbed until they reached a spectacular overlook on what is known as Peace Hill, for a panoramic view of what Nick called the “impossibly blue water and white sand” below. There were brick ruins of a windmill, and Katie wanted to have a closer look, but Nick intercepted her. He’d carefully scouted an exact location—not just for its beauty, but because his sister, Kate, was hiding in the nearby foliage to capture the big moment in pictures. And that moment had arrived.
Nick: “I was nervous. I kept fumbling for the lines I had practiced all day. I tried to keep it simple—three short sentences that I hoped I could utter before emotion washed my words away. ‘Katie Kunkel, you’re my best friend. You’re the only person I’ve ever loved. Will you be my wife?’ ”
Katie: “I just started crying and then noticed Kate taking pictures. I was crying/laughing, and Nick pointed out I hadn't said yes yet. I said yes, and his family emerged from the woods. It's a good thing I had some island drink, or I probably would have noticed them—Mike was wearing a red shirt!”
A few more laughs, a few more pictures, and the entire family headed back down the hill to open a bottle of champagne.
Deb has just read this over and reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the engagement rings. That’s true. It’s not that I forgot, exactly. The girls of course showed me their rings, probably three different times. Like most men—again, I generalize, but prove to me I’m wrong—I paid about as much attention to them as I do to other people’s vacation pictures.
She thus enlightens me:
Helen’s ring is platinum, with a diamond solitaire set on a band of smaller diamonds.
Claire’s is white and yellow gold, with a ruby solitaire surrounded by diamonds.
Katie’s is an eternity ring, yellow gold with inset diamonds around the entire band.
It seems to me that picking engagement rings takes a certain amount of courage on a young man’s part. Young ladies in love have certain notions of what their engagement rings will look like, and if their beaux miss the mark, well…. Of course, knowing my girls, hints as to the rings doubtless got dropped like so many breadcrumbs along the path to betrothal. Still, there’s not a lot of room for error for the anxious ring-picker. On top of that, there can be logistical problems. Said Nick, “It took three tries to get Katie’s ring right. The first one was too small (note: I didn’t think to ask him how he knew that), and the second one, with which I proposed, was too large. As if asking your girlfriend to marry you wasn’t stressful enough.…” Indeed.
The girls’ mother, incidentally, never had an engagement ring—I asked, but she didn’t want one. All she wanted was her wedding ring. And that is yellow gold, with white gold for the setting of four small round diamonds and two marquis-shaped sapphires. Sapphires are placed after the first diamond and before the fourth diamond. I know this because I just asked her.
My wedding ring, thank you for inquiring, was a simple gold band highlighted by rose-gold edging. Deb thoughtfully had our wedding date inscribed inside the ring because she anticipated, correctly, that I might need help the first few years recalling it. I employ the past tense in referencing my ring, alas, because for the past 25 years it has resided on the muddy, deep bottom of Lake Patoka in Southern Indiana, the victim of a wearer who had recently lost some weight and then went out for an afternoon of water skiing not having skied for years. When he climbed back into the boat after five or six violent encounters with the surface of the water, he realized the ring was gone, snatched by a jealous Neptune.
In case you’re wondering, Deb was not amused. But that is a story for another day.
NEXT: The Couples.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.