Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 5)

The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:  Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1   


 January, 2010

Grace mentioned the other day that since word of the triple wedding began circulating, she has been proposed to four times. Once was by a friend of the family. Once was by a good friend’s older brother. And twice it was by a classmate she can’t abide, who was goaded into it by Katie and Nick because they thought it would be funny—which, of course, it was.

As I mentioned before, I was a bit concerned that the triple wedding might scare off any guy who came within fifty miles of Grace, that she might wind up with the social life of a typhoid carrier. But that hasn’t been the case. She’s been dating regularly—although none of the guys is close to walking her down the aisle. Not that Gracie is interested. She’s far too smart for that!

Yet as the maid of honor “cubed,” she does play the ultimate supporting role in this little drama, with all the attention naturally focused on her sisters. I feared she might be beginning to feel like a Brett Favre backup—suiting up for the game but never getting to play. So I e-mailed her about it, asking her point blank: In all this nonsense does she ever feel, well, left out?

I needn’t have worried. She wrote back immediately, “I don't really feel left out—although the thought did pop into my head today that my wedding probably won't merit a blog! But it will also be special in a different way, and there are certainly no hard feelings!

“People do ask a lot how I feel about being the only one not getting married,” she continued, “and my standard line is, ‘Well, if I was thirty or forty with no prospects, and they were my younger sisters getting married, this would be a lot harder!’ As things are now I am only twenty, and my biggest concern (besides being a kick-ass bridesmaid) is deciding what to do after I graduate. I figure the rest will fall into place.

“Since there are already three women (four, including mom) helping out with plans, my job is actually probably easier than most maids of honor. To me, my biggest challenge—and personal goal—will be to try my hardest to make every bride feel special and unique when it starts getting close to wedding time.”

Her response is pretty much all you need to know about Grace. She’s thoughtful, funny, level-headed, full of perspective, and, well, gracious.
Parents detect their child’s qualities and quirks in many ways. One of the ways we knew Grace was a uniquely centered person was because she was always the kid that other kids came to with their problems and fears. Even if Grace didn’t always have her act together, she invariably exuded a sense that she did. Beyond that, she was sensitive and compassionate, yet unafraid to tell you the truth when that’s what you needed to hear. Thus she was everyone’s confidante.
And of all our daughters, she also turned out to be our born adventurer. Last summer, for example, she spent three weeks trekking around Alaska, lugging her sleeping bag and bear repellent. To me, that sounds about as appealing as sticking my finger into an electric pencil sharpener, but Grace, a budding entomologist, was in heaven traipsing around a place where they grow bugs big enough to be pets.
Then there was our trip to China. In fact, some of my most treasured memories of Grace come from a whirlwind week we spent together there. Just sixteen at the time, she had leapt at my impromptu invitation to tag along on a business trip. Mind you, there would be no Great Wall or much else by way of conventional sightseeing; there just wouldn’t be time. The itinerary, in fact, was manic and not exactly scintillating: we would be meeting with municipal and academic delegations in six different cities in six days. But Grace didn’t care one whit; it was China!
As most Chinese have been officially limited to one child per family, whenever our hosts heard that I had four daughters they invariably laughed in amazement and allowed that I was a lucky man, as indeed I am. For her part, Grace proved the point splendidly. The Chinese appreciated that I had wanted to expose my daughter to their people and customs, so she was welcomed at both the working meetings and the inevitably elaborate lunches and dinners, which seamlessly combine business and socialization. Her mere presence lent a lightness to the sometimes intense discussions. She demonstrated remarkable poise for a young lady taking in China for the first time, and everyone commented on it.
During those epic formal meals, for instance, Grace was afraid of nothing. She recognized maybe half the dishes but at least tried everything, professing delight even when her taste buds were telling her otherwise. Since we were visiting mostly coastal cities, much of the core cuisine was seafood, which was not only in Grace’s comfort zone but quite delicious. The only thing that really threw her was coming eyeball to eyeball with her shrimp, since the Chinese custom is to prepare them with the heads on. The only thing that really threw both of us was in Fuzhou, on the mainland across from Taiwan and still something of a country cousin despite a population of six million. A plate came to the large round table stacked high with what looked like barbequed matchsticks. Our hosts grinned at us expectantly and asked if we knew what this was. We confessed we did not. “Duck tongue, a local specialty,” was the reply. (Duck tongue, by the way, did sort of taste like a barbequed matchstick—not bad, but a lot of work for not a lot of payoff.)
Then there was Qufu, the venerable Shandong Province village where Confucius was born. In the small Qufu delegation was a burly, outgoing woman named Ling. As soon as she saw Grace her entire face lit up, and with a hearty “Ahhh, la, la, la!” Ling grabbed and hugged her like she was a long-lost niece. Indeed, for the better part of the next twenty-four hours Grace was seldom out of Ling’s doting custody, even though she spoke not a word of English nor Grace a word of Mandarin.
            Following a working afternoon and long evening, we went the next morning to the ancient temple and grounds of Confucius, which his progeny would occupy for the better part of two millennia. For sheer sumptuousness, the Confucian temple is rivaled only by the Emperor’s Palace itself in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The grounds were a wonder. Traversing them side by side with the many Chinese pilgrims also headed toward the temple, we passed through acres of neatly aligned cypress trees, gnarled this way and that in their lives of many centuries. These ancient soldier-trees had come to resemble people in the whorls and knots they had taken on standing watch over the Confucian compound. We toured the palace and then trekked back to the master’s gravesite.
            As we headed out, Grace had to go to the bathroom. Unlike the big cities, Qufu retains something of its rural trappings; there are not convenient hotels or gas stations or 7-Elevens to duck into. Somehow she noticed there was a public toilet off to the side of the road. But public toilets in such outposts are often, um, pay as you go, and the price here was five yuan, or about sixty cents, for the privilege of using one of the nastiest facilities this side of a Route 66 Conoco. Grace no sooner went in than she came right back out, and I suddenly remembered that I had neglected to explain that in many parts of China the commode is basically a porcelain hole in the ground that you squat to use. And she is not that intrepid. Anyway, at that point our friend and business colleague, Jenny, came to our rescue, browbeating the toilet proprietor to give back Grace’s five yuan and then shepherding her to a cleaner way-station up the street. And we were reminded again that varied are the lessons of travel.
            Still, Qufu redeemed itself splendidly. As we were to leave, the community’s government and planning officials presented Grace and me with beautifully bound, rice-paper editions of Confucius’ sayings, with the passages in English and Chinese, side by side. To a young traveler who also is a voracious reader, it was the perfect gift; it remains one of her prized possessions.
I guess my main point in relating all this is to say there’s no need to worry about Grace; the mother of all maids of honor can more than take care of herself.


We’ve had a wonderful holiday season together, but at the same time a melancholy thought has been visiting me: Once these girls get married, the diaspora will begin.

Our family has been quite fortunate that, in the main, we’ve been able to be together for the Christmas holidays and other major family events. But Navy pilot Mike and new wife Helen will wind up posted anywhere from Virginia to Florida to California. Medical school will likely determine where Sam and Claire live. Kate and Nick will almost certainly stay in Maryland, at least for the time being. And once Grace commences from Maryland in December 2010, she will be thinking about graduate school too, at a place yet to be determined.

Doubtless that will make getting the band together for future Christmases something of a challenge.

So Deb and I felt especially grateful for the four days we had together this Christmas in Maryland with everyone. (Well, almost everyone. Mike was in town for a few days but had to leave for California just before I flew in from Green Bay. But otherwise we were all accounted for.)

On Christmas Eve day everyone came over to the house, where Claire and Sam put together a big brunch spread. Then we all gathered around a cheesy little fiber-optic Christmas tree (think Charlie Brown’s tree but with a plug) for the elaborate gift exchange, punctuated by a round of Secret Santa that Deb presided over like a slightly deranged elf. She was in what the girls bemusedly refer to as “Big Deb” mode; if this woman was in charge of Christmas, Santa could get by with four reindeer and would still be done and back in bed by 3 a.m. Later we drove up to Baltimore for a Christmas Eve church service and then on to Nick’s parents’ beautiful home, eating Marcia’s hearty beef stew and drinking some wine by an inviting winter fire. Then on Christmas Day itself, we continued what has become something of a family tradition of the past few years, which is finding a Chinese restaurant for lunch and then taking in a movie. It was all lovely.

And with all the protagonists gathered, it was inevitable that there would be some wedding coordination in there too. The focus this visit was on the invitation lists.

The formal invitations won’t actually go out until this summer, but given the complexity of the task it’s scarcely too soon to try to nail this down. Wedding invitations may seem like a simple compilation of lists, and so it would be if there were no physical restrictions on you. But with only so many seats available in a church or reception hall, the process can quickly become an exercise in emotional triage, a tricky landscape where calculus meets Dear Abby. Yes, I know she’s your great aunt, dear, but neither one of us could pick her out of a police lineup. Yes, I realize he lives in Thailand now but I’ve known him since kindergarten, how could we not invite him! Do you think they’ll both come? And if they do, can we sit them at the same table?

You get the idea. Now multiply that by three and you’ve got a lot of feelings waiting to be bruised. A wedding may be romantic, but wedding planning is anything but.

The girls began by dividing the prospective crowd into six distinct segments. The first is the official wedding party itself—the brides, grooms, bridesmaids, groomsmen, celebrants, ushers, flower girls (three of them, naturally), the singers and anyone else who has to be there for this to be a wedding, at least in the TLC Channel sense of the word. Then we compiled a master list of Kunkel blood-relation and close-friend invitees—in other words, the group that would want to come to all three nuptials if they had been done consecutively instead of concurrently. Next, each of the three couples drafted their own lists—that groom’s family, that couple’s particular friends and co-workers, etc. And the sixth and final group includes Deb and my friends, co-workers and colleagues from De Pere and St. Norbert College.

That process brought us to a gross number of invitations—about 525, as I recall, with plenty of others on the “it would be nice, but” list. And here is where the wedding art meets the wedding science. Is that the “right” number of invitations? We know that a certain percentage of invitees typically come to a wedding, maybe two-thirds for a conventional ceremony. But then we have to take into account the mitigating fact that the path to De Pere, Wisconsin is neither straight nor inexpensive; with most of the invitees living elsewhere, that will no doubt knock down the number somewhat. On the other hand, we must counterbalance that with the undeniable fact that the spectacle of a triple wedding will be enough to drive the percentage back up. Finally, you have to figure that some who RSVP yes won’t actually turn up, for one reason or another, while some you didn’t hear from at all—or who maybe didn’t even get an invitation in the first place—will suddenly turn up as “pleasant surprises.”

It all adds up to the fact that we have absolutely no idea how many invitations should go out so that we reach the magic number of 447 fannies in 447 seats. For the moment, though, we think we’re pretty close.

            Meantime, other little details get tended to. I’m told one of the wedding gowns arrived at the bridal shop the other day with a slight but noticeable discoloration. It went right back to the dressmaker, of course. Now, had this happened two weeks before the wedding, it doubtless would have sparked a Chernobyl-level meltdown. But more than nine months out, an eerie calm prevails. After all, the things that had to be lined up right away—the venues, the ministers, the wedding gowns, the rooms and so on—have been taken care of for a while already. For the time being there’s a bit of a lull. But that will change soon enough.

Anyway, here are updates on some of the wedding aspects and items you inquiring minds have asked me about … in alphabetical order:

            BRIDESMAIDS’ DRESSES: The color will be navy blue (not so much in tribute to Ensign Mike but just because it’s a color all three girls like). There was some back and forth about whether to let each of the bridesmaids pick her own dress style, as long as it was in navy blue, which I thought was an interesting idea because the young women might actually find dresses they could wear again elsewhere. But in the end the girls decided the potential for style chaos was too great, that it would be simpler and safer to have everyone wear the same gown. Over the Christmas break, Grace got her sisters’ permission to give me a sneak peek. It is a simple but elegant, floor-length, strapless number. It’s beautiful.
FLOWERS: Helen and Deb are still looking into that. I am reliably informed there will be a lot of flowers.
FOOD: As I mentioned in a previous entry, the food for the reception will be prepared by the outstanding folks in St. Norbert College’s catering unit. Just as the brides and grooms arrive from the post-wedding photo sessions, the chefs will be putting the finishing touches on the entrees (salmon, el Pollo Norberto or vegetarian pasta) in their large kitchen one floor below the cafeteria-turned-wedding wonderland. No one will leave hungry or disappointed.
HAIR AND MAKEUP: Who the hell knows….
HONEYMOONS: Sam and Claire, the outdoors-iest of the couples, have decided to honeymoon at Canoe Bay, a rustic but upscale resort several hours’ drive north of De Pere that sounds perfect for them. Katie and Nick have talked about maybe tagging along, but they haven’t settled on a destination yet. Helen and Mike are still deciding too but are leaning toward Hawaii.
            HOTEL ROOMS: Deb tells me we’re up to about 225 rooms on hold, at ten different locations. I didn’t even know Green Bay had 225 hotel rooms….
            LINENS: I don’t even know what this means.
            MUSIC: It’s actually my responsibility to pull together ideas for appropriate music for the wedding ceremony itself. Not surprisingly, this is the one area where the planning is still lagging a bit. For the reception, we’re going to have a talented St. Norbert student ensemble, known as the Knights on Broadway (St. Norbert’s mascot being the Green Knights), perform through the meal portion. When it comes time for chicken-dancing and such, a local D.J. will be handling things.
            PHOTOGRAPHY: De Pere photographer Jerry Turba is an outstanding professional who has done a vast amount of work for St. Norbert and is comfortable in any setting. More to the point, he’s unflappable. He’s also creative and lot of fun; the girls will love him. But as I said earlier, because this will need to be photographed almost like a news event, Jerry will be bringing a second shooter along to help catch all the action, on stage and off-. Beyond that, Old St. Joe Church has a good video system, so there should be a more literal document of the proceedings too.
            PROCESSIONAL: Here’s the thing almost everyone wants to know: In what order will the girls be escorted down the aisle? It’s not yet a done deal, and it tells you something that no one has even once asked my opinion on this. But if I were a wagering man, at the moment I’d say that they are apt to come in birth order—Katie, then Claire, then Helen. One reason why is because if they do the recessional in the same order, that would best accommodate the “sword arch” that Helen and Mike will be going through as they depart.
REHEARSAL DINNER: Here’s another wedding convention that the triple format complicates a bit. With literally hundreds of people from four different families coming into town, the traditional “sit-down” dinner after the rehearsal isn’t really feasible, much less fair to any or all of the grooms’ families. Instead, we’ve been starting to think about a more casual “all-comers” gathering the night before the wedding at St. Norbert’s beautiful student campus center, which fronts the Fox River and has plenty of room for a large crowd to spread out. That would also give family and friends more time to mingle than they will get at the formal wedding reception the next day. But this idea is still evolving.
            TUXEDOES: Not sure on this yet. It’s going to be up to Nick and Sam how formal the grooms’ attire will be—whether it’s James Bond-style tuxes, morning coats, white tie or whatever. Mike is ordering dress military threads, and his officer groomsmen also will be in formal Navy attire.
            WEDDING CAKE(S): I don’t think a decision has been made yet whether there will be one giant wedding cake (three tiers, perhaps?) or three individual ones.
WEDDING PARTIES: I have to admit this has been hard to keep up with. I believe we are up to 11 groomsmen and 10 bridesmaids, including Grace. I also believe the plan is for each bride to be preceded in the processional by their own set of groomsmen and bridesmaids. At the altar, then, the full complements will flank the wedding couples like All-Star teams lining up on either side of home plate. But as I say, please don’t hold me to that. I’ll know it when you know it.
            Total outlay thus far: I don’t know. Deb won’t tell me. Probably just as well.


During the invitation-list discussion, I wouldn’t say my opinion was being solicited, exactly, but I was offering it here and there anyway. Indeed, I thought I was being the soul of tact. But at one awkward silence Claire quietly but firmly said one word.


I was abashed. Reasonable, practical moi? A Dadzilla?

Later, I turned to Deb. “That’s not true, is it?”

“Well, once in a while you’re verging on it,” she said.


“Well, once in a while.”

“I’ve never even heard that term before. When did you first hear them use it?”

“Last week, I think,” she said. “Not to worry, it’s just a word to the wise….”

OK, perhaps best for me to confine myself to things I can control. Like those waltz lessons. We found a place and will start up one of these Wednesday nights. They take on all comers, like a prizefighter for hire.

Then there’s the matter of getting myself more together. For instance, by the time of the wedding I’d love to lose five more pounds and get in a bit better physical shape, because I need to and because, well, every dad wants to look good in his father-of-the-brides tux.

            But I can’t anticipate everything I’ll need to remember when the moment actually arrives. The other day I had another one of those unintentionally sobering reminders that life is marching on—like the time I was forty when the twentysomething ophthalmologist told me out of the blue that I could probably get by another year or two without bifocals; or the time when I was nearing fifty when the twentysomething counter clerk at McDonald’s, without asking, gave me the senior discount on a cup of coffee.
            I was getting my hair cut the other day. The twentysomething stylist had done a very nice job, efficient but lingering over details, which I appreciated. And she wasn’t chatty, which I also appreciated. But as she was finishing with her electric clipper, cleaning up my sideburns, she suddenly asked, “Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?”
Now this, I have to say, was a jolt, followed by a teeny wave of revulsion—followed by images of Andy Rooney flashing in my mind.
But just as I grabbed for my glasses to see these unruly little hedges for myself, she looked me over and said, “No, they’re OK.”
            Whew. Still, I sigh and make another mental note for my wedding day to-do list: Tame eyebrows.

NEXT: The Waiting (Part 1)

Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.