Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 6)

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

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:    Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1  

 February, 2010
January is only four months removed from October, but in northeast Wisconsin the contrast can be quite literally breathtaking. If early October evokes, say, the warm, vivid hues of The Wizard of Oz, early January has the icy-white feel of Dr. Zhivago—well, minus the Bolsheviks and Julie Christie.
Of course, this fact fazes the natives not one bit. After all, it is winter and it is Wisconsin; it’s supposed to be cold. People hereabouts don’t really start getting agitated about the weather until late March or early April, when the calendar may be telling you that spring is coming but the thermometer never seems to get the memo. There are years when spring is little more than a rumor here. But in January, Wisconsinites say, hey, bring it on!
Not so the visitors. For them, January is definitely a shock to the system.
Helen and Grace were in town for a visit early in the month, during their winter break from the University of Maryland. Don’t get me wrong. They love coming to De Pere anytime of the year, but in the dead of winter they find themselves piling on the fleece, the blankets, the throws. They have to remember how to drive on streets of permafrost. Several times I got a roaring fire going in the living room fireplace, and it was a highly popular spot.
It was largely a social visit, but there was business to be done, too: The girls and their mother used the time to nail down a few more lingering details about the wedding.
Helen and Grace started by attending a big wedding exposition in downtown Green Bay. These are events, I am informed, where wedding-related vendors and retailers of all kinds come together to show their wares to brides-to-be, bridal wannabes, or onetime brides. Thousands of people wander through the displays. There may even have been a few guys.
The girls dropped by all the floral displays and they looked at more wedding gowns. They checked out fanciful table favors and they got their pictures taken in a photo booth. But there was only one true mission of this particular expedition—find the perfect wedding cake. Or at least the perfect wedding-cake baker.
In this pursuit they ran a veritable butter-cream gauntlet of wedding cakes. They sampled so many cakes—at least ten, Grace said—that they nearly became sick. All the vendors began to blur, and while the cakes were certainly tasty none really wowed them. Then they met a young woman who runs a small De Pere catering business that she calls The Runaway Spoon. And right away they knew their search was over.
The proprietor and executive chef is Lindsay Brooks. Lindsay went from culinary school to making desserts for Chicago cafes, then moved to De Pere and worked for some excellent restaurants and caterers before going out on her own with The Runaway Spoon. Because the business is still small, she leases space in commercial kitchens, and with no storefront to support she is able to keep her prices lower than what Helen was seeing with more established vendors.
The girls loved Lindsay, making a date to come back a few days later to see her. And they loved the cakes. Indeed, two of the cakes absolutely had them over the moon: an amaretto with fresh raspberries and sugared almonds, and an intense chocolate with vanilla bean icing. They also liked Lindsay’s creativity and sense of whimsy. For instance, they decided there would be three groom’s cakes. For golf nut Mike, his cake will be shaped like a golf ball. For Sam, his cake will be a likeness of Chasey-Baby, Claire’s yellow Lab. (We don’t know yet about Nick’s. Maybe given the fact that by the time he gets married he’ll be a lawyer, his should be in the shape of a subpoena or something. Or better yet, maybe the lawyer’s cake will be…a torte! Hey, how many other blogs are gonna give you cake puns?)
The girls also answered the burning “cake question”: For a triple wedding would there be one massive wedding cake, with various wings and additions like a Newport cottage, or three separate cakes? Well, they’ve committed to the trifecta—specifically, the yummy amaretto, the chocolate, and one to be determined. Each of the main cakes will be four-tiered affairs. Add in the grooms’ cakes, then, and there will be a total of six on display when the guests come over for the reception. It will be a veritable cake-a-palooza! This multiplies the fun, of course, but some of the decision ultimately came down to brute practicality: There has to be enough cake, remember, to yield some 500 individual slices.
And that, my friends, is a whole heap of wedding cake.
The rest of the week the girls and their mom blitzed through much of the planning punchlist.
            There was a dash down to Milwaukee to find the positively perfect table linens (navy, with a subtle stripe) and fancy chair coverings. (I told the girls that men hate fancy chair coverings because we can’t put our feet underneath our chairs. There was a patronizing nod, as if to say, “Um, that’s interesting—what’s your point?”)  They dropped by to see Helen’s dress, the one I’d mentioned earlier had come in with something of a discoloration. No such imperfection now. She excitedly tried it on, I was told, and it was perfect, I was told. Then it was off to the florists. They talked a bit about the bridal bouquets (Helen explained that the girls weren’t really interested in traditional bouquets, so they brainstormed ideas) and they settled on floral arrangements for the reception tables. The flowers—in autumnal oranges and yellows—will come in three different arrangement styles. Some will be tall, some low, and some mid-level, but none of them will be at eye level to interfere with seeing your tablemates.
And they dropped in to see the photographer, Jerry Turba. While much more thought must go into all this, one thing already is clear—the photographic logistics of the wedding day are going to rival an Olympics opening ceremony. I’m informed that the brides and bridesmaids will be getting ready at our house, and there will be pictures there. Over at the Kress Inn, meanwhile, the President's Suite is being held for the grooms and groomsmen to use, and they will have photos taken there. There will be more photos taken at the church before the ceremony. “And the hardest part is figuring out the logistics for the photos we take right after the ceremony,” Helen says. “I can't really explain it now but it involves some sort of merry-go-round trip involving different couples, bridal parties and families.”
And everyone still has to get to the reception on time. Even with two excellent photographers, this is going to be a creative challenge.
At week’s end, with the whirl of activity behind them, Helen sat down with Deb to start totting up all the quotes they had received and check where they were against the budget. Helen had the list and Deb had the calculator. As the numbers had mounted in her head through the week, Helen admitted to being nervous about where things stood compared to the budget—and remember, she and her sisters have a lot riding on this affair coming in under the Mendoza line. As Helen read off the numbers, she was cringing a bit. But as Deb conveyed the total thus far, it was right on the girls’ estimate.  Much relief all around. After that, Helen told me, “I felt much better and I knew that all the hard work we endured paid off. It felt like the hardest part was over.”


And beyond that, friends, there is…the waiting. About this, as per usual, Dr. Seuss had it right.
“Everyone is just waiting,” he wrote in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!:
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

To which a father of the bride(s) might add,
Or waiting for the bills to stop,
or the tux to fit, or the weight to drop.

Yes, for the moment we are all in the Waiting Place.
            For the next several months, I think, the details needing quick attention will dwindle, probably in inverse proportion to general anxiety as the once-far-off D-Day inexorably approaches.
There is not much to be done but go about your regular business.
After a pleasant holiday break for one and all, Claire is back in her high school classroom, trying to get the boys and girls to remember what they learned before Christmas, and Sam is back on the job at the research institute, helping with the testing of patients exhibiting schizophrenia and other strains of mental illness. Katie is working in downtown Washington at a small office doing labor law, and Nick is deep into his final semester at George Washington’s law school. Mike continues with his training as a Navy helicopter pilot in Florida, and back in Maryland Helen is in the last lap before a May graduation.
And here in De Pere, Deb and I are busy as St. Norbert’s spring semester cranks into high gear. The evenings and weekends are filled with basketball and hockey games, taking in a wonderfully inventive student production (ironically, Seussical the Musical!), attending admissions receptions for prospective students and their families, hosting dinner parties and generally engaging in the usual array of presidential hijinks.
And as it happens, we’re also looking forward in a few weeks to our 34th wedding anniversary.
            Thirty-four years. Roughly the life expectancy of an elephant, incidentally. And, these days, an eternity in a marriage.
Melancholy as it is to contemplate, if one simply goes by the bloodless odds, there’s a reasonable chance that at least one of the kids’ impending marriages might not make it over the long haul. Having said that, I really do believe all three of these couples stand excellent prospects of beating those odds. For starters, they’ve all known one another quite a while and thought about this step a lot. None of them are rash individuals, and they have not made rash decisions to marry. None of them are kids—Helen, the youngest, will have just turned 23 by the time of the wedding—and we know that, in general, the older you are when you marry, the better the chances of your marital success. And most important, all six of them are grounded. They are pragmatic, considerate and reasonable, accustomed to adapting to the everyday irritations life throws at you.
Which is good—because it takes all those qualities, and much more, to make a lasting marriage.
Why do we make marriage such a sacred oath, and divorce such a pain in the neck? Because if splitting up was easy or cavalier, everyone would do it eventually. I mean, how could you not? Two people simply can’t live together like that without wanting to kill one another every once in a while. So we build in incentives to bridge those rough patches.
The kids have been getting lots of good advice about what it takes to build a healthy marriage, and they will get a lot more before October. But I would hardly be a Dadzilla worthy of my name if I didn’t put in my two cents.
Many years ago, a wise fellow told me something that I have never forgotten: Successful couples choose to stay married, repeatedly, over the course of their marriages. What did he mean? Well, because people do change over time, because lives evolve, because jobs evaporate, because terrible illness strikes, because kids come into the picture, because circumstances you can never anticipate do arise—your marital relationship begins changing from the day you exchange vows. It’s no more static than any other aspect of your life. And when life really brings the heat, many marriages crack under the strain. But it also means that, in light of those stresses, a husband and wife from time to time must make a conscientious decision to stay married.
Or as that noted philosopher James Carville put it in another context, it’s about “stickin’.”
            Romance, granted, is wonderful. But at the end of the day a relationship is like any other living thing. If you take it for granted, if you don’t pay it heed, it will wither and die. Indeed, a long marriage is like a beautiful and venerable rose bush. Chances are it was stressed at many junctures in its life, but it survived because it got what it required to endure. Food and sunlight and nutrients were provided; dead stems were pruned away like so many bad habits. Attention was paid.
            So my wish for my daughters and my future sons-in-law is that they will be kind to one another, even when they are miffed at one another. That they will be respectful of one another. That they will be considerate of each other’s time and individual priorities.
I hope they will try to put themselves in the other’s shoes. I hope they typically think of themselves in the plural, seldom in the singular. I hope each will do his or her share of the work. I hope they don’t unload all their frustrations on the other because they can; that’s terribly unfair and emotionally exhausting. I hope that while they may be a little less than honest in the trivial things, that they will never be anything but honest in the important things.
I hope that even in the busiest of seasons—especially in the busiest of seasons—they make time for themselves, even if it means literally scheduling it. For it isn’t so much affairs and lies that are the great marriage killers; it’s the sickening and dehumanizing sense that comes over people when they realize they are being taken for granted by the people they most love.
It’s shockingly easy for that to happen, you six. Don’t let it.
In its older age, a rose bush is hearty, reassuring, ever-blooming, ever-revealing, a constant companion, a constant delight. Of course, at that point there’s not much you can do to change it anyway. Then again, there’s not much you would change even if you could.


I flew into Washington for a short conference for presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and their directors of mission and heritage. That means my colleague Fr. Jay Fostner is here too, and in fact he was able to arrive a few days earlier than I was. Since he was going to be in town, he arranged to meet up with Katie and Nick for dinner at one of Washington’s popular restaurants, Old Ebbitt Grill, which gave them all a chance to get better acquainted.
By all accounts it was a most convivial evening, as Katie and Nick explained their rather unlikely journey to couplehood. It has more than a few hallmarks of the classic romantic comedy—especially in the fact that when they first met, as college freshmen at Maryland, they mostly infuriated one another with opinions that, regardless the subject, were in diametric opposition to one another. There were times when they simply couldn’t stand each other. In other words, love was their destiny.
In the course of their conversation the kids learned to their surprise (mine too) that world traveler Jay had only been to Washington once or twice in his life. So when dinner was finished they all took the short walk over to see the White House, which many Americans visit but few get to see so beautifully illuminated at night. Then the next morning, as an unusually heavy snow fell on Washington, Katie and Nick came back into town to meet Jay at the Holocaust Museum. That’s a place Jay has wanted to visit for some time. Over the years I’ve been there on three or four occasions, and I’d told Jay he would find it one of the most sobering such experiences he would ever have, as that is unfailingly the case with anyone who goes there.
The next evening Jay and I took the Metro from our downtown hotel out to the Maryland ‘burbs, where we met the girls for dinner at the family homestead. There’s a piece of me that’s always glad to see that the place is still standing. All four of the girls were there, along with three of their beaux—Nick, Sam and Grace’s boyfriend, a young man named Adi.
I was meeting Adi for the first time, and it was easy to see why Grace liked him right from the start when they were introduced by mutual friends. Adi is from Baltimore. He’s a junior electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland, and he’s thinking about applying his expertise in some aspect of the entertainment industry, which is one of his passions. As a student he has worked part-time in the technical areas of the university’s performing arts center, and in his “spare time” (E.E. students don’t have much, believe me) he enjoys the creative challenge of “48-hour film projects”—occasional Washington and Baltimore competitions in which teams of amateur filmmakers gather on a Friday night to get the topic of a five-minute film that they then must write, cast, shoot, edit and turn in by the following Sunday evening. Adi says he and his friends have done this exhausting gauntlet four or five times now, and I can only imagine what a rush it must be.
Anyway, Adi and Grace make a good pair—two young people who are deep into scientific majors but have artistic souls. As the dinner table repartee raucously ricocheted from the usual smack talk and good-natured ribbing (e.g., Nick’s troubling preference for spray-on butter) to hoary family stories, Adi seemed alternately transfixed and bemused as he took it all in. As it happened, the Kunkel girls were seated across the table from him, four abreast, rather like a military tribunal. I hope we didn’t scare him!
Claire, who is becoming quite the cook, had whipped up a wonderful meal around two fish dishes—barbecued salmon and haddock in a mustard sauce. My buddy Chase, the yellow Lab, was glued to my side, as like all the family pets he knows I am the surest thing when it comes to table scraps.
The talk turned to my penchant for making the girls impromptu and sometimes lavish promises that Deb later must amend, adjudicate or, at times, completely rescind. Helen, for instance, reminded me that several years ago I’d said something to her and Grace about possibly taking a parent-paid trip to Europe when they graduated from Maryland. Now, this is something I don’t actually recall, but then again it certainly sounds like something I would have said. Anyway, as they are both nearing the finish line at Maryland, they recently raised this prospect with Deb. And as this was the first she’s hearing about it, she was unamused.
So we called her and put her on the speakerphone (she was back in De Pere), which to the amusement of all at the table gave her an opportunity to chasten me, again, for being a notoriously promiscuous promiser. There was nothing to be done but plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.
Later, Jay asked the girls how the wedding planning was going. Helen gave an update but said that, basically, they have reached the Waiting Place—and that she, for one, is glad to be there, at least for a little while.
Claire did indicate that Sam soon will be dispatched to check out tuxedos for Nick and him. (As I mentioned before, Mike will be wearing his Navy dress uniform.)
Claire asserted that she wants them to go for a “Don Draper look,” referencing the protagonist of the popular Mad Men television series. That would be an early-Sixties vintage, stylishly trim and clean look, with a narrow tie.
That’s something these two twentysomethings, both lean and tall, could carry off effortlessly. I’m not altogether sure, though, how it would work on a somewhat chunkier and shorter fiftysomething. Don Draper, father of the bride? Hmmm…..

NEXT: The Anniversary.

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

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