The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 7: THE ANNIVERSARY
Sam and Claire flew in for a long weekend, which for us was a welcome break indeed from the nearly nonstop school calendar at this time of the semester. They needed to set aside a day for a “couples encounter” program that is required of all men and women who marry in the Catholic Church, and they decided to attend one here in Wisconsin. It’s just possible Claire also wanted an excuse to visit her bridal gown, which she did and which I was again assured (by those in the know) is beautiful.
While here the kids also caught up with Fr. Sal Cuccia, associate pastor of our Old St. Joe’s Church, who will be presiding over their third of the wedding. Sal, a bit of a liturgical maestro, has taken on the complicated choreography of the ceremony itself, so he and Sam and Claire batted around a few ideas about the best way to handle one of the trickier parts, the tri-processional. Later that evening Sam started to explain to us what he understood the marching order would be, but Claire corrected him, although it didn’t seem she was altogether sure either. Ultimately I had no clearer idea what that will look like than I had before.
No matter. On the afternoon of the wedding I will be report to my station at the appointed time, and I will march where I am told.
That Sunday Deb and I marked our 34th wedding anniversary. After a midmorning Mass at Old St. Joe we went out for a leisurely brunch, Sal joining us. I tried to trick Claire into telling me a little bit about her bridal gown, but she wouldn’t rise to the bait. (She did show me her shoes, though; they are heels in a lovely, silvery, satiny fabric.) Claire talked about another couple that had attended the encounter program. The groom-to-be whined so obnoxiously all morning about having to be there that everyone around him began to hope that his fiancée, for her own sake, would think better of the engagement. Perhaps she was getting an “encounter” with reality.
Before church that morning I gave Deb an anniversary card and a gift certificate to a local day spa. I had gone by a few mornings before to pick it up, and as I parked my car and headed for the entrance I could begin to detect the aroma of lavender and some new-agey flute music halfway across the parking lot. I nearly broke out in hives. I knew she’d love it.
For her part, Deb gave me a thankful peck on the cheek and…bupkis! I feigned chagrin, but she hadn’t forgotten. Over the years we have become pretty laid back about gifts and the like for birthdays and anniversaries, essentially because we’ve been so fortunate in our lives that we don’t really lack for any material things. For us, it really is the thought that matters. Needless to say, she never forgets. And as long as I remember—not always a sure thing when I was a younger husband, alas—we are copasetic.
We also shared some stories about our own wedding that chilly Saturday in the late winter of 1976.
At the time we were just twenty, both students at the University of Evansville. On top of school I was working nights as a reporter for the Evansville Courier, and Deb was working days at the university, in the office of continuing education. Back then UE was on the quarter system, and there was to be a one-week break toward the end of February between the winter and spring terms. February 21 was a Saturday; by coincidence it was also the anniversary of the day some years earlier when I’d asked her to go steady. It was clearly karma.
The week before had been, shall we say, eventful. I don’t know exactly when bachelor’s parties moved from the night before a wedding to, more typically, the weekend before, but that was a good call. With a week between the party and the wedding, you can be as nutty and uninhibited as you want and still have time to recover, be that financially, physically, emotionally, or all three. A week can buy you a lot of forgiveness.
My friends—many of whom at the time were, like me, UE students—had come together to throw me a bachelor’s party. As most of us went back years, they knew basically everything there was to know about me, including the germane fact that I was not good about holding my beer. This point they exploited to great advantage. Of course, had I known that three decades later I would become a college president, I doubtless would have put up more of a fight that evening, but as it was events devolved fairly quickly, not to mention untidily. Many embarrassing things were said, and done, including by the guest of honor. Indeed, after several hours of this I couldn’t take it anymore and decided it would be best if I just left.
Yes, I snuck out of my own bachelor’s party. I headed back to the modest little frame house on Spring Street that the bride-to-be and I had just purchased to start our married life (she was not resident yet), stripped to my underwear, plopped onto my bed and instantly fell into a coma-like sleep.
Now, I believe Emily Post is silent on the etiquette of absconding from your own party, but she couldn’t possibly approve. At some later point in the evening my inebriated pals realized the guest of honor had slipped away. They decided this affront, naturally, required redress. In truth, they were a motley bunch. Even then I knew that a number of them had much promise, and in fact many of them would go on to be quite successful in business and in life. But others of them—well, Mensa material they weren’t. One was a sad sack who once tried to rake in a poker pot proclaiming that king-ace-two-three-four constituted an “around-the-corner straight.” Another was the guy who, on a different boozy evening, proved to us definitively that methane gas when lit produces a beautiful blue flame, regardless its, um, source. Yet another was maybe eighteen at the time and was dating a woman over forty—although “dating” is probably not the mot juste to characterize that particular relationship. But no matter how much or little they were given to work with when they were put on this earth, they were all my friends, and when they realized I’d slipped away they went on a mission to right a wrong.
When they got to my house they first looked around the garage. I suppose they were looking for a key; what they found instead was a can of gold spray paint, and this would prove to be all the inspiration they needed. They proceeded to break in through the back door, searched the house—and I can say it doesn’t take long to search a four-room, 750-square-foot house—and flipped on the bedroom light to locate their man, sprawled before them like a corpse who’d had his burial suit stolen.
Eventually I became faintly aware of a hissing sound, and my eyes slowly opened to the gauzy sight of the twelve of them, beers in hand, encircling the bed like a group of pasty apostles. Slowly I caught on to the fact that one of their number was spraying paint on my leg. The others were urging him onward, and northward, and they hooted as they admired their handiwork.
When I was sufficiently gilded that I resembled a life-size Oscar statue, they applied the coup de grace. They led me away to a nearby lake and tossed me in. I don’t recall whose brilliant idea that was. Maybe they thought they were doing me a favor; after all, latex paint does clean up with water. On the other hand, it was February, and the water was freezing, almost literally. I would go on to spend the rest of the night drying out in my underwear, wrapped only in a heavy blanket, in one of those mobile homes that don’t move, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.
After that excitement, the remainder of the wedding countdown marched right along. But as our anticipation heightened, the weather forecast worsened. Evansville, in the Ohio River Valley, is along a latitude where late February can be like Antarctica or it can be like June or it can be anywhere in between. As Saturday dawned, it was still winter in Evansville, and the afternoon promised an unpleasant mix of rain, sleet and snow. Mother Nature would not be doing us any favors.
Around midmorning I took a bath and prepared to shave. I looked for a long time in the mirror, the way every man has done on his wedding day since the invention of marriage, or at least the invention of mirrors. I was ready for this step—wasn’t I? Well…yes. Yes, I was. I was excited, in fact. I loved her, unquestionably. And hadn’t we been waiting for this day for years?
And at that very moment I had an inspiration.
For two years Deb had kvetched about the mustache I had worn since graduating from high school. How it was cheesy. How it looked like an overgrown caterpillar, or an undergrown otter, or worse. Now, one of the cool things about the Seventies is that any hair was great. Didn’t matter if you were talking about top-of-the-head hair, facial hair or even chest hair. (People’s Exhibit A: Burt Reynolds’ centerfold in Cosmo, 1972.) The more hair you had, the better, and I subscribed to this hirsute philosophy fully.
Still, I couldn’t deny it: The woman I loved reviled the mustache, hated it like Hamilton hated Burr, like e.e. cummings hated the “caps lock” key on his typewriter.
So as I gazed into the mirror that morning, I made a bold decision. I’ll do her a favor, I told myself. For her wedding day, I’ll shave it off.
And I did. Ten minutes with a dull scissors and a Gillette disposable razor and my upper lip saw daylight for the first time since 1974.
I was feeling great; despite the weather it was a good day to get married. I got into the rented tux and headed over to the beautiful stone chapel at the university. One by one my boys were collecting in the sacristy. Just a week before they’d been like feral animals, conducting a Krylon bacchanalia and nearly killing me from a combination of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia. Now here they were, grooms and ushers, all cleaned up and looking like they had just stepped out of the pages of GQ (well, the Midwestern edition, anyway).
Outside it was sleeting a bit, but the sidewalks were mostly just wet, so that would be more of an inconvenience than a danger to our grandparents and older guests. The presider, Fr. Kenneth Herr, whom I had known since elementary school, was there and ready to go. I was feeling a little nervous, of course, less about the impending ceremony than the idea of driving that night down to Nashville, on the first short leg of our honeymoon trip, in a wintry mix. But mostly I was happy—and even a little proud of myself for the state of my composure. All was good to go. Nothing could go wrong…right?
Looking back through the considerable fog of thirty-four years, I frankly cannot recall what particular errand was so important that it sent me to the foyer of the church at that particular moment. I do remember that it was early enough, maybe half an hour before the ceremony, that no one other than stray members of the wedding party was in the sanctuary itself. But just as I got to the foyer, who do I spot coming up the stairs, from the basement dressing area, but my soon-to-be-bride? Our eyes met across those thirty or so feet. I didn’t say anything, but she let out a shriek. “What are you doing back here!?” she yelped—then in a flash turned back down the stairs as abruptly as a prairie dog ducking back into its hole.
Well, this was not good—not good at all, I thought. I mean, the groom seeing his bride before the wedding, you might as well get a voodoo woman to put a triple hex on your entire miserable married life! Of course she was upset! I was upset too!
Yet in the next instant it occurred to me that there was something in that shriek that suggested it might have been about more than just a lifetime jinx. Could it be that she was not happy about…the missing mustache?
I went back into the sanctuary, and soon enough the church filled, the music began, and we all took our places. And then there she was—again—floating down the aisle on her father’s arm. She was beautiful, wearing a traditionally styled wedding dress, with sleeves, a lovely lacework collar and a full veil. Her dad handed her over to me, with what I momentarily took to be a skeptical look in my direction, but I’m sure it was just my imagination. Then again, maybe he didn’t recognize me.
A few moments later, during one of the readings, Deb leaned over and whispered: “How could you shave your mustache?”
“I thought you hated it.”
“I do hate it!”
“So I thought I was doing you a favor!”
“I don’t care! Don’t you know you’re never supposed to surprise a bride on her wedding day!”
So there it was. She would later contend that she was so upset upon seeing me in the front of the church because she knew that I would immediately grow the mustache back, and that all our wedding photos would have her marrying some strange man that no one recognized. As it happens, she was right—I did immediately grow the mustache back and proudly sported it for the next five years. Of course, what she didn’t realize at the time was that after your first year or so of marriage, no one ever cracks open their wedding album. By law it is to remain sealed until your kids are thirteen or fourteen and they discover it to fuel their unending amusement. And frankly, it’s just as well. Looking at most wedding photos from the mid-Seventies today brings to mind nothing so much as a Flava Flav party.
The rest of the wedding passed in a blur. I thought I was being very cool, but I was later informed that every time I spoke during our exchange of vows I was extravagantly shaking Deb’s hand like it was a pump handle. Suave.
I was happy. And yet…it was eating at me that my bright idea, my mustache inspiration, had backfired so badly.
Later, however, at the reception, I would extract a small measure of payback.
Deb had insisted that it was a custom in her family (and at their Protestant beerless wedding receptions) that aunts and some of the older women guests would sit around the gift table while the bride and groom opened a sampling of their presents. In my family’s frothier Catholic receptions I had never seen or heard of such a thing. This was a silly idea, I said, and what’s worse, it could be a bad one. You never know what could go wrong.
What on earth could go wrong opening wedding presents? she’d replied.
Hello? Do you not remember my friends? I said, maybe even flashing a bit of my wrist that still had flecks of gold on it.
Well, of course we opened some presents, with fifteen or twenty of her matronly relatives nodding their approval with each gift.
Until Deb picked up what would be the last one. It was about the size of a shirt box, but maybe a little bigger. It could have been anything. But as she ripped away the wrapping paper, its true identify was instantly revealed for all to admire.
It was an “Around the World in Bed” game. The box cover was helpfully illustrated with a naked and fairly athletic couple enjoying one another’s company. Inside was the game board (Monopoly never looked like this), some dice, a candle, God knows what all. It was a gift from my friend Scott, whom I saw was now suddenly standing behind Deb’s confused Grandmother Wathen, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
A low murmur of horror went through our little audience.
I looked at Deb. “Told you so,” I said, uttering a sentence we would both employ any number of times over the next thirty-four years.
NEXT: The Waiting (Part 2)
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.