Sunday, August 1, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 12)

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

By Thomas Kunkel


Click here for previous chapters:   Ch.11  Ch.10   Ch.9   Ch.8  Ch.7   Ch.6   Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1

August, 2010

So many things a man won’t do unless forced at gunpoint: Shave on his day off. Read instructions. Ask for directions. Give up his nasty, tatty yet somehow lucky Notre Dame Fighting Irish hat. (Sorry, Nick.) 

Surely at the top of any such list, however, is attending a “shower” of any kind. These days I gather it’s not uncommon for young men to get pulled into “couples” baby showers, though any guy who says he really looks forward to such a thing is flat lying to you. But a bridal shower, even in this altogether liberated and sensitive age of ours, remains pretty much a testosterone-free environment.

On a Saturday afternoon early in July, on their mother’s birthday, Katie, Claire and Helen were guests of honor at a triple bridal shower. Nearly fifty female family members and friends gathered for the party, which was held in the pleasant community room of the apartment complex where my mom and dad live, in Evansville, Indiana.

As the Maid of Honor Cubed, Gracie was technically the host, but early on she knew that planning a triple shower from out of town would be a challenge, so she recruited her cousins Michelle and Laura as co-hosts. Still, the prospect of doing some speaking in front of the group, not her favorite thing, had her a bit anxious. Also, given her heavy summer work schedule, she was going to be the last in the family to arrive in Evansville, literally the morning of the shower—not a confidence-inspiring thought given airline performance these days. But miracle of miracles, she arrived right on time, and the shower came together flawlessly, with the able assistance of her cousins, her grandmother and her Aunts Jean and Linda. The Kunkel clan has a deep bench down there in Indiana.

As for the brides, they were happier than happy, and why not? A shower means a wedding is officially transitioning from fantasy to reality, and they give you lots of presents! The girls were also delighted to be seeing so many of the friends made when they were youngsters in Indiana, now all grown and in several cases married ladies themselves. “And it was great to see all my cousins,” Katie added. “We are not only cousins at this point, but we’re all great friends, and it feels good to know that we will always be close.”

Michelle and Laura helped Grace create several games that fuel the fun that is a bridal shower. The first had involved asking the three grooms certain personal questions, then at the shower the girls were asked the same questions to see how well they knew their soon-to-be husbands.

Name one thing that you own that your fiancé will throw out the first chance he gets:
Mike—My flannel shirt; Nick—The mini-fridge; Sam—My running shorts.

You’ve gone to the store to pick up milk and decide to get your sweetheart a little something—what is it?
Mike—Flowers; Nick—Kit-Kat bar; Sam—Milk Duds or fruit snacks.

That kind of thing.

“My favorite question was, What famous person would Nick be?” Katie said. “I guessed that he said Jake Gyllenhaal, because he looks just like him. But Nick had answered in his e-mail to Grace something along the lines of, ‘I wouldn't want to be anyone else because then I wouldn’t be marrying your sister.’ I loved it—but I think it probably elicited a ‘Barf!’ response from most people.”

I was able to confirm that response.

This innocent little quiz also provided the kids some early insight into the psychological pitfalls of marriage. A perfect example was when the guys were asked to name the latest book they’d read. Helen knew perfectly well that Mike wasn’t a big book reader—I mean, he reads a lot, from fat Navy helicopter manuals to golf web sites, just not books—but Helen didn’t think he’d admit as much to a bunch of future family. So instead of going with her gut, she said Mike had probably read a book about investing, or maybe Texas hold’em.

“Wrong!” Grace announced. “Mike said he doesn’t read!”

Welcome to married life, Helen.

            Anyway, by all accounts this particular competition was a rout. “Claire blew Helen and Katie out of the water,” was how Grace put it. “She quoted Sam almost word for word on some things.”

 “I kicked Katie and Helen’s butt,” was how Claire put it, ever the diplomat. “And it was nice to find out that I know so much about Sam.”

(Sam, not that you asked, but if she knows you this well already you should be afraid—very afraid….)

Another game featured trivia about the girls, and the guests were asked to name which bride each fact pertained to—like, “Who used to be called Stinky?” (For the record, that would be Katie. Claire was Stumpy, and Helen Stretch—all for but a very brief time when they were infants, mind you, but for reasons that I suppose are obvious enough.)

As you can tell, I put my years of reporting experience to work to find out what was happening at the shower. But I had also told the girls all along that I probably would drop by at some point toward the end. I said it was because I wanted to see some of my mom’s sisters and other friends, which was certainly true. But it was also out of good old prurient curiosity, to get in there for the same reason that Margaret Meade wanted to get to Samoa.

The girls, surely suspicious of my motives, had uniformly replied that I couldn’t come, couldn’t violate the bridal shower code, if you will. But their opposition wasn’t so vociferous that I felt they really minded.

So about ten minutes to 3, as the shower was supposed to be drawing to its close, I walked through the door. There I confronted a roomful of startled-looking women, ages eight to eighty, all of whom started booing and hissing, as if I was Snidely Whiplash himself and had just tied up Nell on the railroad tracks.

They were teasing…I think. But in an instant I learned something important about bridal showers—they tend to last way longer than any “schedule” might suggest. Not only weren’t they finishing up yet, but turns out I’d arrived just in time for the Main Event itself. The three girls were seated up front, in little mini-thrones. They were each wearing paper tiaras. And they were in the process of receiving their largess, gift by gift, girl by girl. Each bride had a cousin next to her, carefully helping dispense with the ribbons and paper and logging every present. Out in the audience, meanwhile, the guests were playing a kind of Gift Bingo, covering the little boxes with Skittles and M&Ms when the girls got a gift that was on their card.

I’d slipped into a seat at the back of the room, with Mom and my aunts Rosie and Margaret, and I thoroughly enjoyed the scene. The matriarchal tribe had come together, as it has for centuries, and everyone was clearly having a wonderful time. So this was a bridal shower.

Yet at the same time I was feeling a distinct sense of unease…like I was about to get my Man card revoked.


Ahead of the bridal shower we spent a too-brief but enjoyable week at the farm. It was unusually mild weather for the season, the humidity put at bay for a few days, with skies of clear blue instead of their usual hazy white. Helen came down with us from Wisconsin; Claire, on summer hiatus from the classroom, was already there with Sam; and Katie and Grace drifted in as the week went along. Family came over for some cookouts, and I bought a small chainsaw and started thinning out some of the underbrush in the nearby woods. (This last was against Deb’s explicit orders, as it combines two things I’m not supposed to have—motors and sharp implements.)

A highlight for the girls and Sam was taking their friends to Holiday World, a quaint amusement park in rural southern Indiana that they have loved since they were small. The park is located in the village of Santa Claus, which once a year gets attention because people send Christmas letters there for the postmarking. My Mom’s parents actually grew up around Santa Claus, back in the turn-of-the-century years when German was still as commonly spoken as English, if not moreso. Even now, if you listen carefully, you can detect a faint Teutonic inflection in some of the speech in those remote parts.

After the shower it was time to return to Wisconsin. Tagging along were Claire, Sam and Sam’s mother, Maria, who was taking a short vacation to help with the wedding plans and get a first-hand look at where all the action would be taking place.

Of course, all work and no play can make even the loveliest young lady a bridezilla, so Deb, Maria, Helen and Claire did set aside one day for pedicures and other pampering at the decadent Kohler Spa, which is about an hour south of where we live—rather too close, in other words. But they’d all earned their relaxation. For after that, it was pretty much all wedding, all the time.

Dress fittings? Check. Veils? Check. Florist meeting to work out individual bouquets? Check. DJ coordination for the music? Check.

One full morning was devoted to the hair and makeup “trial.” Claire and Helen went in with red-carpet photos of the hairstyles they were looking for. Claire liked hers right off. There was more experimentation with Helen’s look, but in the end she too was pleased. In any case, when they got home they both certainly looked lovely, and as such the test was deemed a success. This was crucial not only because the brides want to look their best, of course, but because there will be a virtual army of brides and bridesmaids going in that Saturday morning. The girls had to be confident not only of the stylists’ and cosmeticians’ artistry but industry. On T-Day (for Triple), the hair and makeup team will have a lot of beauty to turn out in not a lot of time.

Another morning was given over to the tuxedo fitting for Sam. Apparently his suit didn’t hang particularly well when he first tried it on, but after a number of adjustments responding to one fiancĂ©e and two moms, it looked great. “By the time we left he took my breath away,” Claire said. She showed me a photo of Sam in the tux that she took when they were done, and he did indeed look like a model. I hate him.

Maria thoroughly enjoyed all the prep activities, especially the fittings. “All of the vendors seemed genuinely excited about this triple wedding, working together and interested in making sure each couple remains unique,” she said later. “The dress and tux fittings were definitely ‘Wow!’ moments. Our kids sure are handsome and beautiful!” Indeed they are.

Form holding, yours truly was not invited to any of the foregoing activity. The only exception was the cake tasting, and that’s probably because Chef Lindsay of the Runaway Spoon and her husband, Tim, were coming over to the house with their wares, and evicting me from my own castle was perhaps too bold even for my girls.

We sat around the dining-room table and sampled mini-slices of the six varieties of cake that Lindsay brought. We tried the red velvet cake (Claire and Sam’s choice), lemon (for Kate and Nick), and raspberry amaretto with almonds (Helen and Mike’s), along with pink champagne, vanilla bean and chocolate decadence. The grooms’ cakes all will be the chocolate. To my admittedly amateur palate they all tasted wonderful.

The tasting was fun, and the matter of which varieties would go into which cakes was handled with admirable dispatch. Then as I was licking clean my fork, the conversation subtly turned to icing, and it got quite…well, protracted. There was a lot of serious back and forth about the icing. Then the icing discussion segued to fondant, which (like tulle) I guess I had heard of before but couldn’t tell you what it was if my life depended on it. I soon gathered that fondant is a kind of icing but not icing exactly, more of a candy-like confection that isn’t spread but rolled or draped onto a cake in sheets. Interesting, but not exactly Council on Foreign Affairs stuff.

Nevertheless, a robust discussion continued about the pros and cons of fondant until I thought my head would explode. So I quietly slipped away from the table, knowing full well I would not be missed in the slightest, which of course I wasn’t. A half-hour later I walked by the table and the fondant discussion was still going strong—and I thought to myself, this is why dads are neither needed nor wanted in such gatherings. No good could possibly come of it.

Still, the key was that all was going quite well, and my daughters were content with how things were progressing. And not just with the details per se, but with the helpful attitude they were encountering with everyone they met in regard to the wedding.

 “It’s nice getting to meet people so passionate and professional,” Claire would say after meetings with both Lindsay and the wedding florist. “I was really impressed with the selections they gave me and how willing they were to make my own unique bouquet and cake.”

            I know what she means about that desire to please, and about the positive outlook generally. Anyone who lives here knows.

            Our friends to the west have a phrase to describe an organic piece of their character, which is much parodied but true: Minnesota Nice. Well, the analogue here might just as readily be termed Wisconsin Welcome. A genuine sense of hospitality and friendliness pervades the landscape here. Our patrons, the Norbertines, have even incorporated the idea of “radical hospitality” into their mission.

            You see it in the simplest habits, as I noticed again just the other day. July was a record-breaker for rain in this part of Northeast Wisconsin, so when a recent Sunday dawned clear and dry, I got out my trusty Schwinn and went for a leisurely ride, north past the college and over the Claude Allouez Bridge to the Fox River Trail, which runs parallel to the water all the way from Green Bay to well south of De Pere. On the trail, I must have passed fifty fellow bikers, Rollerbladers, joggers and walkers. And literally all but a handful made a point of saying, “Good morning!” as I went by. And not in a perfunctory way; they meant it. It’s remarkable.

            Wisconsinites are so intrinsically pleasant that newcomers, especially from the East Coast, will often spend their first few weeks sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, so convinced that no one can actually be that nice.

            From the trail I swung over to St. Norbert Abbey and stopped at the cemetery, which is laid out in a tranquil and shady spot west of the abbey building. I like to visit here when I get the chance; even a few moments’ reflection recharges the Norbertine heritage I have inherited with my appointment at St. Norbert College.

Though I’ve been here only two years, five priests of the order have been buried in that time, such is the actuarial reality of their aging membership.  More than 160 marble crosses, arrayed in six neat rows, mark the graves of decades of De Pere Norbertines. The stones arc in either direction from a more substantial marker, that of the founder of both St. Norbert Abbey and St. Norbert College, Abbot Bernard Pennings. The first president of St. Norbert College died in 1955—coincidentally the year that I, the seventh, was born. The inscription at the bottom of his stone marker (his actual remains are contained in a crypt within the abbey) comes from the thirteen chapter of John: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

            Back home, I washed down a couple ibuprofen (hey, I just told you I was born in 1955!) with a soda and got back to work on this installment. This is the twelfth of my monthly journals, which means—and this is incredibly hard to believe, even as I type it—that we’re a full year into this show.

As so many people have asked us about the wedding, we have inadvertently been collecting miscellaneous wedding horror stories. For instance, just the other day when Deb and I were talking to some friends about the beauty and general reliability of Wisconsin weather in early October, they sheepishly said they themselves had been married in early October—and it had rained that day like Noah’s flood. Then they told us about a daughter who was to be married in a beautiful, expansive (read: expensive) tent at Green Bay’s Oneida Golf and Country Club. But record rainfall the night before the wedding left the wooden floor of the tent beneath six inches of water! So with a lot of scrambling, the large wedding instead went indoors.

Maybe the capper, though, was related by my St. Norbert colleague Bridget O’Connor, who recently related the unplanned excitement that marked her own wedding, in her hometown in eastern Minnesota.

As the hour drew nigh, bride Bridget and groom Jeff were ready, the flowers were in place, the guests were seated, the organist was at the keyboard, all was as it should be…with one small exception.

The priest was nowhere to be found.

He couldn’t be raised (these were pre-cellphone, pre-texting days, naturally) and no one had seen hide nor hair of him. It was becoming obvious that unless he’d been in an accident, he’d simply forgotten.

Nothing was to be done except to scare up a pinch-hitting priest (PHP), which within about a half an hour they had.

So the wedding kicks off, a bit late but otherwise smoothly. Bridget says the PHP was actually doing a beautiful job, especially given the bizarre circumstances, that by fifteen minutes or so into the service her blood pressure was finally returning to normal. Then suddenly, who does she spot standing in the wings? The first priest! He had been resurrected! And judging from the fact that he was wearing his vestments and was trying to signal the couple with some cocked eyebrows and nods, it was apparent that he intended to join them, mid-ceremony. The bride, meantime, with some subtle facial signaling of her own, was desperately trying to convey that he should do no such thing, that the service was going along swimmingly, that indeed dueling priests were not only overkill but would be quite confusing to one and all.

Alas, too late. The original cleric marched right in. The audience sat at attention. The PHP was startled to see him, needless to say, but he went ahead and stopped where he was, pulled off his microphone, handed it over and recused himself. The original priest then put on the mike, opened his book and continued the service right there, as if tag-teaming a wedding was no odder than tag-teaming a WWF bout.

Bridget laughs heartily in telling the story now, even though she was no doubt homicidal at the time. But that’s the point, really. In these stories, and in fact in all the stories we have heard in the past year, one thing is consistent—every wedding turned out beautifully, the mistakes become part of family lore, and the couples carry on no worse for the wear. (For proof from Bridget, check out

Moral: Wedding hiccups happen, so you might as well enjoy them.

Hiccups happen: I think I’ve found my new mantra.

NEXT: Rounding the turn.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

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