Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Do, I Do, I Do (Ch. 13)

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

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for previous chapters:     Ch.12  Ch.11  Ch.10   Ch.9   Ch.8  Ch.7   Ch.6   Ch. 5   Ch. 4   Ch. 3   Ch. 2   Ch. 1
September, 2010
As I write, the wedding is little more than four weeks away. Through this unusually warm summer it seems entire weeks have clipped away like days used to. And when I talk about the wedding lately I find myself regarding it as much more a real thing, not just the idea of a thing that until now was still out in the ether somewhere, like Neptune, or my retirement.
That means I’m also thinking more about the ceremony itself, how that will unfold, what kind of day it will be—and what kind of control I will have, or not. As a rather emotional type anyway, I wonder increasingly whether I’ll be able to make that trip down the aisle of Old St. Joseph Church three times without turning into a blubbering mess.
My God, people, I’ve got three daughters getting married! Who let this happen?
Yes, this concept of elastic time, it’s just one of the many things bending my mind these days. (Also: Are we really banning the Chicken Dance at the reception? Is that even legal?)
I ask you, girls: How can the month remaining until October 9 be racing so quickly, when the month I spent beside each of you in the car, logging the parentally supervised driving that Maryland requires for teens to get a license, seemed such an eternity?
How can we have gone from birth to marriage in a metaphorical snap of the fingers when I’m still recalling those endless afternoons of your first soccer matches, which were not so much competitions between two readily discerned teams as much as one big scrum that slowly roamed around the field, like a robo-mower?
Or those softball games when you were first allowed to pitch to one another—games that basically went walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, a dad killing himself, walk, walk, third-baseman twirling her hair, walk, walk, walk, a mom killing herself…..
And by the way, did that make me a bad dad, because as I was watching I was excruciatingly aware of the time, the dripping time, the time I thought I could be doing something more tangibly constructive, the time I knew I would never have back?
Or did that make me a good dad, precisely because I did put in the time, rooting you on, no matter how much time it took? Inquiring minds want to know.
I’m not sure at what point a dad knows how he “did.” As you know, there’s something in the American makeup that compels us to keep score, especially as to a final reckoning of some kind. But when is parenting “final”? When I am eighty-five and you are sixty? On second thought, don’t answer that question….
Sure, there are certain universal signposts along the way where a parent naturally takes stock. If your kid clearly isn’t the village idiot in her kindergarten class; if she’s not peddling drugs when she’s thirteen; if she hasn’t dropped out of high school; if she drives a car and seems as comfortable with the brake as with the accelerator—well, maybe you didn’t get it all wrong.
But what is it? What, really, did you do, Dad?
I’ve known folks who went into parenthood with a real plan. They wanted to try to “shape” their kids like a bonsai gardener, carefully controlling every element that they could. Other parents I know took a more free-form approach—let the child grow to whatever she wants to be. Either way is a crapshoot—as is every child, really—and besides, as far as I know no one has ever circumvented the Law of Unintended Consequences. Life happens.
For you girls, I would say Mom and I tried to walk a kind of middle course. We didn’t have any grand designs for you—except we were intent on giving you the opportunity to explore what you wanted to explore, to build up your confidence, to learn what you were good at and what you might enjoy. We certainly wanted to see you educated to the best of our means. But first and foremost, what we wanted for each of you was that you would grow to be a good and caring person, respectful of others and of yourself.
Mom just read that last section and said I might want to add that when she used to fill out school forms that asked what we wanted for you (needless to say, this is the first I’m hearing there even were such forms), and other parents would write that they hoped their kids would be astronauts or biochemists, she would simply say, “I want them to be happy.”
Toward that end, I guess you might say we tried to parent by example, by the lives we led and by the decisions we made. In so doing, we purposely didn’t screen a lot from you, because you needed to know that even moms and dads have flaws that must be understood, worked on, endured or compensated for.
So you saw early on that your dad has something of a temper. Given my through-and-through Germanic genes, I have a superior talent for repressing frustrations until they no longer can be repressed, at which point they sometimes erupt like those shooting solar flares you learned about in sixth-grade science. Shrewdly, you also figured out pretty early that this ire is quick to recede—usually followed by a wave of guilt (that’s the Catholic, not the German) that could prove pretty useful to you.
You learned that Dad is impetuous and not infrequently impulsive—that I want what I want, when I want it. This can be a charming trait…in a four-year-old; not so much in a grown man. (I’m still working on that…yes, really, I am.) Similarly, I can be absurdly impatient. How many movies did you endure when I got so bored that I started a sarcastic running commentary, trying to prod a family walkout?
And you came to be aware that often—too often—I wasn’t there, be it honors night at the school, your art show, or one or two pet funerals. Not that I didn’t want to be there (well, some of those recitals….), but more often than not I just couldn’t. I was working in jobs that required a lot of after-hours time, and a fair amount of travel.
But that’s just one of the many things that made your mom and me a good team, I think. She has a capacity for putting in the time that, to me, can beggar belief. You saw that, and you appreciated it. You somehow knew that she was not only representing herself but carrying my proxy. And you also saw the many other ways she complemented, or counteracted, my own character traits. You saw how she did what she needed to to neutralize or shield the bad, and to celebrate the good.
That’s called being a spouse—and maybe was the best lesson of all to young women about to sign on for the long journey with these young men who, while outstanding fellows, will doubtless bring along their own challenges and idiosyncrasies…as will you.


Back to time.…
I’m thinking now of the evenings we’d spend out on the screened porch and just talk about things. Or Saturday mornings when you would instruct me, as the princesses you then were, whether it was to be waffles, pancakes or French toast. Or those family meetings, which we all understood were sort of corny even as we all fully appreciated their importance. Or the time spent rolling around on the living room floor with you and our cats Ed (the good-hearted, simple one) and Lyle (the evil-hearted, sophisticated one).
I’m remembering the times I built you things when you were small. In retrospect that was some of the most “dadlike” behavior I engaged in, I guess, but of course I enjoyed the building just as much as you liked the receiving.
I was reminded of that not long ago when we cleared out the Maryland house. Mom was in the attic sending things down the ladder to me. Suddenly she was maneuvering through the opening the legs of a small blonde table, and then two small matching chairs. I hadn’t seen them in years and they made me smile. When Claire was a toddler I made them so she and Katie would have a place to draw and color together. That play-set became a family fixture. And then about the time Helen came along, I built you all a play “kitchen” unit with a moppet-sized rangetop (complete with “burners”), oven, and sink (with “sprayer”). As I made it out of three-quarter-inch plywood, that thing was heavier than some of the cars we’ve owned, and I can’t believe how many times we moved it. But you girls and your friends used it hard over the years.
There were the treehouses (remember the annual post-Halloween “pumpkin tosses”?) , and that curious ramp I engineered in the backyard that turned your red Radio Flyer wagon into a poor woman’s roller-coaster. That was a big hit with your friends, too.
Maybe the time I still remember the most was one summer afternoon in Indiana, in 1997. As I say, when you were very young we moved around a lot. In fact, one year, because of the timing of our move from Arizona to California, Katie found herself in three different kindergartens! Still, you all had been so young that, for all you knew, everyone lived this kind of vagabond existence. You never complained. (Well, almost never. Part of the family lore is when our friends Clint and Carolyn came to visit us in San Jose. As we all piled into our van to take a little tour of the area, five-year-old Claire asked in her most plaintive voice, “Are we moving again?” To this day Clint enjoys reminding me about that.)
But this move was to be different. I had been on my own as a book and magazine writer for five years, and every bit of it was wonderful, kind of like an extended sabbatical. But by this point I needed to get another “grownup” job, and I had been offered a great one in Maryland that I couldn’t really afford to turn down.
By then you ranged in age from thirteen to eight, you had established friends, and you had grown close to your Indiana cousins and other relatives. You had teams. You had a backyard with a swing. You had a real home that you had grown to love. Now, well over a decade later, this image remains so clear to me: All of you sitting on the living room couch, four ducks in a row, as we break the news of the move to you—and almost in unison you start to cry, and not just petulant whimpers but serious emotional torment. It nearly killed Mom and me. She is so much stronger than I am, and it was I who, in the face of your pain, was sorely tempted to blurt, “Okay, we’ll stay.” But by that point, staying was not an option.
To your great and everlasting credit, you stopped crying, you made the move like big girls, and you didn’t hold it against us or otherwise try to exploit the guilt we felt. It was an impressive display of maturity on the part of kids so young, and we were proud of you. Indeed, in short order you embraced your new home, which you found to be beautiful and exciting and so full of adventure. You made lives there, and found new people there.
Including some very lucky young men.

It’s funny what time can do.


Pretty much every conversation now, people ask me how the wedding is going. They ask in a way that suggests I must be navigating all the details crashing in on me like a man trying to claw his way out of an avalanche.
They’ve got it half right—the details are crashing in…just not so much on me. The RSVPs are coming back in. Helen is working with Fr. Sal and Fr. Jay to finalize the wedding ceremony program. She’s working on the music, too, and she and Deb just met with the catering and cafeteria staff to compare notes on the reception. We’re coordinating the travel of the various wedding parties. Maybe most amazing, we’re trying to make sure that we can get two of the three couples to the Brown County clerk’s office literally the day before the wedding to make sure they get their marriage licenses. Nothing like a bit of last-minute pressure to keep things interesting.
But for me? Well, I just nod…. Yes, yes, it’s crazy, all right. I don’t have the heart to tell people that the level of my concern about the “details” is whether I should go ahead and get my hair cut now so that it’s ready for a trim a week before the wedding, or whether I should wait a while longer.…
As the RSVPs return, we’ve been doing regression analysis (or something like it) all along the way, and it now looks like we’ll probably wind up with between 350 and 400 people in attendance—just about the right number to have a very full church without anyone feeling claustrophobic.
More to the point, that would be a great number for the reception. We recently had our annual Faculty and Staff Dinner in the same campus cafeteria space where the reception will be held. The dinner is our traditional kickoff for the new school year, and there were about 450 current and retired faculty and staffers jammed into the space. It worked fine for that, but it would be challenging to have that many and still carve out the kind of floor space one would need for, say, a respectable Chicken Dance.  

NEXT: Best Foot Forward.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.


  1. T - Thanks so much for sharing your insights as a father of daughters. While my triplets may not have a triple wedding, I will have three daughters getting married some day in the far future (I hope).

    Lee W. Waldrep

  2. This is about the sweetest thing I've ever read. I just learned about the triple wedding a week before from one of your relatives in Indiana, and then was surprised to learn just today, that one of the grooms (Sam)is part of the family of good friends of ours. The Kaisers are such good people. I wish all of your daughters the best!