The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 15: WEDDING BELLSClick here for previous chapters: Ch.14 Ch.13 Ch.12 Ch.11 Ch.10
Ch.9 Ch.8 Ch.7 Ch.6 Ch. 5 Ch. 4 Ch. 3 Ch. 2 Ch. 1
October 10, 2010
The simplest way to say it, I think, is this: It was a day of love—pure, joyful, unashamed, unvarnished love. As St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, one of the ceremony’s readings, “Love bears all things, believes in all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
As I write this, we are all exhausted physically but still quite exhilarated emotionally. The adrenalin carried us effortlessly aloft all through the day and the wedding itself, through the eternity of picture-taking, the pre-reception reception, the dinner, and into an effervescent evening that didn’t finish until nearly midnight. That adrenalin is now long gone, and at the moment my middle-aged legs feel like two columns of concrete. But I can scarcely stop smiling, so perfect was the Big Day, perfect in just about every conceivable way it could be.
I am up early, as is my wont, and in a little while I will start pulling together a casual brunch at the house for the newlyweds, their parents, some of their bridesmaids and groomsmen, and any immediate family who aren’t heading home straight away. We’re expecting a couple dozen folks, so there’s quite a bit to prepare. But I wanted to take a few minutes to set down some quick impressions from what was the most joyful day in Deb’s and my married life, or I should say the most joyful since the birth of all these girls so long ago.
The wedding day began around six a.m. No alarms were set, but the girls and I all arose about the same time after a somewhat fitful and abbreviated night of sleep. I heard the brides-to-be giggling in the kitchen for a while before they called up for Deb and me. They bid us to come down to the basement. When we did, the girls opened a door to a storage room—and there, hanging from the exposed joists overhead, were three beautiful wedding gowns.
It had been nearly a year since they’d picked out those gowns, and nearly a year of me wondering what they might look like. Now they were presented right in front of me, as wonderful and unexpected a gift as I could have asked for.
There was, however, a bit of price to be extracted for this special preview. “So Dad,” Claire said, “guess which dress belongs to which daughter?”
Gulp. I looked harder at the details. All were ivory-colored gowns, strapless and with “sweetheart” necklines and elegant trains. Dress A was made of silk and satin, with a beaded bodice, and it was punctuated with a gracefully long bow down the front. Dress B was made of chiffon and had a bodice of beautiful ruching. Dress C was made of taffeta, and its signature was a dazzling diamondlike pendant. I loved them all. And I hadn’t the foggiest idea which belonged to whom.
I guessed—and got all three wrong, to much laughter. I guessed again, and got them all wrong again, to more laughter, tinged with a little disbelief. I guessed a third time, and I still got two of them wrong, which I think is statistically not possible if the guesser is actually keeping track of his guesses. But frankly, I was still in such a state of shock being in the actual presence of these gowns of legend that my brain wasn’t working too well yet. (The correct answers: Helen’s was Dress A; Claire’s was Dress B; Katie’s was Dress C.)
After this happy start, the day’s business began in earnest. There were so many details that the bridal team had prepared a two-page, single-spaced schedule of activities.
But in truth, little of it had to do with me. As Deb and the girls and their bridesmaids were getting their hair and makeup done up in a kind of stylists’ assembly line, I tried to occupy myself back at home. I swept the fallen autumn leaves from the front porch and driveway, and then from the back patio, in case they were needed for photo settings later. I tried to straight up the house, which as the week went on was gradually taking on the look of a trailer park after the tornado came through. I sat the two dogs in residence—ours as well as Claire’s yellow Lab, Chase. I went over the toast I would give later that night.
How glamorous was my pre-wedding day? Well, about two minutes after I put on my tuxedo, Deb called. Grace answered but I also picked up—in time to hear Deb say, “Has anyone been out back to clean up whatever doggie doo is in the backyard?” Grace, already in her lovely navy-blue maid of honor gown, began to protest. But I cut her short. “I’m on it,” I said.
And moments later there I was, the tuxedoed president of a prestigious liberal arts college, shovel in hand and policing my grounds, doubtless the best-dressed pooper-scooper in wedding history.
About this time the rest of the bridesmaids were arriving at the house, and then the three flower girls—our too-adorable-for-words great-nieces Amelia, Hope and Abigail—and finally the brides themselves.
The scene was a surreal little dichotomy—from the shoulders down they were in loose-fitting shorts and T-shirts, but from the shoulders up they were made up like models, as beautiful as I had ever seen them, with their bridal veils already fixed into their hair.
As they saw them disappear down the basement stairs, I thought for a moment, well, they’re still my girls. Just half an hour later, however, they re-emerged, one by one, as princesses.
It’s an astonishing thing when a father sees a daughter at that moment, so impossibly beautiful in a way he has never seen her and could scarce imagine her, and knowing that within mere hours he officially is not the most important man in her life anymore. The ache that hits you, you can’t quite anticipate—but neither do you really want to let it go.
The weather was nothing short of glorious, the kind of day where just stepping outside puts an appreciative smile on your face. The entire week, in fact, had been so incredibly ideal that it was borderline suspicious, and in the days leading up to the weekend you felt it couldn’t actually stay that way through the wedding day. But here it was—literally not a cloud to be found in the crystalline blue skies, a light wind coming off the river, with temperatures climbing to an ideal seventy degrees. It was hard not to take that as an omen for what lay just ahead.
About one o’clock, photographer Jerry Turba and his associate came by the house—and we immersed ourselves in photos and photos and photos…of the girls separately, with their sister brides, with their bridesmaids, with their flower girls, with Grace, and of course, with Mom and Dad. How can standing still and smiling be so exhausting? Still, it was fun, part of the buildup. And the girls were all just radiant, the only word to do them justice. They were nervous, surely, but any nerves were overwhelmed by the sheer joy of anticipation realized.
Eventually even Jerry couldn’t think of any more photographs to take, so we were done.
It was time. The bridesmaids shuttled off down to the church, as did Deb and I, and in a trailing SUV, the three brides.
Upon arriving, they slipped into an oratory space at one end of the church. A large white screen kept them from view of the wedding parties, including the three grooms, who were collecting in the adjoining gathering space. I stepped out for a moment to greet each of the boys with a hug and a word of encouragement, but they were as excited as the girls. And all three looked most handsome. Sam was in a vested tuxedo with white tie; Nick was in a trim, single-button tuxedo with a black tie; and Mike was in his dress navy blue uniform, looking as crisp as you expect naval officers to look in such situations.
Three hundred guests meant the church felt fairly full without being uncomfortable. The mid-afternoon sun had the windows glowing and gave the space precisely the warmth we had hoped for. It was magical.
Precisely at three, the processional music kicked up.
When all the other parents had taken their seats, I escorted Deb into the sanctuary. If I may say so, she was an especially beautiful mother of the brides. She wore a stylish, sleeveless, knee-length dress that was the color of burgundy wine, and she had had her shoes dyed to match. She looked smashing. Reaching our seats, I squeezed her hand, then slipped away and out the smaller of the two side doors. It was time to get Bride No. 1.
Katie came out from the oratory to meet me. As she took my arm, I looked at her beaming smile and thought to myself, Was ever a bride more happy to be getting married? We slowly walked into the sanctuary space, bowed to the altar, then proceeded to where Nick, equally beaming, was waiting for her. I told her how much I loved her, gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek, then slipped her hand to her husband-to-be.
Again I left the sanctuary and arrived just as Claire emerged. She was every bit as happy as Kate, completely composed and just so pleased that this day had finally arrived. She didn’t appear nervous in the least as we walked in and headed down the aisle for Sam. He was stoic at first but relaxed as we came up, allowing himself a smile. Again, I leaned in to kiss my daughter, and give another man her hand.
One final loop to the back of the church. As I’ve said before, Helen is our emotional one, fully capable of crying at, say, a railroad crossing. So it wasn’t terribly surprising that, as she walked up to meet me, she was already working hard to fight back her tears. I hugged her and advised her to take a big breath. She wasn’t worried or even anxious, exactly—she was just so surpassingly happy that her emotions were in overdrive.
We walked in. When she caught sight of Mike, he smiled and she returned it, and I knew all was going to be fine. I kissed Helen’s cheek, gave Mike her hand—and asked him to take good care of her. “I will,” he said.
With that, I sat down next to Deb and proceeded to enjoy as lovely a wedding as I think I’ve ever seen. Of course, I’m hardly impartial about it. But too many other people later told me the same thing for me to doubt my reaction to what I witnessed.
The ceremony flowed seamlessly and hit precisely the tones the girls had wanted—majestic in parts but simple throughout; collective, naturally, but individual as well; spiritual but personal too. In their respective homilies about their couples, Fathers Jay, Sal and Tim offered humor, insight and stories in equal measure, and the vows went off without a hitch or glitch. Only Helen, again, got a little teary, and she was so soft-spoken that I can’t be sure she was actually saying what she was supposed to—although I’m sure she was, Fr. Tim being a stickler for details! Her sniffling got her sister brides sniffling too, but everyone got through it.
And speaking of sniffling…. In fact I did not go all blubbery, I’d have won that bet if I’d had had the courage to make it, which of course I didn’t. Indeed, a number of my friends commented that I seemed to maintain my composure. I replied that, in all honesty, I was just so happy about the couples’ own obvious happiness, about all I could do was smile. Later I saw a number of photographs taken during the service that proved it.
When the service was concluding—and in a brisk fifty-eight minutes!—Katie and Nick led the recessional, followed out by Claire and Sam. But at that point, a half-dozen of Mike’s groomsmen marched in, dressed in full naval regalia, and constituted the traditional Navy sword arch. At each “crossing,” the officers insisted that Mike and Helen kiss to continue on. After the final passage, Helen got another naval tradition—a friendly swat with a sword to her posterior. The audience was delighted and thrilled. Indeed, it was a touching and fitting finish to this extraordinary ceremony.
At the reception, I had the honor of formally welcoming all our guests and offer a toast to the three couples. I reprint it here because, really, it sums up how I felt about the entire occasion:
On behalf of Deb and Maria, Julie and Will and Marcia and Chuck—not to mention the brides and grooms—our heartfelt thanks to you all for coming from near and far to be here on this joyous day. We are especially pleased to have so many of our family members with us. And we are mindful, too, of our loved ones who look on from their places in heaven…where they are no doubt finding this little shindig a wonderful and welcome diversion from Grandma Niehaus’s terrible jokes.
Over the past year many of you have told us that a triple wedding is an extraordinary expression of the love that these sisters have for one another. I completely agree, of course. But that kind of bond could not exist without the nurturing and mentoring and example that was provided every day of the past 27 years by my wife, Deb. The girls know their father loves them very much, but I think they realized long ago that they are especially fortunate in their mother.
Parents quickly learn to gauge how their children are doing by the people they invite into their lives. Imagine how thankful and joyful Deb and I feel, knowing our girls have found such wonderful life partners in Nick, Sam and Mike. What can I tell you about them? All three are smart. All three are passionate, and about the right things. All are respectful and courteous, and all are thoroughly delightful company. Some would consider them rather handsome too, no? Most of all, of course, they love our girls. So Nick, Sam and Mike, on behalf of myself, my dad, my brother, my uncles and my male cousins, let me officially welcome you to the Kunkel Women spousal support group!
Julie and Will, Marcia and Chuck, and Maria and Tim—thank you for having raised such outstanding young men, and for being willing to share them with us.
Finally, I’d be terribly remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the world’s greatest—and busiest—maid of honor, our daughter Grace! From the inception of this idea, you handled your unique role with the kind of good humor and sensitivity and, well, grace, that few others could summon. We are all very proud of you!
And so we give thanks today for God’s many blessings on us. And let us toast the bride and groom…the bride and groom…and the bride and groom. Cheers!
Soon after, the three best men offered their toasts, all of which were delightful and poignant, albeit in very different ways—again, fitting the three-in-one theme of the entire day.
Then it was left to Grace for the final toast. She talked movingly about what she had learned from each of the couples. From Katie and Nick, she said, she had watched how they balanced their very heavy workloads with time for one another. From Claire and Sam, she said, she had come to appreciate the importance of spontaneity and engaging in activities that, while perhaps out of one’s own “comfort zone,” would be things one’s partner would enjoy. And from Helen and Mike, she said, she had been inspired by how dedicated and close they were despite—or perhaps partly due to—their long separations from one another.
As Grace went on, she began to choke up a bit, which in turn had her sisters going teary-eyed too. But she stayed strong as she closed. “I love these six people,” she said, “and I am extremely happy to officially welcome these three men into my family—although I have considered them brothers for a very long time now.”
After dinner the couples did three sets of lovely first dances. Which brought us to the last little bit of business for me—the father-daughter dances we’d worked on for several weeks. The deejay brought up the instrumental Moon River as Deb delivered Katie to me on the dance floor.
I looked directly at her. “Happy?” I asked, taking her into my arms.
“Very happy,” she said, smiling. And we went right into our waltz. As I’d hoped, I was really enjoying dancing with my daughter rather than worrying if I had the steps right.
It went flawlessly with Kate, as it did with Claire and then Helen, all of them beaming, and finally with Grace as the other three couples swirled around us.
People are arriving at the house now. No doubt they are hungry, and the stove is calling my name.
In a few weeks I will set down more fully what happened in the final week’s run-up to the wedding. But for now, let me say again that the word was, and is, love.
NEXT: The Week That Was.Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.