March 21, 2009 § 2 Comments


a love note

There was an email from one of our closest friends this morning, wishing us a very happy anniversary.

“Hmm,” I thought. “She must have the date wrong.” Glancing up at the calendar, there it is written in my own clear hand “Anniversary,” in today’s little square. When my husband comes in from working in the raised bed where we’re planting this year’s herb garden, I grin at him and say “Happy Anniversary, honey.”

“What? Are you sure?”  We married on the first day of Spring, sixteen years ago. You’d think we’d be able to keep track.  By the end of the day, we have marked this occasion poking around in a junk shop, stopping at a restaurant for a couple of excellent hamburgers, then on to the hardware store for a new sprayer for the faucet on the kitchen sink.

Like our marriage, it is a companionable and comfortable outing. We share a few private jokes, and nudge each other occasionally over our “date.”  Hell, we look like a Cialis commercial, who needs Hallmark and a trinket in a velvet box? I’d rather have peony bushes to line the front walk anyway.

This is the first anniversary we’ve spent away from the place where we met, wed and spent most of our married life up ‘till now.  Funny how that distance gives you an extra dollop of nostalgia, and over the course of the day I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about that blustery March day in Montana sixteen years ago.

East coast wasp-y girl writer marries Los Angeles native Chinese railroad man father of two small girls. Their mother departed the scene long before I arrived; he and I met in the public library where I worked at the circulation desk. I had no idea he was as old as dirt as he seemed (and seems) very cute and boyish. We had a guest list as long as our arms, having decided to invite everyone we ever knew. What was remarkable is how many showed up . . . including Sir Brian Corrin and his lovely wife, Sheila, who popped across the pond for the occasion. 

The best man, Webb Hardenbrook Green, had been my landlord in Boston. The maid of honor was also a man; Colin Burns, artist and lead singer of a death metal band. (Don’t be silly, he wore a tuxedo.) The other bridesmaids, in tea length periwinkle velvet, included my dear friend Noelle Sullivan (who sent greetings this morning) and sang Handel at the wedding and is herself a girl-writer, and Sheryl Dahl, a fifth generation Montanan, baker and bon-vivant. Elmer’s beautiful daughters in English lawn dresses led the procession; now they are both beautiful grown up women, married as well.

In the days before the wedding, we filled the church with tulips and pussy willows; branches cut early and brought inside to leaf. (March in Montana is very, very unpredictable.) The church had been used as a set in Robert Redford’s movie A River Runs Through It the year before. It needed little beyond spring flowers and a few exuberant swags of tulle to look festive. Grannie, my father’s mother, arrived at the airport looking every inch the Hollywood dowager, complete with big hat and small entourage. 

Members of the wedding, guests, family poured in from across the country, arriving in flurries of excited greetings, warm embraces, laughter. Late on Thursday evening we’d gone in search of food and drink. Parents and stepparents, grandmothers and minor rock stars, English peerage and Montana railroaders, we eventually landed at the Timber Bar, in Big Timber, about 40 miles east of Livingston. It was a pretty quiet night at the Timber, a Montana workingman’s bar, linoleum floors and schoolhouse lights. When the front door opened, we looked up to see who it was, and to our surprise ten more wedding guests walked in. 

Rehearsal dinner had been in Sam Peckinpah’s old apartment in the Murray Hotel, not just for members of the wedding, but for all of the out of town guests and some of the in town ones too.  As we left the hotel, mist was swirling in the streets.

It was a four o’clock wedding, which leaves too little time to do much and too much time to do nothing. There were flowers to be fetched, a sweet pea bouquet like that my Grannie carried 57 years before. Last minute hair issues and a missing bridesmais. (She turned up.) My mother and my Nana and my groom sat at the kitchen table assembling the last of the programs, each decorated with a Chinese paper cut, each bound with a sewn binding of gold thread. I tried to eat breakfast, French toast, my favorite, but I swear it tasted like cardboard with maple syrup on it. Joan Hartwig, an expert in Shakespeare and a friend of my parents since graduate school, buttoned up all 35 buttons on the back of my velvet dress.

The ride to the church was in a horse-drawn carriage (two matched black Arabians) and at the last minute my stepfather asked me if I’d like him to ride along and you know, I was really glad for the company. I had two fathers at this event, and given my concern for bruised feelings, I chose to walk down the aisle unsupported by any man’s arm. You know, I’d been an actress and a performance artist in college; surely I could manage a two-minute trip to the altar. You wouldn’t believe how long the first two minutes and seven seconds of Claire de Lune seem when you’re shaking in your pale silk slippers.

Upon the altar, I realized that I’m wearing a ring on the third finger of my left hand, a little gold circlet, an everyday sort of ring that I’d forgotten to remove. “The wrong ring!” Silently, discreetly and only in a tiny panic I slipped it off and palmed it into Colin’s hand; I think he probably still has it.

Webb had the right rings in his pocket: mine a ring Elmer and I bought in a pawn shop with money unexpectedly left to me by my stepfather’s late mother, Mary Killick, a woman who saw good in everyone and who was charmed by Mussolini. Elmer’s ring is the one I’d worn on my middle finger since I was 15, it was my father’s wedding ring from his marriage to my mother.

The vows were complex. (Hey, I was a writer-girl and former performance artist, what did you expect?)  They were a combination of homily and prayer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Rainier Maria Rilke, the traditional Lutheran marriage service, not asked and repeated, but answered from memory. When Elmer married the first time, in a civil ceremony Alaska in 1968, he was struck dumb: instead of saying “I do,” he was only able to nod. (Yeah, yeah, we know.)

He and I practiced and practiced and practiced. He memorized his lines until he could have said them in his sleep. At least that’s what we hoped. His voice rang out strong and true to the last line of Rilke “With only this one dream, You come, too.” During the recitation of his vows, he never once wavered, finally arriving at the great long riff that is the pinnacle of the Lutheran intent: “that I take you to be my wife from this time onward, to join with you and to share with you all that is to come: to give and to receive, to speak and to listen, to inspire and to respond, and in all circumstances of our life together to be loyal to you with my whole life and all my being, until death parts us.” The tears welling in my eyes spilled over.

The ebullient notes of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring filled the sanctuary, and we dashed down the aisle to receive guests at the back of the church, who kissed our cheeks and went outside to stand in the drizzle tossing rice. The Chinese say that all the rain that falls on your wedding day are tears you won’t have to cry in your marriage. Such pragmatists, the Chinese.  My groom and I and the little girls climb into the carriage for a ride through the rain to the Park and down Yellowstone Street to the Depot, a handsome Italianate railroad depot designed by Reed and Stern, they of the Grand Central Terminal fame. People come out on their porches to wave as we pass by.

Meanwhile, back at the Livingston Depot, a fully loaded coal train has rumbled by. A coal train is extraordinarily heavy and it can send significant vibrations through a building. Before the wedding, our friend Sheryl, baker and bridesmaid painstakingly assembled the exquisite wedding cake at the Depot, hurried to change her clothes and rushed to the church by quarter to four. (That’s where she was.) But the rumbling of the coal train had set the cake to shaking and it had slumped, a delicious disaster on the cake table.

No one tells the bride anything when something goes wrong. I missed Sheryl long before I realized the cake wasn’t there.  I would survey the room occasionally, greet guests, tip my head to Noelle, and mouthe, “Where’s Sheryl?” She’d shake her head, shrug a little. Finally I sent Webb to see what he could find out. I swear he and Noelle exchanged a look. Webb came back and whispered in my ear.  When they took us to her, Sheryl was sobbing. This was worse than the cake. Cake is just cake even when it’s your wedding cake.

It wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t be served; it just didn’t look the way we thought it would. And it was the incomparable Velvet Underground Cake, from the recipe they used at Rosie’s Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Here’s the recipe.  They don’t credit Rosie, but they ought to, it’s definitely hers. It takes at least a day to make this cake and it is worth every minute of effort.)

“Well,” I said,  hugging Sheryl, “let’s just eat it.”

The best man found a wedding crasher, a middle aged woman, crouching in the coatroom behind the coats. She had snuck in to hear the band, she was “auditioning” bands for her daughter’s upcoming nuptials. As it turned out,  that particular band couldn’t be had for love or money (though I remember we had them for $600). We’d engaged the MSU Jazz Swing band to play jazz standards. The day before the wedding (yes, one day before) the director, Glenn Johnson, called to say he was very sorry, he forgot the students would be gone on Spring Break.  But, he was quick to add, he said he knew some jazz musicians who would be willing to fill in this one time, friends of his, if that would be okay.

It turned out to be far better than okay. The friends, as it happened included seriously well-regarded musicians like Eric Funk and Kelly Robertie, among others. It’s like expecting a cover band and getting the real thing. Not only that, they had a bigger repertoire, more Gershwin, and Eric Funk can sing. And they didn’t usually play wedding gigs, so they were having fun, breaking into a series of lively polkas, when one of my husband’s co-workers started the rest of the railroaders to pinning currency to my dress. Sometimes traditions just happen to you.

Somehow we miscounted tables, and didn’t have a place for the musicians to sit during breaks. So they sat with us, dispensing advice on marriage and love and the blues, eating roast salmon and medallions of filet and game stew. You can imagine the advice, but they offered it tenderly.

And not once, not twice, but three times they played us our song, Eric Funk talking over the piano . . . “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend, the world with all its capers and how it all will end. Nothing seems to be lasting. But that isn’t our affair; We’ve got something permanent, I mean in the way we care. . .”  And then he sang Gershwin’s very last song:


It’s very clear

Our love is here to stay;

Not for a year

But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone

and the movies that we know

May just be passing fancies,

And in time may go.


Many things have changed since that day in March. Those musicians have scattered, they don’t play together anymore.  Sheryl has closed her bakery. The pastor was sent to a church in the far corner of the state. I haven’t seen Colin since the day we put him on the plane. My Nana is gone, and so is my stepfather, and so is my Dad. We’ve left Montana.


But, oh my dear,

Our love is here to stay;

Together we’re going a long, long way.

In time the Rockies may crumble,

Gibraltar may tumble,

They’re only made of clay,

But our love is here to stay.



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