My people have always married. No matter the circumstances, the bride wore a big white dress and there was cake and coffee afterwards in the church basement or, if the couple was well-off, the VFW Hall over on Hawthorne. The groom could be seventeen and not sure the baby was his, but they married anyway. The bride could be obese and fifty-three, but she would marry the patient before he had his final heart attack. They could be headed to separate prisons, but they got married first.
Despite the many wobbly starts, there were always loads of babies being jostled in the crying room at the back of the church. Wedding showers studded every weekend from March through May. You had to go to every one and your present had to be just right. The old aunts kept score. My mother taught me how to crochet afghans so that my tiny paychecks weren’t obliterated.
I was eight when I started my wedding scrapbook. In it, I pasted pictures of brides that I cut out of wedding magazines that my mother brought home from the beauty parlor.
By the time I was twelve, I could take one look at a gown and tell where it came from. I knew to avoid the pigs-in-blanket because they made me burp and to save room for two servings of cake when it came from Josephine’s Bakery.
By the time that I was fourteen, I knew that I wanted a perfect wedding like in the bride magazines. My lace gown would have tiny sequins to sparkle on the sunny June day on the green lawn at Windermere Plantation. My hair would be twisted up into a loose twist like Jeannie’s best friend’s sister had at her wedding and my veil would float gently in the warm breeze. I would carry a bouquet of white roses that I wouldn’t throw (I’d have a special throwing bouquet to toss), but would keep in the keepsake china closet that my mother already promised to give to me. My bridesmaids would be pretty, but not so pretty that they outshone me. I would glow on that perfect day, gently smiling and at ease in my satin pumps as I whirled around the parquet wooden dance floor.
My scrapbook got thicker with every year. I added brochures from destination wedding sites. I tucked in snips of the peach linens that I favored. I added printed menus to the section with invitations and thank you notes. Sometimes I even changed the pages around when I found something that I liked better. I didn’t throw anything out, though. I put it into the shoe box where I kept the pictures and unacceptable keepsakes from well-meaning contributors to my cause.
One day, my mother sat me down with a cup of hot tea. I was sixteen and trying to decide which senior to marry from my high school. She pushed her bangs off the front of her face so that I could see the furrows carved deep into her forehead. Don’t do it, she told me, don’t do what I did and marry the first boy who asks.
I closed the scrapbook and stared. She and my father were my favorite love story. They met their senior year in high school when he moved into town from Maine. They were in the same English and history classes. She fell in love the day he recited a poem by John Donne in English class and then won the football game that night. He fell in love with the pretty girl who hid her smiles behind torrents of curls and who could kick a football further than most boys.
Live your life, she told me. Make sure that you can take care of yourself so that no matter what you can be happy. You can do better than this place, this town. I know, I know, you’re happy here, but see the world first before you settle down.
My father came whistling up the back stairs and banged the screen door behind him. His red t-shirt was splotched with sweat. He slung a look over at us when he filled a glass with water from the sink. What are you girls talking about? You look so serious.
My mom got up and handed him one of the cookies she’d made the night before when she couldn’t sleep. He made a crumb kiss on her head and went back out to finish the lawn before the thunderstorms that were sure to come that night.
Don’t get me wrong, she said. Your father and I are very happy. He is a good man. I am lucky to have him. Don’t let that scrapbook tell you what to do, what is happy and good and worth having in this life.