when my father got married

November 27, 2013

… was a red dress.

I was aiming for festive.

A week before the wedding my cousin emailed me. She was still in Arkansas, I was still in England, both of us about to fly to New Jersey for the ceremony.  Her email said, “What are you going to wear,” followed by an orgy of exclamation points. It was the kind of punctuation normally reserved for the tweets of 14-year-old girls but for once it was totally appropriate to a communication between two grown women. We were, after all, discussing something remarkable, the marriage of a man and woman well into their ninth decades — my father’s about to tip into his tenth.

Exclamation point.

It’s wonderful to think at that stage of life intense happiness is still an option.

Of course, wonderful often goes hand in hand with a margin of weirdness, an element that did in fact creep into the proceedings like an uninvited guest. My father used to be married to my mother, who died two years ago. His new wife lost her spouse as well. The children of these two previous unions –delighted and relieved as we were — couldn’t help but see the shadows.  We didn’t want to, but there they were, parental spectres, appearing at intervals over the shoulders of the happy couple. Along with the red dress, I was wearing some of my mother’s jewellery: two of her necklaces, her bracelet and a cameo ring I kept twisting around on my finger until I realized what I was doing, why I was doing it, and made myself stop.

My new stepsister and I were the official witnesses. (I now have a stepsister and two stepbrothers. They’re very nice.) Our job as witnesses was to sign the marriage license. I think it was the marriage license I signed. It could just as well have been a fishing permit, I was feeling that spacey by the time a secretary handed it to me in the marble gloom of Hoboken City Hall.  That’s where the ceremony took place, in the courtroom of Hoboken City Hall, a Victorian wedding cake of a building located, ironically enough, right across the street from Carlo’s Bakery, home of Cake Boss, the reality TV show with a cult following here in Britain.

The mayor of Hoboken officiated, a woman named Dawn Zimmer. It took me a while to work out who she was. We were standing around the lobby in our wedding clothes for what seemed like a very long time, waiting for a trial to wind down so we could take over the courtroom. I was talking to someone’s p.a., a bare faced girl with long bangs and a gauzy Indian-print top. The girl p.a. kept apologizing for the delay and it was only when she told me not to worry about the time, she’d cancelled all her other appointments, I realized I was making chitchat with Mayor Dawn herself.

mayorShe’s something of a heroine in Hoboken’s Hudson County, a district of New Jersey notorious for vote rigging, dirty deals and shady   politicians. Four years ago she was narrowly defeated in the Hoboken mayoral election. Six weeks after her victorious opponent took office he was hauled away by the FBI on charges of international money laundering and corruption. The FBI called it Operation Big Rig, and it was pretty exciting stuff, even by Hudson County standards. A special election was called, which Dawn Zimmer won (not a foregone conclusion in New Jersey; a few years ago the mayor of Lodi was re-elected from his jail cell), making her available to stand in front of all of us in a courtroom bright with fluorescent tubing to unite my father and stepmother in wedlock. (I now have a stepmother. Exclamation point.)

Halfway through the ceremony, the mayor started crying. She had stood up to the bad boys, turned down the bribes that subsequently tripped up her disgraced opponent, but the marriage of two octogenarians had gotten to her. It was getting to me as well, for all the obvious bittersweet reasons, but there was, for me, an added component. The day before I’d gone to a memorial service for someone who had died way before her time, someone I loved very much. That was the real purpose of my trip to America. This wedding was a bonus, a balm, which my father and his lovely bride-to-be had kindly organized around my visit.

I talked to my daughter before I flew over. The person who’d died had mattered to her, had been a major part of her life. My daughter is not sentimental. I like that about her, the fact she’s never in danger of violating what I call the Two Jews Rule.  The essence of the Two Jews Rule is you cannot have two Jews crying at the same time because once they – okay, we – start, there’ll never be an end to it. I told my daughter what I’d be doing in New York, the memorial service for the person we both loved and had now lost, the wedding the next day in Hoboken. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone and then she said, “Well, you can’t wear the same outfit for both occasions.” She sounded angry.