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-- Stephen Dobyns

I DO AT A COFFIN SALE

I used to say that you could get married when you ran out of things to do. So we got engaged after two rounds of Long Island ice teas at Carlos Murphy's bar on a Saturday afternoon in April. Somewhere along the highway, leaving the watering hole, Sean and I decided that we could save money on rents by jumping the broom.

June would bring another birthday for me, so that gave me two months to plan a wedding. Sean was Catholic, I was Baptist; we agreed on a Protestant wedding in the largest chapel of his dad's funeral parlor. With little time for details and no room for drama, there would be three bridesmaids and three groomsmen. I found the perfect peach dresses at a deep discount in JCPenney's bridal salon. Someone else's cold feet made my decision easy.

The funeral parlor offered all the amenities, including an organist, a large viewing room that would be used as a reception hall, a fleet of new white limousines, and when wind of our unusual wedding location made its way to the local paparazzi, there wasn't a seat left in the overflowing chapel. Some guests even sat outside the chapel in the hallway underneath the signboard, which had been changed from its usual listing of viewing times of the deceased to "Congratulations to the Bride and Groom!"

Two rows were reserved "for clergy only." Not inviting every preacher in town could spell professional suicide for the local undertaker.

It wasn't easy to get my divorced in-laws to bury the hatchet long enough to pose for endless photos. For my mother-in-law, it took a beautiful one-of-a-kind number from Irene Sargent. No ex-philandering spouse was going to ruin her chance of being "Mother of the Groom." Poor Daddy, in his wheelchair, being rolled from spot to spot, had to endure the not-so-quiet whispers: "Poor thing, used to be such a strong man, he had a horrible stroke, Lord, have mercy, you just never know."

I had taken ten milligrams of Valium with no water, and when I walked through the chapel doors, even though I didn't recognize most of the grinning faces, I was literally beaming. I floated down the aisle on the arms of my favorite uncle. The room was cleared of the usual crowd and before nearly 300 people, under the most beautiful arch the florist had ever made (especially for us since dad-in-law was one of his best customers), we pledged to spend the rest of our lives together whether we liked it or not. When asked, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" Daddy sat up straight in his chair and in his loudest voice proudly proclaimed, "I do!" The soloist wowed the crowd and even herself with a beautiful rendition of "Endless Love," which replaced her standard, "Soon and Very Soon, We Are Going to See the King."

Since I was working at the local television station, I got the weekend camera crew to film my special day at no cost. By the time we waltzed across the hall to the "Oval Office" for the reception, everybody was having a great time. Especially the limo drivers (a.k.a. funeral escorts), who skipped the last part of the ceremony and were already popping champagne corks. There were people from my Baptist church and people from Sean's Jack-and-Jill chapter, all enjoying the juicy slices of ham and roasted turkey his aunt had prepared, alongside the fancy hors d'oeuvres prepared by the caterer. Bright red punch flowed through the fountain in the center of the four-tiered cake, which had more flowers all around it, courtesy of the florist.

My news director didn't even notice that his newsroom was operating with a "skeleton crew" because most of his staff was at the wedding. Exchanging vows in the house of the dead is any newsman's idea of a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

What an amazing scene. Television personalities sprinkled in with every minister from every church in town, little old ladies who just "happened" to be driving by and heard there was a wedding at the funeral home, body snatchers from near and far who were paying their respects to the son of one of their oldest colleagues, and twentysomethings who were just there for the free food and drink and the chance to catch the garter. An hour or so into the reception, this eclectic group was doing the electric slide to the music of the good-looking DJ as if they were all old friends.

Then that magical moment struck -- 5:30. "Oh my God!" Everyone left almost simultaneously to get home in time for the six o'clock news. Would they see themselves on television? It was reality TV before its time.

-- Dorothy Stewart

A BEN & JERRY'S ICE CREAM CAKE COMES TO MIND

Happy weddings are all alike; every unhappy wedding is unhappy in its own way.

I've been married three times. My first and third were both happy, and startlingly alike. Both took place within a few miles of each other, on the same stretch of shoreline on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Both took place in summer, both had wonderful food, live music, strange in-laws, good friends. My second wedding was unhappy in its own way.

It took place in a small, dark house, possibly the smallest house in Burlington, in 1987. I was 34, give or take a month. The bride -- I'll call her Sarah -- was 37. I had been married once before; Sarah had been married twice. It must have been May or June, shortly after Sarah had the first of her psychotic episodes, when I came home to find her cowering naked in the corner of the kitchen, hyperventilating. I managed to persuade her to blow into a brown paper bag and then to take a warm shower.

No attendants. No maid of honor or flower girls or best man. No organist. The justice of the peace was a friend of mine. He came over with his copy of the statutory wedding vows and a video camera. "I'm a full-service operation," he said dryly. It's the only thing I can remember anyone saying.

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