By Enid Cokinos
Jubilant guests lowered the bride to the floor. Her expression was unmistakable: Thank God that’s over!
My husband Todd reached out and took my hand as we climbed the broad steps of the historic Cret Building, Indianapolis’s Central Library. With its exterior of Indiana limestone and Vermont marble, along with Greek columns and massive wrought-iron gates at the main entrance, it is easy to see why our friends’ daughter, Abby, had chosen this impressive national landmark for her wedding.
This was Todd’s first Jewish wedding and my second—the first was my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding in September 1983. As Todd and I entered the library, I couldn’t help but remember that day 31 years before: Little did I know that I would marry less than two years later, nor could I have known that my first marriage would end in divorce.
On this September day, with the elegant cream and gold program in hand, we took our seats in the Reading Room to enjoy the string quartet positioned in the gallery above us. We marveled at the beauty of the space, the mixture of surfaces that played havoc with the acoustics: Marble staircases at either end of the room, walnut and white oak bookcases, and two massive bronze chandeliers.
The program included descriptions of Jewish wedding traditions, providing me with a much-needed refresher course on customs steeped in historical significance and symbolism, some dating back to Biblical times. Terms like Chuppah (hup·pah), Kiddush (ki-ˈdüsh), and Ketubah (kuh-too-buh) were further reminders of my brother’s wedding day.
Wearing a red dress with black diamond-shaped speckles and a wide-brimmed black hat, I felt cultured being part of my brother’s wedding in a Chicago hotel, so different from any I had ever been to before. I grew up in a Midwestern village (it was not even big enough to be called a town), and much of the population consisted of farmers and blue-collar workers. I am fairly confident that most, if not all, of the residents had never met someone of the Jewish faith, let alone attended a Jewish wedding.
Now, arm-in-arm, Abby and her father descended the stairs to Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary.” She radiated joy and happiness. The entrance to my own first wedding was an entirely different matter.
The bridal party entered the church filled with guests and the doors closed. I took my place alongside my oldest brother and heard the organ’s sounding chord—a deep vibration that struck the center of my chest. The doors opened. I hesitated. It was my intuition telling me this was wrong. My doubts would be confirmed within a few short years.
Shaking, I crossed the threshold of a church I did not belong to, into a marriage I did not belong in, but it was too late to turn back. The guests expected a wedding. The honeymoon was paid for. I chalked up those second thoughts to last minute jitters, but in my heart, I knew the truth. I was not ready.
My parent’s marriage was less than ideal, so I had no clear vision of what was needed to make a life partnership work. Though I loved my first husband, I came to accept that—on some level—he was an escape from my domineering, possessive father. Without me, the last child at home, Dad would be alone, and he was not about to let me go without punishing me, making me feel guilty for wanting my own life. I remember the phone conversation when I told my father he could not attend my wedding. He mumbled something akin to an apology but avoided admitting any wrongdoing. I stood firm: he was not welcome. Our relationship would remain forced and uncomfortable until the day he died, alone, less than two years later.
“Ugly crying” was evident in long-discarded photos of my entrance. Emotions so dark and complex they could not be contained. Sadness that my late mother was not there. Anger at my father’s behavior. Confusion about who I was and why I was marrying someone ten years my senior. Resignation that I must go forward. I suppressed each and every emotion and kept walking.
During the next eight difficult years, I would learn what I wanted and needed from marriage, and that I would settle for nothing less.
As the ceremony came to a close, Matt stomped the glass. “Mazel Tov”—a wish for good fortune—and applause echoed through the library. The fragility of the glass suggests the fragility of human relationships. The glass is broken to protect the marriage with the implied prayer, May your bond of love be as difficult to break as it would be to put together the pieces of this glass.
I was barely out of high school when my brother married, so, unlike that ceremony, I had observed Abby and Matt’s through experienced eyes. The eyes of a woman who married too young and learned the hard way that marriages do break; the ending a mixture of relief and sadness. The eyes of a woman who made painful mistakes in her first marriage and was blessed with a second chance to get it right.
I remember the entrance to my second wedding, feeling so different from the first. The intimate ceremony with less than 50 guests took place in the front yard of our Colonial-style home nestled in the woods of New Hampshire. A white tent had been set up in the front yard for guest seating, providing privacy from passing cars and shelter from the elements.
Typical of New England’s unpredictable fall weather, it had snowed just days before. Most of our nervous pre-wedding conversation centered on where we would hold the ceremony if the weather did not improve. We needn’t have worried, it was a picture-perfect October day: 80 degrees, fall foliage popping with color in the bright sunshine, the air crisp and clean, the sky brilliant blue.
My brothers were unable to attend, so I insisted on making the entrance on my own. I finally gave in to my matron of honor’s request that I let her husband escort me. I stepped out of the master bedroom, took his arm, and descended the stairs to “Trumpet Voluntary.” Though I was nervous, photos prove I was beaming (not an “ugly” tear in sight). I could not wait to marry Todd, to become his wife fully and forever.
Fifteen years after my first wedding, I took my place beside my new husband-to-be on the granite steps of the home we shared, where I knew I belonged.
Abby and Matt’s celebration was soon underway, replete with the ever-popular Horah performed to “Have Nagila.” Dancers hold hands and form a circle. The circle spins as each participant follows a sequence of steps forward and back. In its earliest version, dancers formed a circle by linking arms over their neighbors’ shoulders, spinning so fast that dancers were sometimes airborne.
Two chairs materialized on the dance floor in preparation to lift the bride and groom. They took their places—a bit apprehensively knowing what was in store. Abby’s eyes grew wide and darted around the room as the raucous behavior of the groomsmen and other male guests rose to a steep crescendo. Then up she went! I could see her death grip on the chair from across the room.
The steps leading up to the heave-ho of the groom were the same, and, although not a large man, Matt required more effort than his slender bride. Panic filled his eyes, too, but he tried to remain cool.
Mercifully the chairs had arms, eliminating the need for grasping and clawing at the chair’s seat or back. Still, it was most unsettling, as they were mere inches from the ceiling, their safety in the hands of overly zealous, intoxicated revelers. I could almost hear their silent prayers that they not be jettisoned across the dance floor or end up in a heap at the feet of the “chair-lifters” as the Master of Ceremonies repeatedly called out, “Not too high…not too high!”
I considered the dance’s symbolism, reflecting the ups and downs of marriage, as I watched Abby and Matt bouncing and jostling about. Spinning out of control at a breakneck pace in your daily life with work and family, trying to get your bearings. Struggling with adversity in all shapes and sizes. And worse, feeling like you are alone in a marriage, grasping for solid ground, and continually reminding yourself, “Just hold on, it will get better.” I know that feeling.
Abby white-knuckled one arm of the chair while grasping a linen napkin in her free hand. She flipped the loose end toward Matt, stretching so he could grab the cloth as he struggled against the unsynchronized bouncing. I held my breath until finally, he had it! I relaxed and silently cheered their success.
Yes, I know that feeling. Reaching across a chasm of chaos for the partner I've chosen from a place of confidence rather than confusion—and knowing that as long as he is there, I trust that I can reach out willingly.