By Tiana Leonard
The groom-to-be’s emphatic response cut Larry off in mid sentence as he was reciting the vows. Gathered friends and family laughed in understanding. Stiff and Amy had waited 48 years to share those words and they were eager. Not counting her withholding college boyfriend, this was Amy’s first serious relationship. Amazingly, her 49-year-old consort was also unmarried. Maybe they had been searching for each other. When a mutual friend had introduced them in Gainesville, Florida, three years before, they had both thought the other attractive but uninterested. A year of increasingly personal online flirting followed during which they discovered that they had 60 Facebook friends in common.
In June, when Amy was back in Gainesville on summer break, she told me she was asking a man named Stiff Packard out to lunch. When I asked her later how it had gone, she said it had been fun. She told me he was studying to be a nurse and was the DJ of an internet radio jazz program. Since Amy lives in Washington DC, I didn’t give it much thought. So a few months later I was shocked to learn that Amy and Stiff were having daily two-hour phone conversations. This was momentous. Amy has been phone phobic since leaving puberty. As far as we knew she had never talked on the phone for more than a half hour with anyone. Her brother Andrew was clearly shaken. He and Amy have been close ever since my divorce from their father started them on a life of airplane travel together. During football season, they would watch the Gators play on their bicoastal TVs, texting continually on exciting plays. Andrew is divorced and his youngest child will soon be leaving for college. The prospect of losing his special relationship to Amy was wrenching. I felt the same way. Because of her academic schedule, Amy has spent every Christmas as well as spring and summer vacations with me. Now that I was a widow, I was looking forward to European trips together.
But it seemed premature to worry. Amy was set in her ways and neither Andrew nor I could imagine her inviting anyone to share her space, especially the four cats that would be part of the picture. But when Andrew learned that Stiff (a nickname for Steven) had made Amy an 11 hour playlist for her drive back to Washington, we knew it was serious. In December, when I was packing up the house for my move to New York, Stiff came to our last Florida caroling party. Prematurely gray, with an infectious grin, he looked like quite a catch. In the kitchen before leaving, he threw his arms around me and said “I loved the party and I love your family.” That was a good sign. Our family is noisy, sarcastic, intrusive, and not to everyone’s taste. He continued to come to dinner as the furniture and kitchen disappeared and the roast beef faded into pizza. He and Amy then left for DC, where she introduced him to her friends at a New Year’s Party. She told me that her friends and Stiff had bonded and that she would spend the summer and her fall sabbatical in Gainesville to see if she and Stiff could actually live together.
To everyone’s amazement, not least her own, she and Stiff got on extremely well, in the kitchen, and everywhere else. This was particularly surprising, since Stiff, unlike Amy, is not a TV or sports fan and without cable, Amy had to go to sports bars to watch the Gators. The next step was to introduce him to Peterborough and the New Hampshire farm where the children and I had spent our childhood summers and Christmas. There was a break between the licensing exam and the start of his first nursing job so they could manage a four day visit. We had the obligatory steak, lobster and hot dog picnics with all our cousins at the pond. Fortunately Stiff, like Amy, is an omnivore, whose only food fetish is that he doesn’t like dill in salads. He and Amy showed beautiful teamwork, buying all the ice, beer and soda and filling the coolers, a job I always find exceedingly onerous. Stiff even found his way to the neighboring town to pick up the lobsters while we were occupied with our annual family meeting. Amy was clearly reveling in the fact that at last she had a partner to share her enthusiasms.
During drinks at the second evening picnic, Amy came over to me and said, “Mom, can I speak to you a minute?” We drew away and she blurted out, “Stiff just asked me to marry him!” I shrieked and threw my arms around her. Amid the crowd, her sister Gretchen sensed the commotion and murmured, “I think something important just happened”. Conversation stopped and a glowing Amy made her announcement, including the fact that she had said “yes”.
Amy started planning immediately. She has been an inveterate list maker since childhood and became an early user of spread sheets. Of course the guest list was a problem. If the wedding were held in Peterborough (a family tradition) there would be 30 family members from Amy’s side. Stiff’s parents and stepfather had died and he was out of touch with his brother – so he hoped that the parents of his best friend, Paul, would be able to come. Paul’s parents had provided a refuge from alcoholism and abuse at home. During middle school he had spent every weekend there. So the bride and groom’s guest lists were quite out of balance. Amy countered this by trying to keep her friends to a minimum and inviting a large contingent of mutual friends from Florida. This meant that only two members of her department made the cut, because inviting her five Barnard suitemates and their husbands was obligatory. I obliged by not inviting any of my friends. This was a family tradition. My mother hadn’t invited any of her friends to my wedding 55 years before.
Neither Amy nor Stiff had any desire for children, probably a good thing at age 48. Amy didn’t even want any children as wedding guests. An exception would be made for her eight nieces and nephews, because most of them would be in the wedding party but all others were proscribed. This caused some hurt feelings, particularly when one cousin ignored the ban.
Six days before the wedding, Amy’s phone was run over in the street. Four days later her car refused to start. But these were minor glitches. Her phone was replaced and removing the rat’s nest got the car to start for only $45 – a record for her 15 year old Jetta. Even the weather gods cooperated. A tremendous thunderstorm on Wednesday was followed by clearing skies and the promise of good weather for the next ten days. Since the ceremony, dinner and dancing were all to be outside, this was an essential feature that even Amy couldn’t control.
The ceremony itself was simple. Larry, a Washington friend and graduate of the Oberlin conservatory with a beautiful bass voice provided just the right amount of gravitas as the officiant. He stood at a lectern in the garden between two urns that Gretchen had filled with flowers in the Buddhist shades of saffron and gold.
At precisely four o’clock (Amy has always been a stickler for promptness) Stiff and I were signaled to start the procession. Stepmother Sue and Best Man Andrew then preceded the five sprites, who, dressed in saris and Chinese red satin finery, distributed black eyed susans and soap bubbles. Maid of honor, Tiana, a 5’ 10 blonde Aphrodite in a burnt orange floor length sheath, was followed by “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot”, a country dance from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. This signaled the appearance of Amy, whose radiance stimulated a satisfactory collective gasp. After Larry welcomed everyone, I read from a family history, there was a poem by Rilke, a guitar and soprano version of the Beatles song “In my Life” and poems by Yeats and Tom Waits. After the vows, we walked out to Respighi. It was over in 20 minutes.
The pictures had all been taken so everyone could start partying immediately. The bar was set up on the Brick House porch, there was a separate area for champagne and delicious canapés were passed. The view was spectacular, the children cavorted on the lawn, guests mingled, my dress was complimented. I shook myself and tried to circulate. But the truth is, I rarely enjoy large parties. I have trouble hearing and I don’t like standing up. So I finally asked Amy if there was anything that needed to be done. She asked me to check the place card table. She had lost the seating chart for the head table and needed to put the place cards around. This was a perfect job for me – the quiet dinner tent.
Finally, it was time for dinner and the toasts. Andrew and Tiana had spent many hours anxiously huddled over their computers. Although it’s tradition for the best man to start things off, Amy started to worry that his toast would be so brilliant that it would overshadow those that followed so at the last minute she reversed the order and had Tiana go first.
There was no need to worry. Tiana’s toast was spectacular. She said her aunt was “smart and fierce” but had taught her that it was “totally okay to embrace femininity and indulge in life’s more superficial pleasures” as well as “to be the smartest person in the room.” She then said that Aunt Amy had taught her that loving and accepting oneself is the best recipe for a happy life. “Once you love yourself you never know what adventures might be waiting for you around the corner.” Everyone cried. The loving words set off the innocent beauty of the speaker.
Each succeeding toast was able to capture some unique aspect of the pair and Andrew’s toast did not disappoint. After opening with a trenchant anecdote, he followed with “when people asked me what was Amy’s deal, I suggested that it was possible she had trouble doing the kind of compromising necessary to keep a serious relationship going. Some of you here who haven’t known Amy as long as I have might be surprised to learn that she can, on occasion, be a little stubborn.” This brought down the house. Then after listing a number of reasons the family had produced to explain Amy’s enduring singlehood, he said “Today, of course, we know that all these hypotheses add up to nothing more than poppycock. I think I can speak for the entire family when I admit, to our shame and embarrassment, that we never once considered what we now know to be the obvious truth: the reason why Amy never settled down is simple. She hadn’t yet met the right guy! Congratulations Stiff Packard. You solved the mystery of Amy.”
The conclusion really made the tears flow. After talking about how his dead father and Amy had a special relationship and how he missed phoning his dad when he had good news to report, he said “We’re not a family that puts much stock in notions of the after life, but I’m picking up that phone right now anyway. Because I’ve got some great, great news. Hey guess what Dad, Amy met this guy. He’s got a name that sounds like it came straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel and I like him an awful lot. You would too, because he makes Amy happier than I have ever seen her before in my entire life. There’s nothing left to worry about. It’s fantastic. To Amy and Stiff!”
The dancing, punctuated by fireworks, lasted till dawn. It was a night to be long remembered.
Photos: Brian Malloy/fourniermalloy.com