Make certain you register the title. It was designed to distinguish what follows from articles entitled, for example, “Always A Bridesmaid,” the all too familiar sagas about failed relationships, multiple requests to serve, and the dreadful dresses that pile up in the “heroines’” closets.
Our conversation today is about a first: indeed, a first-ever, never to be repeated adventure. Those come rarely in most lives. They did in mine. And when the dates May 24 or October 13 appear on the calendar I take a moment to realize and relive the signature moment of starting to be a “grown up” that my sisters and their husbands bestowed on me.
I was a late arriving guest to the glorious celebration that was my family of four siblings and parents, one of whom labeled me with his usual sly humor by saying, “Sara, that girl has two speeds: Slow and Stop.” Sitting impatiently at the wheel of his Lincoln he would say to my Mother, “Tell her to shift into Slow, it’s an Emergency.”
Understand then that it was genetic destiny that my entry into the Bridesmaid game came before adolescent awkwardness had entirely passed. My glamorous sisters were married within six months of one another. At that moment, I could, have illustrated that the green raw silk crown of Mary and John’s female attendants and the cornflower wreaths of Peggy and Jim’s were very ambitious replacements for my St. Francis Academy freshman “beanie.”
This May 24, I thought of my sister Peggy spending her first anniversary missing the physical presence of the man she called “James the Great” and whom I called “Beau Frere,” in the spirit of the French whom I understand refer to the Mother-in-Law as Belle Mere. To me that style of naming captures the fact that the in-law designation that sounds so legalistic misses the nuance of one who is so much more than a legality in one’s life. Nor does it leave room to doubt that he will arrange to travel with her tomorrow to wing their way to the Berkshires to see their only daughter’s creative turn as director of Kunstler.
Drawn back in memory to that May 24 now long past, I revisited some of all the things it will always mean to me to be not just “A” Bridesmaid, but instead “Their” Bridesmaid.
From back there at that starting point, it becomes clear why those two designations are so different. I was about to “take the stage” playing a character that directors often characterize as “casting against type.” Not that it was my first time to play an unpredictable role. Admittedly I had some history of playing such parts in what you might call “way off Broadway” houses. Consider, for example, my stage debut as The Male Clothespin Pinno in Sister Fernanda’s Children’s Theater’s production of Once Upon a Clothesline. But Bridesmaid? This might have defined “leap of faith.” Fortunately that never would have stopped either my supportive big sisters or their parents.
Initially I had been “cast” in the largely backstage role of archivist of wedding gifts whose job was to log in gifts sent to the bride and groom at our home. My job, whether or not I chose to accept it, was to open, record and display said gifts in our den/library. The fact that I entered the description of a figurine of cavorting cherubs as “Naked Babies”, from Doctor and Mrs. X, was probably not the reason I was “promoted” – very likely to the level of my own incompetence. Nor, I choose to believe, was the fact that I had created pleated paper tutus for the babies before displaying them. But as the wedding day(s) approached, I was moved to an entirely different level, call it a theater of operations. This looked to me like the big leagues of fashion and grooming and included fittings and hair stylings and tutelage of all kinds at the Elizabeth Arden Salon (or was it the Helena Rubinstein one) on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. When people there suggested exercise regimens to “tighten the muscles,” I stifled the impulse to ask why swimming and softball weren’t enough?….and considerably less expensive.
When the rehearsal period was coming to an end, or perhaps, more realistically “building to a crescendo,” a series of social events began to fill the family calendars. History will probably never reveal how the young adult guests felt about being seated next to the first-time bridesmaid. For me, it was intriguing to see that what I picked up in the “breakfast nook” when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes to listen in on Peggy, Mary and Bill’s replayings of the parties, plays and jazz sessions from which they had just returned.
Years later when I partnered with Paul Lynde and Bernadette Peters on a show then called “The Ten Thousand Dollar Pyramid” I should have been prepared for Lynde to question my veracity when I reminded him of his gallows humor comedy routine on his trip to the jungle and encounter with cannibals. “Did someone bring you to the show in your pram?” he asked. Most high school freshmen did not have an opinion on the relative merits of Don Shirley, George Shearing and John Coltrane. Not everyone, it seemed, had a breakfast nook or such interesting and opinionated siblings.
When the wedding day/s arrived I had begun to believe that I had nothing to fear from the walk (even in unaccustomedly high dyed-to-match satin pumps) or from whatever the reception line would deliver to me and my fellow members of the wedding.
It was, of course, the custom to wear white kid gloves when processing, and to remove and discreetly stow them during the Nuptial Mass. Doomed with a Virgo’s memory for irrelevant bits of trivia, I had some recollection of the story that repentant murderers, even after being forgiven, were counseled to keep gloves on when receiving the Eucharist (don’t ask!). Happily, I can report that when the last pearl button on the last white kid glove refused to yield, I had become brave enough to trust that no one at John and Mary’s wedding noticed my suggestion of a homicidal past.
There was a protocol for warmly greeting and firmly moving on to the next attendant for each guest passing through the receiving line at the reception. Mostly it went well until I short circuited from the diction-demanding “I am Annette Cunningham, Peggy’s sister and I’d like you to meet Peggy Scanlan, Peggy’s roommate at Marymount.” I remember all too well the moment when I announced, “I am Annette, Peggy’s sister and this is Peggy Scunningham, my roommate.” By then at the wind-down of Wedding II I did not at least have to think, “The worst is yet to come.”
They were so lovely as they departed the receptions in the “going away suits” (and hats!) ordained for the occasion. They tossed their bouquets to the waiting friends (not in my direction.) I did not even cry knowing each one took with her a portion of my childhood that would never be duplicated. Or indeed surpassed in sweetness.