I wasn’t going to be A Wife. Wives applied orange lipstick in the rearview mirror while driving, used the lip-sticking hand to whap their kids. I wouldn’t own a car. I wouldn’t wear lipstick. I certainly wouldn’t marry. Wives were fools whose husbands dicked around and who had no power because their husbands made all the money.
Should I happen to end up married, under no circumstances would the guy be Jewish.
The town I grew up in boasted six Jews in the public-school system. I was related to three of them. Yet I was expected to date—and by extension, marry—A Nice, Jewish Boy. He could have been Attila the Hun, as long as he was Jewish.
Dating (for lack of a better term; generally, we just screwed) consisted of a nebulous string of working-class ex-Catholics who smoked a lot. The result was plenty of drama and trauma. Then came seven years of celibacy, during which I worked on the family-of-origin issues that led me to seek out that kind of man in the first place. All very mid-’80s but productive. Being Jewish revealed itself to be a hook to hang my hatred on. Turns out I didn’t mind being a Jew; I just didn’t want to become my parents.
I moved to Seattle, pierced my nose, and found a congregation with a female rabbi. In 1996, when Cliff made the scene, and he happened to be Jewish, I was actually pleased.
Cliff was a handsome, intelligent fellow with a whip of a sense of humor you almost didn’t notice. He favored button-down shirts. With stripes. He liked the Mets. I was relatively sure that meant baseball. He didn’t make a federal case when I suggested we split the check. With Cliff, there was no drama, no trauma.
I mused to my friend Gary, “I should be over that.”
A year went by. Girlfriends were now asking the former Ms. Seven Years of Celibacy for relationship advice. Cliff and I moved in with the understanding that, within a reasonable amount of time, we’d either break up or commit. We didn’t commit to what commit meant.
At night, I held him, remembering a book I read as a kid. Set during the 1930s, it described enterprising carnivaliers hooking a brass ring to the merry-go-round, hooking it so it dangled from the edge of the canvas top. Anyone who snatched the ring from its little loop got to ride the merry-go-round for free, forever.
I could just imagine those Depression-era kids, too aware of the nickel-weight of the ticket cost, carefully counting pennies, riding again and again. Reaching. Hopeful.
I wouldn’t have been one of the reaching hopefuls. I would have tried to find out what happened to my great deal once the carnival left town. Yet there I was, holding him, wondering.
It was easier to conclude I’d get married if Mr. Button-Down wanted to. Then it wouldn’t be my fault. One February morning, I mentioned we needed to determine what to send Cliff’s dad for his birthday. Cliff suggested we announce our engagement.
“Are you asking me to marry you?”
His face got really small.
“Figure out if you’re asking me to marry you, and I’ll give you an answer.”
Kind-of engaged, we planned a trip to Bali. A friend wagered I’d be coming back “with a rock.” Why on earth would I schlep a rock back from Bali?
In Bali, waiting for a dance performance, Cliff angled me toward a little shop, then toward the rings.
I said, “I don’t wear rings.”
Then I said, “You mean, a ring.”
His face got small again. It is a bit of a blur, how we chose one for him and one for me. Cliff’s was a broad, silver band with a single, blood-red stone. Mine had a smooth slab of carnelian all the way around, plus several decorative knobs of it for the ring’s highlights. Officially “almost engaged,” we did not yet wear our rings. I could tell mine would feel solid. Would create pressure.
Those button-downs. The Mets. Cliff was a small-velvet-box-slipped-across-the-table-of-a-fancy-restaurant kind of guy.
Waiter at Fancy Restaurant: Will there be anything else?
Me: (grin of hopeful significance)
Cliff: Just the check, thanks.
I blithely told co-workers I didn’t care if we never got married. They laughed in my face. Convinced the prospect of marriage was chilling Cliff’s lowest extremities, I assured him we could revert to kind-of engaged. No, no, no, he assured back. He was planning something really special. I complained to Gary.
Gary: Is Cliff a romantic guy?
Gary: He’s got this all planned out. Just let him do it. Besides, it’s the last decision he gets to make.
My therapist agreed: Most men grow up planning how to ask someone to marry them the way most women grow up planning their weddings.
Me: I didn’t grow up planning my wedding!
My therapist: Just let him do it.
I let him do it. Over Memorial Day weekend, Cliff took the stage during The Big Jewish Show at Seattle’s annual Folklife Festival. I was one of an audience of 600. Right in front of everybody, Cliff asked if I was in the house and went down on one knee. In a velvet-lined leather box nestled a classic decoder ring, a mood ring, one with a gem the impossible color of watermelon candy, another with a faux-gold Roman coin, and still another with a plastic diamond the size of the stage we were on. And the rings we had chosen together.
What if you reached and floundered? What if the carnival left town?
If we hadn’t been on stage in front of 600 people, I might have said, “Let me think about it.” Instead, I grabbed the mike and said, “How could you do this to me? I look so schlepy!” (I did; some twelve-cent Balinese frock and sneakers, for God’s sake.) He bounced back, “That wasn’t the answer I expected!” Once off stage, Cliff slid the engagement ring onto my finger. I pulled his from the leather box.
“Cliff Meyer, will you marry me?”
He let rip a grin he has topped only once—almost four years later, when I peed on the stick and got two pink lines.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by dozens of friends. That was when I found out Cliff had alerted everyone we knew, somehow keeping the whole thing a secret. That was when I saw his list of more than 20 options, with “Big Jewish Show” ringed in red. That was when I went to the Folklife office and passed out.
Wearing silver and carnelian, we embarked on a torturous year of wedding planning, which kicked off with six months of procrastination. Eventually, there were tense debates over stoneware patterns and wedding colors. I read the wedding issue of Martha Stewart Living.
I found it helpful.
I was doing some numbing. Like having a glass of wine before a difficult family gathering. I wasn’t getting plastered; I was getting through it. That’s why people fuss over the bride. They understand that if they rivet a bride’s attention to the ring, the dress, the goal of the perfect day, she will overlook the fact that she is signing up for life. And if, like me, the bride comes from a long line of screw-ups in the “for-life” department, if she harbors fears that she might lack the strength to be anything other than that which begat her, it becomes a great deal more pleasant to focus on the flower arrangements.
My impulse was to call it off until I matured. Wishing to wed before Social Security kicked in, however, I redirected my attention from the wedding stuff to the marriage ceremony.
We happened upon Fern Feldman, a Jewish educator in the process of receiving rabbinic ordination through ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Cliff really liked Fern’s gentle demeanor. I saw in her face that she understood when I said, “I don’t mind having a wedding, but I don’t want to be the cherry on top.”
Step two: come up with a ceremony Fern outlined the traditional Jewish ritual.
I said, “What’s this walking-around-him-seven-times business?”
Fern conceded that, yes, the bride circling the groom seven times did have something to do with marking territory. But, she pointed out, you could also look at it as weaving him in circles of protection.
I twisted silver and carnelian, which felt as if it were rapidly deteriorating into watermelon candy. “Fern, no matter how you slice it, in the end, it’s gonna feel like I’m lifting my leg and peeing.”
We agreed that I would circle Cliff three times, he would circle me three times, and we would join hands for a final, subdued do-si-do. The remainder of the ritual presented no ideological controversies: blessing the first cup of wine, exchanging rings, reading the ketubah (wedding contract), reading the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings), blessing the second cup of wine, and breaking the glass.
For the ketubah, Fern knew of text that was both egalitarian and in accordance with Jewish law. The literal translation talked about his giving me the shirt off his back and other oddities, so Cliff and I agreed to write a personally meaningful interpretation of the literal translation. My first attempt was fairly boilerplate: In accordance with the ritual of Moses and Israel … we pledge to dedicate ourselves to each other as lovers, friends and partners … to establish a Jewish home … and more along those lines.
Cliff read it. He looked disappointed. “It’s a little … impersonal.”
“What about this part? ‘To support each other in becoming who we are yet to be, and to retain a sense of humor as we change and as life changes.’ That’s personal!”
A slight tiff. I left him at my computer. When I came back, the den was dark except for the yellow lamp lit on my desk. The computer screen glowed from between the stacks of wedding-related paperwork. Here’s what he had written:
We promise to dedicate ourselves to each other as lovers, friends and partners; to share hopes, dreams, insights and fears; and to maintain an unyielding commitment to trust and intimacy. We pledge to support each other in becoming who we are yet to be, and to retain a sense of humor as we change and life changes; to love each other deeply without losing sight of our individual selves; and to remain continually aware that our time together is precious. In so doing, we shall establish a Jewish home that reflects the best elements of our heritage, including a love of learning, the bonds of community and the spirits of generosity, compassion and activism.
We also shall endeavor to spice our union with acts of spontaneity, wit and love that may not always be comprehensible to those unfamiliar with our ways. Let no day pass without time for us to reflect upon these promises to ourselves and to our community.
Inside me, something was willing to reach.
Another plunge to take: the ritual bath the morning of the wedding, traditionally the first time a woman took mikveh. This was not Jewish law; this was what Jewish women imposed on each other. It drove me bananas. There were a thousand and seven reasons to cleanse spiritually, none of which needed to have anything to do with marriage. Then there was the ol’ “period = impure” need for purification to ready you for sex with your husband. Only. For procreative purposes only. I mean, really, who made up this faith?
And why was that damn mikveh so compelling?
I invited the women in Cliff’s family, along with the important women from my past and present, 15 in all. At 8 in the appointed a.m., we car-caravanned to the one mikveh in town. My preconception included inlaid gold tiles and billowing poufs of steam. My wildest fantasies revolved around a hooka. The reality was framed mall prints for the walls. If a dentist’s office had a mikveh, it would look like this.
Disappointed but still game, I allowed The Mikveh Lady to show me around: an extremely normal bathroom, a pink-curtained shower/tub, the mikveh itself. The walls were tiled gray-blue. Morning light filtered in from windows set close to the high ceiling. A narrow landing led from the bathroom to three short steps descending into the still-empty tub. The Mikveh Lady twisted her large faucets. I stripped, removed all rings—ear, nose, engagement—hopped into the shower and hopped out. The 10-by-10 tub was now full. Mist drifted up from the steaming water.
I took the steps slowly. It was very still. I smiled up at the clothed crowd, chanted Shehechkanu, the prayer for something new, which I translated as, “Thank you, Whatever You Are that is in charge of all this, for bringing me to the beauty of this moment.” Then, as Jewish women have done for thousands of years, I let myself go.
The water was so warm. Three times, I made sure to float freely before standing and sinking again. Three times, I curled into a ball and went deeper into a tight spot in my heart. The third time, I felt it open.
I almost wept. I shivered and pulled back. I often wonder what I would have experienced had I been brave enough to go further.
I stood and recited the blessing for the mikveh. Still unsure what I had expected from the experience, I knew I had gotten it.
To the women there, I simply said, “Ladies, let’s get me married.”
The final transition began with my engagement ring. As I dressed for my wedding for the second time that day, I removed silver and carnelian from my left hand, this time, transferring it to my right. The absence left a vacuum.
I felt no fear. I would not pull back.
I can’t tell you the number of friends who told me their weddings were a beautiful blur. I remember every moment of the ceremony we so carefully fashioned. I remember standing behind Cliff and his father as we waited for our cue, the traditional wedding song, “Do Di Li.” I remember their backs, slender, upright, the midnight of their jackets hanging from identical, dignified sets of shoulders. They held hands.
A part of me wished the photographer would capture what I was seeing. Another part was glad it belonged to me alone.
I remember walking to the wedding canopy, the chuppah. I remember certain faces beaming from the rows of folding chairs, umbrellas going up, raincoats held over heads. I remember circling. I remember working hard to maintain eye contact with Cliff. Seven circles took a long time. I remember Cliff’s mouthing, “Slow down,” like the inevitable onstage directions that occured during grade-school drama productions. I remember smiling in return. I remember thinking it was going too fast.
I remember the light. Our chuppah was a large quilt of blue squares individually painted by friends, set among purple cloth and backed in white. The effect was strangely similar to a Chagall window, to water. Standing under it, we were bathed in translucent light, perhaps the great light told about in Kabbalah: The Creator, in making the world, put fresh, new light into vessels, but the light was so strong, so beautiful, it shattered the vessels, trickling down and down until it reached this world, where it formed plants and animals, people and things.
And it glowed under our chuppah with the luminescence that the great sage Baal Shem-Tob describes as rising from each human being and reaching straight to heaven:
When the two souls that are destined for each other find one another, their streams of light flow together, and a single, brighter light goes forth from their united being.
I wish I could end there, tell you I reached, grabbed, and rode the merry-go-round into the sunset. I wish I could tell you that facing, in rapid succession, nine months of “trying,” a miscarriage and the death of Cliff’s father halfway through a cramp-filled second pregnancy, we responded by reading our ketubah to each other. The truth is, I devolved considerably after the miscarriage. I would hear myself scream at Cliff the way my mother used to at my father, feel Cliff recede the way my father did, and understand how difficult it was to be other than your parents. And still I wasn’t able to stop screaming.
Once, I took our ketubah down. I can’t even remember what the fight was about, only that it ended with Cliff in the den, surfing the Internet in recessive silence as I sulked on our bed, a furious child seeking a dramatic gesture.
He was angry, undoubtedly, when he discovered the ketubah down, but more, he was very, very hurt.
I hurt him.
Locked deep in my heart, lapped at by the warm waters of the wedding mikveh, was an unpalatable truth: I have it in me to be every bit as callous as either of my parents. My fear was not that the carnival would leave town. My fear was I would drive the carnival away.
I couldn’t possibly float that in the moments before the wedding; I never would have signed the ketubah. This difficult reality unfolded slowly, played out, first, against the deepening desire to bear and nurture a child, an activity I previously and heartily categorized as nuts, and, second, against a profound and shockingly maternal love for my son. At Zachary’s bris, we read again the Baal Shem-Tob:
When the two souls that are destined for each other find one another, their streams of light flow together, and a single, brighter light goes forth from their united being.
Zac does seem to blend his mama’s ebullience with his papa’s flexible good nature. What’s more, the particular radiance he brings to the world inspires the effort Cliff and I put into being good people, for Zachary is the best reason we have to keep working with the combination of psychology and karma that resulted in the need for our union.
I apologized for taking down the ketubah and haven’t done it again. That’s what I try to do when I blow it, which I do often; yay, marriage. While the effort can’t ensure that I won’t become my parents, the effort itself opens the gate to the miracle. Marriage is not static. That slash of yellow across your finger means not that you “won” but that you risked. That continuing to reach is the only way to ride forever ‘n’ ever ‘n’ ever. That the ride will never be free, but neither are the rewards brass. They are gold.