I wasn’t going to be A Wife. Wives applied orange lipstick in the rearview mirror while driving. They used the lipsticking 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, 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 maybe six Jews in the public school system. I was related to three of them. Yet I was expected to date 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 hopeful. I would have been overeating cotton candy, trying to find out what happened to the 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.” I didn’t even know what I meant, when I was saying it.
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, while mine had a smooth slab of carnelian all the way around, plus several decorative knobs of it for the ring’s highlight. 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. Mr. 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. I assured Cliff that 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. It’s the last decision he gets to make.
My therapist agreed with Gary; the big traitor! My therapist opened the first domestic violence shelters in Arizona and in Washington. My therapist thought that if you were a straight person, The Rules was a good book to read.
My therapist said: Most men grow up planning how to ask someone to marry them the way most women grow up planning their wedding.
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, truly, 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 schleppy!” (I did; some wind-thin 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 caliber of grin I didn’t see for another four years, when I peed on the stick and we got two pink lines.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by dozens of friends. That’s when I found out Cliff had alerted everyone we knew, somehow keeping the whole thing a secret. That’s when I saw the list of over twenty options, with “Big Jewish Show” ringed in red. That’s when I went to the Folklife office and passed out.
At last wearing silver and carnelian, we embarked on a torturous year of wedding planning that 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. No wonder such a fuss over the bride. The big 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 dismantled, I redirected my attention from the wedding stuff to the good stuff, 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. Which was better than I had given it credit for. I thought it had something to do with subservience. Doesn’t everything have something to do with subservience? Fern was still talking about territory: “…you could also look at it as weaving him in circles of protection.”
I twisted silver and carnelian. “In the end, it’s gonna feel like I’m lifting my leg and peeing.”
We agreed 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 him 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: into the ritual bath the morning of the wedding, traditionally the first time a woman takes mikveh. The wedding morning part is not Jewish law. Rather, it is a long-held custom maintained by Jewish women. In some bathhouses, post-ritual, an alpha Jewish female will stand over the mikveh’d and bellow, “Kosher!” Like meat. There must be a thousand and seven reasons to cleanse spiritually, none of which need have anything to do with meat. Then there was every feminist’s favorite reason for a spiritual cleansing, “Period make you Impure”, needing sanitization to make love with your husband. Only. For procreative purposes only. And why was that mikveh so compelling?
“Oh, Alle, let me take you to mikveh,” said the woman I made the appointment with at the one mikveh I knew of. I invited the women in Cliff’s family, along with the important women from my past and present: fifteen in all. My preconception revolved around inlaid gold tiles and billowing poofs of steam. My wildest included melting chocolate. The reality was framed mall prints for the walls. If a dentist’s office had a mikveh, it would look like this.
Tensing up but still game, I allowed The Mikveh Lady to show me around: we had an extremely normal bathroom, a pink-curtained shower/tub, and then the mikveh itself. Literal translation: pools. The walls were tiled an earthy 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, maybe 20×20. The Mikveh Lady twisted large faucets. To the sounds of rushing waters, I removed all clothes, rings—ear, nose, engagement—hopped into the shower and hopped out. Per Jewish law, The Mikveh Lady checked my ears and under my fingernails. The tub was now quiet. Mist drifted up from the steaming blue pool.
It grew quieter still. I took the steps slowly, beamed up at the clothed crowed, chanted Shehecheyanu, the prayer for something new which I translate 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 curledintoaballandwentdeeperinto a tight spot in my heart. The third time, I felt it open. I almost wept. I pulled back. I pulled back far enough to wonder what I was missing by not going in.
I stood and recited the blessing. Still unsure what I had expected from my mikveh, I knew I had gotten it.
To them, I simply said, “Ladies, let’s get me married.”
The final transition began with my engagement ring. No one ever told me when you’re s’posed to do it, so 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, “Dodi Li.” I remember their backs. Slender, upright, the midnight of their jackets hanging from identical, dignified sets of shoulders. They held hands.
A wish: the photographer would capture what I was seeing.
A truth: It belonged to me.
I remember walking to the wedding canopy, the chuppah. I remember certain faces beaming from the rows of folding chairs, a gasp, oh no—me—umbrellas going up, raincoats held over heads. I remember circling. I remember working to maintain eye contact with Cliff. Seven circles take a long time. I remember Cliff mouthing, “Slow down,” like the inevitable onstage directions that occur during grade school productions. I remember beaming 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 into purple cloth and backed in white. Unintended, the effect was strangely similar to a Chagall window, to water. Standing under it, translucent light bathed us; perhaps the great light we are told about in Kabbalah, in the story of The Shattering. 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 great sage the Baal Shem Tov describes as rising from each human being and reaching straight to heaven: em>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” (I hate that term), a miscarriage, and the death of Cliff’s father halfway through a cramp-filled second pregnancy, and parenting, we responded by reading our ketubah to each other. The truth is, I devolved. I devolved considerably after our 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 not be able to stop screaming. Once, I took our ketubah down. I can’t even remember what the fight was about, only that it was stupid and that it ended with Cliff in the den, surfing the Net in recessive silence as I sulked on our bed, a furious child seeking a dramatic gesture.
Locked deep in my heart, lapped at by the warm waters of the wedding mikveh, felt an unpalatable truth: I have it in me to be every bit as callous—oh, stop using fancy words—as abusive as my mother. My fear was not that the carnival would leave town. My fear was that I would drive the carnival away.
I couldn’t possibly float that in the moments before the wedding; I never could have signed the ketubah. This difficult reality unfolded slowly, played out first against the deepening desire to bear and nurture child, an activity I previously and heartily categorized as nuts; and secondly, against a profound and shockingly maternal love for my son. At our son’s bris, we read again the Baal Shev Tov: “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.”
Our boy 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. He 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 mom, my parents, it is the effort itself that 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.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Creative Nonfiction.
Alle C. Hall was a semi-finalist for the 2015 New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. In 2009, she won the Richard Hugo House New Works Competition for a piece that will appear later this year in Word Riot. Her favorite publications include: Creative Nonfiction, the Brevity blog, BUST, Literary Mama, The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (as Contributing Writer). She interviewed Leonard Nimoy for The Stranger. RIP—although he was a bit of a pill. Disappointing.
Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. She invites you to follow her on Facebook at Alle C. Hall.