The Road Taken: A “True Love” Wedding

Fate. Timing. Fate. Timing. Fate.

Bad timing.

G and I married during one of the coldest January’s on record, in minus degree weather, in a reform synagogue somewhere in Northern New Jersey. A thick sheet of ice lay over the entire region. Add to this, it had snowed heavily the night before.

My family and I had to drive out from Long Island. My father, an insurance salesman, was at the wheel. After 35 years of driving through the streets of New York, in all kinds of conditions, he knew a thing or two about maneuvering through the streets of the city in order to get to the George Washington Bridge and over into New Jersey. The roads were slick with black ice and there were mounds of snow everywhere. As I watched from the back seat, I knew this was probably my father’s toughest challenge yet, and it seemed touch and go as to whether we’d make it on time.

We would be getting married in the synagogue that G’s family had belonged to for more than 25 years.  On a prior trip home, I had spent a few days searching for the perfect gown. My mother and I had visited several bridal shops in Queens, and, in the end, I chose the very first gown I had tried on. That was the extent of my contribution to the planning of my wedding.  Which is probably why it didn’t feel like my wedding at all.  It belonged to my mother-in-law. She did all the work, selecting the caterer, the flowers, the invitations. She assigned two jobs to my parents: hiring of the photographer, and finding a band.  Which is why, at our Jewish wedding, we had a Puerto Rican photographer and a Cuban band that squeezed in some salsa music in between rounds of Hava Nagila. Both the photographer and the bandleader were clients of my father’s, having each purchased whole life insurance policies when my father was first starting out in the business.

They're playing "our" song, True Love, from the film, "High Society," with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.

So, why didn’t I plan my own wedding? I used as my excuse, the fact that I was 3,000 miles away in Seattle, and couldn’t possibly plan a wedding from that distance.  But the truth was, I wasn’t interested. I found the idea of it daunting and was relieved when G’s mother offered to do it all.  Besides, my family didn’t have that many people to invite. G’s parents, however, had many, over 100 in all, family, friends and acquaintances, who had invited them to their children’s weddings, and now they needed to reciprocate.  Quid pro quo, some would say.

Also, my other excuse was the Judaism factor. This was to be a Jewish wedding through and through. Kosher, too.  Though, I had recently converted, I figured my mother-in-law-to-be would know best how to plan a proper Jewish wedding, chuppah and all.

G and I did provide the main course for the kosher meal.  We carted 75 pounds of frozen, fresh salmon from Washington state to New Jersey, just so that all our guests could sample the Northwest delicacy. For many in attendance, this was their first taste of fresh salmon. The only kind they’d ever eaten before, was the kind you put on a bagel. Lox.

Despite the weather outside, growing colder by the minute, the wedding inside the temple went smoothly. As would be expected, my mother got teary during the ceremony, and later, during the reception held on the synagogue’s upper level, my father walked around like a proud peacock.

There was dancing. A few weeks before the wedding, the bandleader had called G and me in Seattle to find out what “our song” was.  We just looked at each other, baffled by the question, mostly because we realized we didn’t have a song to call our own, so we had no idea what to tell him.  But that night, we watched on TV, High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.  In it, there’s a scene where Bing, whose character is divorced from Grace Kelly’s, sings to her, the song, “True Love.” It’s a bittersweet scene, since clearly they still have feelings for each other, but the song itself, is rather hokey.

Well, with no better song on the horizon, that’s the one we picked. Which is what the band played when we got up to dance. And now, looking back, I see that it’s kind of ironic, too.  That the song we chose was a song written for a couple who had already divorced. Fait accompli.

The worst part of the day had to be the icy conditions.  Because of the inclement weather, I had arrived with barely enough time to get dressed.  Many guests were late, so we had to delay the start of the ceremony a bit.  And when it came time to leave, only one guest was unable to, on account that their car froze in the parking lot. They were cousins of mine from Queens, so G and I offered to drive them home, as we were spending our wedding night in a hotel near the JFK airport.

The next day, I would be leaving for Houston to attend a three-day, work-related conference. The plan was that G would meet me in four days for a New Orleans honeymoon.  And it proved to be the kind of honeymoon, where, everywhere we went, people could tell. They didn’t have to ask. They smiled at us, as we walked hand in hand, along Bourbon Street. They brought us extra glasses of Mimosas, as we dined at the Court of Two Sisters for brunch.  They made room for us when we entered the crowded hall to hear the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform. Everyone seemed to know and looked kindly upon us. We were newlyweds and we were so in love.

Then, two months later, I met Rick. Talk about bad timing.

Missed a chapter? Read past installments, by visiting the page, The Road Taken.

Remembering My Father

Today was my father’s birthday. He would have been 99 years old. In honor of the anniversary of his birth I’m thinking of pineapple upside down cake.  For that is the cake my mother would bake, year after year for his very low-key birthday celebration. It was his favorite kind of cake and it soon became mine, too.  How I looked forward to my father’s birthday, just to have a slice of that once-a-year cake, lovingly made for a one-of-a-kind dad.

Circa 1978. From left: My father, Regina, Rafael, my mother, Cesar and me.

And if I learned anything from my father, it’s just how important family is. He loved us with complete devotion and indulged us whenever he could. I’m pretty sure he would have given us the moon if he had figured out a way. And yet, as good as he was as a father, he could also be at times exasperating, frustrating, and impossible.

When he died, almost 17 years ago—and just five months after my mother’s passing—a cousin put it like this:

“Your poor mother. Your father only gave her five months of peace. Now he’s up there with her, surely giving her a hard time again.”

What’s done is done and it doesn’t matter now.  My father is gone and we are left with genuine appreciation for what he did for us, and the legacy he left behind. My brother, Cesar, has put his feelings to words, summing up a life worth living in a way that has humbled me, and given me pause. For me, it is a good reminder of what I once had and I find myself comforted by his remembrances. Cesar writes:

This is how I remember him.

He moved his family to the U.S. to take care of Jose Enrique (my father’s son from his first marriage), who needed hip surgery as a young boy. Because of my father, Jose Enrique got the best medical attention in the world.

He took a job in the States to be with his family.

He loved having us sing in the backseat of the car.  And he would take great pleasure taking us to the beach and then seeing us play on the trampolines, which we passed on the way home.

He attended and studied, and put himself through New York University—at the age of 52.

During that time, he studied the rules of baseball so he could volunteer as an umpire, just so Rafael (our brother) and I could play Little League Baseball.  I think we played Little League for four or five years with my father ump-ing the whole time.

He put four kids through college; three of them attending expensive, private universities.

I remember my father driving to Boston, to pick up Regina (our sister) from school, loading her stuff in the car and then driving back to Long Island in the same day.

I remember my father, at age 70, standing on a ladder on top of the inclined roof of the garage, painting the house.

I remember my father, at age 74, driving an hour and a half to my house in Westchester so that he and my mother could visit their granddaughter.

I sincerely hope there’s a heaven and that they got there ok.

Happy Birthday, Papá

My Mother’s Memory

The night before my mother, Mary, died, she was packing for an impromptu trip to Caracas to visit her mother. My brother, Cesar, tried to talk her out of it. She should stay home where she was needed, he said. He even tried to call me to see if I could talk sense into her, but I wasn’t home and this was at a time when most folks still didn’t own a cell phone.

Cesar kept trying to rationalize with her but it was to no avail. For my mother had a bee in her bonnet and nothing could dissuade her. She was a woman on a mission and the fact that her mother was long dead simply went over her head.

Blame it on Alzheimer’s. We were sure she had it, though 16 years ago, the only way to officially detect it was through an autopsy. So, without a definitive diagnosis, no doctor could tell us for certain. But we just knew. Here’s why:

Florida, 1992: My mother poses with my daughter, despite not remembering that she is her granddaughter.

1) She was forgetful. Two years earlier, I’d gone to Florida with my daughter to visit my parents in their new home. My mother took one look at my 18-month old and asked me why I had brought this strange child with me. This, from the woman who cried with joy at the sight of her infant granddaughter, and who sat with me in the hospital hours after her birth.

Later, while at the kitchen window that looked out to the backyard, we watched my father push my child on a swing. My mother turned to me and asked,

“In what year did your father die?”

Startled, I had to think for a second. Random thoughts began to whirl in my head. Was my father dead? Who, then, was this impostor outside with my daughter? How did it come to this and where did my mother go? My mother, who never forgot a birthday and who always remembered to serve up my favorite dishes when I visited. Why couldn’t she see that the man she’d been married to for over 40 years was still alive—and just a few feet away?

2) She lost her bearings. After the move to Florida, my mother was no longer in the comfort of her Long Island home and all that had been familiar. She was instead like a planet spinning out of control, without the gravitational pull that had once kept her firmly connected to us. As far as she was concerned, Florida was alien turf and light years away from New York, where she had spent most of her life. She might as well be living on Mars.

During our visit, I took my mother and my girl to a nearby playground. I strategically positioned my mother on a bench, where I could keep an eye on her while playing with my daughter on a jungle gym, just a few yards away. My mother seemed relaxed at first, like her old self and for a moment I could pretend there was nothing wrong. As long as she didn’t utter a word, she was the mother I remembered. But a second later, my child said something, causing me to look away. Then, I heard a cry, and just like that, my mother was in a state of panic, anxiously searching for a way out of the park and nearly in tears because she could not find one. I picked up my daughter, did my best to calm my mother, and quickly guided them both out of the park. I wondered whether we could ever have a normal outing again.

3) She was mean and disorganized. Naively, I thought I would help my mother organize her closet, which looked very helter-skelterish, if you ask me. But instead of helping, I made things worse. Her eyes bored into me as she vehemently admonished me for touching her things. Alarmed and slightly shaken, all I could think was, this is not my mother. My real mother clearly had been kidnapped, replaced by mysterious pod people, and was now starring in her own movie—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Alzheimers, 3; Mary, 0. The disease was winning and gaining in on my mother.

So the night that Mary tried to return to Venezuela to see her own mother, she packed her suitcase as best she could and went to bed. Perhaps exhausted from arguing with Cesar or frustrated that she wasn’t able to embark on her journey. Or maybe she just forgot she wanted to go. I don’t know. I wasn’t home when my brother called. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was out at a barbeque with friends.

The next morning, my sister called with the news. Brain dead, she said, which to me sounded hopeful in some off-kilter way. Not completely dead, just brain dead. Later, it would fall on to us, her children, to pull the proverbial plug.

My mother. Somehow I believe she knew the end was near. Which is why she spent the night before, packing her bags to see her mother. As for the autopsy report, it gave us the confirmation we needed: Alzheimer’s Disease.