I stood before the open door of our guest-room closet and braced for the chore ahead: divest myself of the clothing I’d saved over the course of almost forty years because it held special meaning. We were soon to move to a new home and it was time to clear the way.
As my eyes drifted along the rack, they lighted on a chiffon chemise dress sprinkled with pink and blue flowers and my memory did a dance. It was the dress I wore to my mother’s wedding in 1988. The bride was seventy-four; her groom, Ben, seventy-five. I was my mother’s Matron of Honor.
My father, my parental ballast, died 18 years before from a sudden, massive heart attack. His loss left me without the one person in my family who understood me without questioning, whose temperament was similar to my own, and who loved me unconditionally. I knew it would be difficult for me to watch my mother and Ben say their vows, embrace, and kiss as they became husband and wife. Like most people who anticipate a major shift in their family’s configuration, I worried about preserving what was in jeopardy of being lost. So while happy for my mother, I feared my father’s stories would no longer be told and my loyalty to him would be tested.
For three years after my dad’s death, my mother grieved, unable to think about being with another man. Then, at age 60, she felt ready to put herself “out there.” Unlike those looking for love today, the Internet and its plethora of dating sites was not available in the seventies. Since she loved to travel, she signed up for singles cruises. “It was really upsetting,” she’d tell me on her return, “All the men my age were throwing themselves at the 40-year old women on the ship.”
Over the years, she dated rarely. She wanted to be with a man; there just didn’t seem to be one available. She once confessed to me, “I want to get married. I just don’t want to be a wife.” As a married woman she’d have a man to show off, someone to take her to dinner and out dancing. But putting supper on the table, running to the drugstore for her husband’s medicine, or any other mundane “wifely duty” was not in her plans. In the years since my father died, she did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted, never having to consider anyone else. Then one day I called her with an old-fashioned matchmaking proposition that eventually turned into a marriage proposal.
A long-time friend of mine called and said, “Judy, my aunt died a few months ago – they’d been married for fifty years — and my Uncle Ben is very lonely. He keeps calling my mother and asking if she knows any women. My mother thinks her friends are too young. So she asked me if your mother would be interested.” I told her I would find out. My mother’s response: “Why not?”
While my mother was more than ready to go out on her blind date, I was wavering between my own dread and happiness. My mother was demanding of my time without the drama of a man in her life and I had more than enough to handle with our four-year old daughter and a budding business in training and development. And how could anyone replace my father? Would we be able to tell the old stories? Would we still be “our family”? Did I really need another family to contend with? I knew I would never feel about anyone my mother might marry as though he were my father or even my stepfather. He would always be my mother’s husband.
I remember calling my mother after her first date, feeling like I was the mother and she the daughter. It was August and my family was vacationing at the beach. Having no cell phone in 1987 and no telephone in our cottage, I called from a pay phone. Sweating in the phone booth, I heard my mother gush at the other end of the line, “We went out to dinner. I had a lovely time. He’s coming over again tomorrow.”
There were many “tomorrows” and before long my mother wanted my husband and me to meet Ben. How strange. My mother was looking to us for approval of the man she was dating. We decided to rendezvous at a restaurant mid-way between New York City where they lived (she in Queens, he in Brooklyn) and Warwick, New York where we lived. It was a wet, blustery, late October day and Ben was wearing a fedora much like I remember my father wearing and he sported a similar graying moustache. He smoked a pipe, something my father had to give up after his first heart attack. But these few outward appearances were all that were similar about them.
Ben turned out to be a front and center man – he spoke directly and with confidence; my father was the guy backstage who made sure all was operating perfectly. Ben was bold, coarse, laugh out loud; my father was subtle, more refined, and entertained us with a dry sense of humor. Ben was tall and broad; my father was of medium height and build. I was relieved about the differences – because they were differences. I wasn’t, however, prepared for my discomfort at noticing how Ben freely and frequently touched my mother during dinner and how my mother looked adoringly into his eyes.
After small talk and one course, Ben said, “Your mother and I would like to get married.” I shakily replied like a parent caught off-guard, “Don’t you think it’s a little soon to rush into marriage? You’ve only been seeing each other for a couple of months.” Ben responded, “We’re not getting any younger. And your mother wants me to make an honest woman of her.” My mother chimed in, “We’re not going to just live together. What would people think? I want to be married.”
I would have preferred they just live together. Without the formality of marriage, I thought our families could keep some distance, monies would less likely be co-mingled, and my father’s memory would be easier to preserve. Such was not to be the case. They wed the following June.
My mother, a gregarious party-lover who had a penchant for being the center of attention, was always disappointed that her first wedding was small, low-key, and held in her parents’ New York City apartment. This was her chance to have the wedding of her dreams.
A date was set and invitations sent to one hundred of their friends and family. The venue was Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadow, site of the 1964 World’s Fair. When told that the Rabbi who bar mitzvahed my brother, married my husband and me, and officiated at my father’s funeral had retired, my mother turned a deaf ear and went on a search – sans computer and Internet. She was excellent at persuasion and rarely took “no” for an answer. As a result, she coaxed Rabbi Simon out of retirement to take his place under the wedding canopy.
The guests arrived, the stage was set, the Rabbi stood ready. Then all eyes turned to the back of the room and focused on Ben. He was taller than any of those in our family and his shock of gray-white hair was combed back away from his face. Clearly nervous-excited, the way any groom of a younger age would look, he clung to the arm of his son, his best man, as he walked down the aisle and stood next to the Rabbi.
My turn was next. Clutching a bouquet of pink roses and wearing the chiffon chemise dress that still resides in my closet, I attempted to maintain composure, stay smiling, and keep the wide-brimmed white hat I borrowed square on my head.
My mother, sporting her widest smile and proudly holding onto my brother’s arm, looked elegant and confident as she made her way down the aisle, radiating an energy that lit us all.
I worried one or the other of them might faint or, worse, have a heart attack, but the ceremony went without a hitch and they soon headed off to celebrate with food, drink, and dancing. I didn’t follow. I found a chair in a far-off corner, fell into it, and let the tears flow. As I expected, seeing my mother and Ben kiss at the end of the ceremony struck a painful chord. I knew I needed to tuck my father’s memory ever more fiercely within my heart and to be sure to share his stories with my daughter.
A hand offered me a tissue and, looking up, I saw Rabbi Simon. He seemed to understand what I was thinking when he said, “Your father will always be your father. Right now, your mother needs you. My guess is, you have a toast to make.” He was right, of course. I dabbed my eyes, stood up, smoothed my dress, and made my way to the dance floor.
Both Mom and Ben are gone now. While I feared the worst, their fifteen-year marriage was a happy one. Ben learned to boil water and make reservations, and my mother introduced him to travel. Though I always saw Ben as “my mother’s husband,” he was there for her when I couldn’t be and he proved to be a wonderful grandfather. However, our families never truly blended, and it was difficult to talk about my father freely. Now I speak often of him and write about him as well. This keeps him alive for me and for those who never knew him.
My dress traveled with us to our new home. I decided it held too many memories for me to let it go.
Judith Rosner, Ph.D., retired from her consulting firm in leadership training, currently writes poetry and creative non-fiction. Her work appears in the literary journal HerWords, the Living Peace 2019 Art of Poetry Anthology, and the Jewish Writing Project. Judy splits her time between Sarasota, Florida and New York City.