Con Chapman - Country Cousins
The plans for the wedding had proceeded from a slow trot to a gallop in just under a year, and now—in the words of the father of the bride, who was from the South—“it was all over but the shouting.”
Still, there were sensitivities to be considered, chief among them the placement of friends and relatives at the wedding reception tables, to be decided by the mother of the bride in consultation with the mother of the groom. The seating chart would seem on the surface to be the bland product of anonymous fate, but it would represent the outcome of clashes and compromises between forces both old and estimable.
“Where are we going to put your cousins?” Ellen, the groom’s mother asked her husband, Clint.
“Won’t they be sitting with us?”
“Of course not. We’ll be at the parents’ table, so that’s four, plus the minister, that’s five, plus her four grandparents makes nine—our table is full.”
Clint had been oblivious to the level of thought that went into seating arrangements and faced, for the first time, the obligation to weigh in on the matter. “They’re coming a long way—I can’t put them by the kitchen.”
“I didn’t say we would,” Ellen said. “I’m just asking if there’s anyone they can be paired with.”
Clint’s father and Neil, his uncle, had each been an only child, and each had had only one child. He felt a strong connection to his cousin Walt, but they hadn’t lived near each other since Clint had left for college and Walt had stayed local; there was a sort of harmonic vibration between them when they got together at family reunions, but it faded out once they were separated again, like a dying chord on a musical instrument.
“There’s nobody in my family left,” Clint said.
“Well, how about some other people from upstate—they’d have that in common.”
“Sure, maybe that’s the way to handle it,” Clint said. “The Wendiks and the Northrups,” he added, referring to two families who had become acquaintances of his father through business, then friends with his mother as their children grew up together. “I don’t believe they know Walt and June,” his wife, “but they would probably have something to talk about.”
The venue for the reception was the country club where the bride swam and played tennis as a child. Its furnishings were dated, evidence of competition from a club that had opened on the western edge of town, where new homes were being built. Still, her mother said, it was where her family belonged, and the wedding was costing enough, and there was nowhere else to go but the big old hotel downtown or the motels that were springing up to the west, which would have been tacky.
Walt and June did indeed have a long way to travel to the wedding. They could have flown from upstate New York, but it would have been expensive and they were frugal, so they drove, further than anyone else who was invited. They found a motel, one that was part of a chain they were familiar with, and were satisfied with the arrangements.
“The important thing,” Clint said to his wife as they went over the final seating chart, “is that they don’t feel like they’re being treated as country cousins.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know you’re going to be busy, but I’m going to have to go over to their table to talk to them for a while, and it would be nice if you’d be with me when I did.”
“Of course I will. We’ll go around to all the tables together and chat briefly with everyone.”
He exhaled a little puff of breath. “I’ll have to sit down with them. If you have to, you can move on and I can catch up with you.”
The wedding day arrived, clear and cold; the wedding party and all the celebrants showed it in their cheeks and on their noses, but the chill only enlivened the feeling of warmth that all felt on the occasion, even in the drafty church where the service was performed. Cliff didn’t see Walt and June at the ceremony—he was properly occupied with the marriage of his son—but he saw them enter the country club vestibule and waved in the hope that Walt would see him, which he didn’t.
The two out-of-towners waited in line to check their coats, then made their way into the ballroom where they declined champagne but accepted hors d’oeuvres, eating them standing up in the middle of the room as people flowed around them, a rock island in a bubbling stream. Their mastication was a bit conspicuous since they had no one to talk to, and not much to say to each other after thirty-eight years of marriage.
“Have you ever been in this club?” June finally asked Walt.
“Many years ago,” he said. “It was nicer then.”
Silence once again descended upon them. “She had a lot of bridesmaids,” June said.
“That’s the style today, I guess.”
They exchanged chit-chat with a few couples who were pressed up against them as the ballroom filled up, but they had trouble hearing with all the people and the noise.
“Must be costing the bride’s father a pretty penny,” Walt said when they were abandoned for a moment.
“Not like us,” said June, who recalled their marriage in her parent’s home, with folding chairs and card tables set up in the living room, as if for her mother’s afternoon bridge club.
A waiter moved through the ballroom tapping on chimes to announce that it was time to move to the dining room, and the crowd slowly moved on, like a herd of cattle turning home at the end of the day for milking.
Walt and June walked from table to table squinting at the place cards until they found their seats. The Wendiks ambled over to join them, then the Northrups, then another couple whose name they didn’t catch, then a single woman on the pudgy side who was an odd lot that couldn’t be matched with any other table.
“Where did you folks come from?” Chuck Northrup asked, and when Walt told him, he expressed his sympathy and amazement at the length of the trip they had made to be there. “Do you know Leon and Jean Scalzo?” Northrup asked; Walt said he couldn’t say that they did.
“Those are the only folks we know up your way,” Beverly Northrup said, and everyone began to eat when the salads were placed in front of them.
A band continued to play throughout dinner, adding a festive air to the proceedings but making it harder to hear. “What?” Walt found himself saying on several occasions, with the others assisting him to understand by passing the comment around the table, as if playing a children’s game.
June drank white wine with her dinner, but Walt abstained. He had to drive back to the motel, and wanted to be sure he had a clear head since he was unfamiliar with the town. He watched as June sipped delicately at her glass, as if the liquid within were medicine that was bitter to the taste. He was watching her when his cousin Clint tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, cuz!” Clint said brightly. “Long time no see.”
“It sure is . . . has been,” Walt said as he stood up, a bit confused at first. “You know June,” he said awkwardly.
“Sure I do, glad you could come, thanks very much . . . for coming all that way.”
Ellen had been detained on her way over to the table by a woman on the bride’s side, but she caught up to Clint, extended her hand to Walt, and patted June on the shoulder. “How are you two!” she exclaimed.
“We’re fine,” June said with a friendly smile, but without getting up. She knew her right knee might give way, and so she remained seated when dining out until it was time to leave. “It’s a beautiful wedding.”
“Thank you,” Ellen said. “I play a very minor role. I read that I should just wear beige and keep my mouth shut,” she added with a laugh.
Walt didn’t understand what she meant and June—sitting down—didn’t hear Ellen well over the noise of the crowd, just “keep my mouth shut,” so their faces did not register appreciation of the jest.
A woman came up and interrupted the conversation, and Ellen squealed in recognition. “I must have you meet my new beau!” the woman said, and Ellen excused herself over her shoulder as she was pulled in the direction of another table.
Seeing her go, Clint turned to Walt and June with a bit of a shrug and pursed his lips, as if to say that there was nothing he could do. There wasn’t a vacant chair at the table, so he first leaned over, then squatted down between the two to be heard better.
“How’s your boy?” he asked.
“He’s fine, got into veterinary school, so he’s moved to Alfred,” Walt replied, noting that Clint did not call his son by name.
“That’s great,” Clint said. “That’s what he wanted to do, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Walt said, and June nodded. Clint realized it was a fatuous thing to say; of course he did what he wanted to do—didn’t everybody?
“That’s great,” Clint said again. “How long does it take to get the degree?”
“Four years,” June said.
“So just like a doctor, huh?”
“Well, he will be a doctor,” June said. “For animals.”
“Right, right,” Clint said, trying to be affable but straining a bit from the awkward position he was in, down on his haunches. He tried to think of something else to say, since the couple didn’t take the initiative. “You two have any vacation coming up?” He thought the question sounded dull, something you’d ask when you’d run out of things to say at the end of a social evening.
“I’m afraid this is going to be our vacation for this year,” Walt said in a grim tone.
“We usually go to Lake George in August for a bit,” June said, looking askant at her husband.
“Well, sure, we’ll still do that,” he responded.
One of the groomsmen came up behind Clint and told him that they were ready to start the toasts. Clint didn’t know the young man’s name and so he didn’t introduce him to Walt and June, just said “Okay,” then turned back to the couple.
“Well, it looks like I’m on. It was great to see you two. Ellen and I really appreciate you coming so far.”
“Well, you invited us, that’s what family do,” Walt said, forming his lips into a barely perceptible smile. “Our best wishes to the young couple,” he said as he extended his hand and shook Clint’s.
“Thank you, I’ll tell them for you.”
“This is a very special day,” June said.
Clint thought about giving her a social kiss but decided not to; she didn’t seem open to further contact and so he just nodded and smiled, then turned and waved as he left to cross the dining room.
The day turned soon enough into an early winter night, with a weak sunset filtering in through the windows behind the head table. There was dancing, reserved at first, with the families of the bride and groom slowly adding others to the mix. Later, the music got louder and couples became more energetic. The plump woman joined some other young people, and the three other couples drifted off to socialize.
“Have you had about enough, mother?” Walt asked June.
“I believe I have.”
He helped her up and they made their way to the cloak room where Walt handed a short, dark woman their ticket. She took it and, as she made her way back to find their coats, he noticed that there was a little silver bucket on the ledge of the Dutch door that contained a few bills. He took out his wallet, saw that it contained only a five and a twenty, and put it back in his pocket.
They walked to their car and slowly lowered themselves in, she first with his help. He drove slowly through the country club parking lot, peering above the steering wheel on the lookout for guests leaving the wedding, then turned onto the state highway.
They rode in silence for a while, still overwhelmed by the events of the day. He slowed for the last stoplight before they reached their motel, then cleared his throat as if he had something important on his mind.
“They treated us,” he said, “as if we were the country cousins.”
Con Chapman is a Boston-area (Natick) writer, author of two novels. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and numerous literary magazines. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's long-time alto sax, will be published by Oxford University Press this September.