A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, July 30, 2012

Happily Ever After

Photo credit: Pandora Young

“No pictures!” Lizzy admonished, with all the authority of her 39-pound self.  “We are going to do our dance now.  But no pictures!”  

Then, fueled by more marshmallows that I cared to admit or even contemplate, she leapt onto the picnic table with her sister and their new friend A.J., ready to boogie for the crowd.

My view of reality did a few backflips.  This was my shy kid, my Velcroed-to-Mama kid?    

What is cognitive dissonance?  That would have been a good question for Game Night, I mused – a whole three days ago, back when the monitors were flashing impressively, and my daughter was using me as a security blanket. 

“The two types of io…” read the MC.

Six hands slammed on their buzzers before he could finish the question -- or the question-phrased-as-an-answer -- or the answer-phrased-as-a-question -- or whatever it was supposed to be.  It didn’t really matter, because in this game of pseudo-Jeopardy the rules were loose, the tech guy kept forgetting to hit “reset”, and several of the contestants were holding a beer in one hand.

Even I know that one, I thought. 

Lizzy nestled herself even more comfortably in my lap, and took a large bite of chocolate-covered strawberry.  She seemed content as a koala, but she was here at Jeopardy only because she’d snivelingly flunked out of babysitting, leaving me as the one encumbered adult in a room full of revelers. 

Even as I laughed along with the MC’s inability to pronounce Manish’s name and cheered Stefan’s dead-panning (“Do you want that in English or Elven?”) I felt fretful.  I’d so much wanted this to be just like the days when we played Trivial Pursuit in Cabot House, when Steve reliably knew the capitol of Djibouti or the third-largest river in South America, and I reliably failed to know who won Best Supporting Actress or anything at all about football.  I needed to believe that we were all the same people we were in 1994. 

Awash in bonhomie and jocularity, I was suffering from Reunion Anxiety -- not the kind that makes people get facelifts, hair implants, and Supportive Undergarments, but, the kind that questions whether we’ve all changed – whether I’ve changed -- in ways that can’t be assuaged with poor lighting.  Nostalgia twanged at my heartstrings.  I wanted to leap towards the nearest podium and buzz my way to personal humiliation.  But reality was weighing me down. Literally.

“What are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’?” said the first lucky responder – that is to say, questioner -- with the self-effacing tone of someone who knows that of course everyone else knows their ions, too.

And everyone did -- except the M.C., perhaps.  He wasn’t exactly trying to hide his incredulous amusement at the remarkably high geek-factor of this crowd.  I wondered what kind of events he normally hosted.  Bar Mitzvahs? Corporate bonding experiences?  Probably not parties chock full of 30- and 40-somethings who’d spent their long-ago university years playing esoteric card games, dreaming up high-tech pranks, discussing Life the Universe and Everything, wallowing in idealism, and attending many actual lectures.  We were a nerdy reunion -- even by Harvard and MIT standards. 

Then again, this wasn’t actually a reunion at all.  The two Cambridge Universities would never host a joint reunion – the horror!  No, I was at a wedding. 

Or, I should say, a quarter of a wedding.  Craig (my college buddy) and Mary (his fabulous bride) only got married once (there are laws about this sort of thing), but they divided the ceremony and the celebrations into four parts, and spread everything over four weeks.  The goal was to share the fun with family and friends from all the segments and chapters of their lives, while never having an overwhelming horde of people, and leaving plenty of time for kite-flying, Hoola-Hooping, and jigsaw puzzles.

It was a fantastic idea.  Weddings are always joyful, of course.  But the ebullience is usually at risk of being tarnished by a host of awkward factors: bridesmaids’ dresses with vast pink taffeta bows, bawling mothers-of-the bride, flower girls with temporary amnesia, yawn-tastic sermons touting a religion to which you don’t belong, pants-wetting ring-bearers, embarrassing great-aunts, and drunken toasts from that one guy who is bitterly divorced.  There is also, at the average wedding, no time for any of the guests to go whale-watching with the bride and groom, or to make s’mores with them.

I’d started hunting down airline deals and researching the locale the moment the invitation arrived.  This sounded awesome!  Recommend wedding garb included shoes that could be worn on a beach and whatever dress I could find in my limited wardrobe.  Child-flower-bearing would be gender neutral, universally available, and strictly optional. Readings were selected by the participants.  Not only would there be all kinds of fun with old friends, but Monterey boasted miles of bike paths along incredible coastline studded with posing seals and sea-lions, an astonishing aquarium, a children’s museum, and one of the coolest playgrounds ever.  It would be perfect!

Well… almost perfect. 

At the front of the room, there was another race for the buzzer.  Miraculously, no drinks were spilled in the process. 

I didn’t have a drink.  I had a kid.

I should have anticipated this, I thought.  I did know my child, after all – just as well as I knew her twin sister, who was still happily hanging out with the other knee-high people, enjoying a million craft projects, snacks, and games in the Marlin Room.  I could easily have predicted that Lizzy might have trouble finding her groove at this whirlwind week of fun, fun, fun.  I should have known that I’d have to skip Movie Night – at which she whimpered and cringed at the sight of the Shrieking Eels, and lost it completely at the ROUSs.  But I so much wanted to shout “Inconceivable!” at the screen, just like I did back when I was even younger than Buttercup.

At least we made it through Game Night without having to bail entirely.  The MC mocked the six blank stares he faced when the only category left was “Muscle Cars,” but for the most part the participants were stellar.  Colleen evidenced the same skills that allowed her to rescue my poor performance with Times Sunday crosswords two decades ago.  Because I’ve managed to see her semi-regularly -- despite my inconvenient decision to move to the middle of Alaska 13 years ago -- she already knows all the failings of my offspring and the peculiarities of my lifestyle (“Yes, I live in the woods in a cabin without plumbing, but I swear I have not created my own religion, written a manifesto, or started hoarding trinitrotoluene”). Already, she’d tolerated Molly’s card-sharking with the Sleeping Queens deck; meals with people who tend to ignore their cutlery; and a jog that involved chasing two wobbly kids on rented bikes a size too large for them.  And now, she proved willing to donate her Jeopardy winnings – a plush cheetah and a Muppety chicken – to my six-year-olds.  That bought a lot of juvenile happiness, but I still had things to worry about – such as the next evening, which was the Real Wedding. 

“It will be boring,” Lizzy told me, immediately after informing me that she was not going to be a flower girl.  “Weddings are always boring.”

“Not this wedding,” I told her, hoping I was right.

And… I was. 

As it turned out, Craig really was still Craig, and Mary really was exactly the sort of like-minded person who would appreciate readings from Frog and Toad and The Dot and the Line, and write vows inspired by Dr. Seuss.  At the reception, all of Craig’s college roommates performed a highly melodic tribute.  We sang happy birthday to Ezra who was turning nine that day.  We were also challenged to find the highest-scoring word with the place-tags at our tables – which were composed of Scrabble tiles.

In retrospect, that may have been when Lizzy turned a corner.  Despite my own table’s valiant effort with YELLOWJACKET, the contest was won by the JAZZY table, at which no one was older than the birthday boy.  He and ELIZABETH were instrumental in that victory.

When the dancing started, somebody produced a box of wigs, feather boas, and inflatable saxophones.  The groom looked fine with a grass skirt over his wedding duds, and the bride was smiling and whirling and looking radiant in a gorgeously not-white and not-poofy dress, with a couple of little kids hanging off her arms.  My shy child started to realize that these strangers really weren’t strangers any more.  And she danced.

We still had three days left.  As they flew by, Lizzy gradually relaxed – and so did I.  I was reconnecting with some of my favorite people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in way, way too long.  I was meeting a bunch of new folks, and – no surprise – Mary’s friends were fabulous.  So were their kids.  On Sunday we were wowed by jellyfish, sardines, and some educationally exhibitionist penguins at the aquarium.  On Monday we hit the high seas.

And hit them we did.  Over and over, in a rolling, lurching pattern that, over the course of four hours, turned almost all the faces on our little whale-watching vessel interesting shades of green.  Molly, for once unable to fulfill her duties as social butterfly, at least had the good graces to have good aim into the bucket.  I held her in my arms as she drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep.  Then I looked around for my other small charge, the one who usually never left my elbow. 

There she was at the rail, standing with a practiced-looking wide stance.  She spotted whales. She spotted seabirds, dolphins, walruses and seals. She even spotted a cardboard box that our captain fished out for proper disposal.  Catching my eye, she yelled to me over the sound of the engine.  “Mama, I’m hungry!” 

I staggered into the tiny cabin, where the bagged lunches stood in a forlorn huddle, untouched.  I retrieved a snack.  My kid stood munching and gazing seaward, happy as a miniature pirate.

It was that same evening when Lizzy took center stage on the picnic tables. Fueled by s’mores, the ultimate childhood ambrosia, she had found her groove.

And me?  Well, it was then, as I toasted my own marshmallow to golden perfection alongside Mary (whose years leading camp kids have made her a true artist in this endeavor) that I realized that my groove had been just fine all along.  I didn’t need to project my own uncertainties onto my hapless kids.  I also didn’t need to worry, because my friends hadn’t changed – not in the ways that matter.  And neither had I.  True, we were all having such a great time that we sometimes forgot that Craig and Mary were the King and Queen of this event.  But our hosts had planned it this way.  They didn’t want to be King and Queen, they wanted to be themselves.  They wanted to actually spend time – quality time! – with the people they cared about.  It was – just as I had hoped – perfect.

“And now,” shouted Lizzy, “We will dance!”

Mazel tov.

1 comment:

  1. I just went to a college wedding too, and it was lovely with much of the same bonding happenings, but vastly different overall! This was a blast to read. My favorite part was about the Scrabble tiles.