Cruel to Be Kind - Letters to Cleo (mp3)
I attended a fascinating wedding last weekend in the Colorado mountains, some 8,500 feet above sea level. The cast of characters was small, the nuptials simple, the setting rustic, and the officiant a music blogger with no divinity and barely a degree: me.
Christina, the bride-to-be, had one of those picture-perfect smiles. An pixie-adorable brunette firecracker and barely 30, she had managed to ratchet up a burgeoning career as a physician assistant. In her spare time, she was an outdoor enthusiast and an exercising freak. Her latest obsession, marathons, ran her directly into my nephew, Braden. (Yeah, I changed their names.)
I’ve always adored my nephew, but we’ve never been that close. A few visits each year until he graduated college, and then he was jaunting hither and thither in the Air Force. Alaska, Germany, then the Gulf, and finally Warren AFB in Wyoming, a mere hop from Ft. Collins. He asked me to officiate their wedding because Colorado is wacky like that, and I was more practiced at public speaking than most of the adults he knew.
My mother and I flew over together while my wife and kids remained in Chattanooga. (Flying a family of five is fucking expensive, yo.) As best I can recall, it’s the longest trip the two of us took together alone in my life.
Following a fun 36 hours in Fort Collins (perhaps the subject of a future blog), we wound our way up past Estes Park for the rehearsal. I had been warned by my sister -- a wacky lady who, like myself, can quickly wear down the patience of those who value quiet and decorum -- that Christina’s mom was “quite a handful,” but how can one prepare for a person you don’t really need to care about?
Hildegard was a medium-build 5’3” lady in her 60s with a perma-scowl, the lines on her face pulled down by gravity and constant disapproval over some untold number of decades. She was a concert violinist in the Northeast and had the social grace and EQ of a Quisinart.
simple and elegant place in the mountains that books some 200 weddings each year. Our wedding coordinator, an adorable woman named Dana, was asking me if I’d ever done anything like this before and trying to explain how things would work, when Hildegard barrels through the door headed straight for Dana.
“I need to see the plans,” she says. Not “Hi.” Not “Excuse me.” Nothing. Dana excuses herself and turns to Hildy, handing her a printout.
“No no this won’t do,” Hildy says, loudly. “This has me going in first, but the bride’s mother enters last. Change it. Change it now. Who wrote this out? Did Christina do this? On purpose or just because she doesn’t know any better?”
If Hildegard was a character in a sitcom, I would have found her hilarious. In real life, she just seemed an inconsiderate and cranky bitch.
A sampling of her later comments throughout the weekend:
- “So Billy, how come you never asked who gives away this woman?” (Because it was intentionally left out of the script, ma’am.)
- “So Billy, how come you never asked if anyone... how do they put it?” (Has any reason why these -- ) “Yes yes reason these two shouldn’t be married? Why didn’t you ask that?” Then to my sister: “Maybe I would have had a few things to say. Oh honey I’m just kidding. I mean not really but kind of. Any thoughts like that I’d keep to myself of course.”
- “Are you coming to the brunch tomorrow?” (We aren’t sur--) “Well I’ve reserved this place for 40 people, so there’s really no excuse for not coming. It would be quite inconsiderate, really.” (Well, we certainly intend to--) “Intentions are a waste of my time. Say you’ll be there or not, because I’ll need to change plans if everyone starts backing out.”
As the three of us -- four if you must count a dog as a person -- headed to dinner, I couldn’t help but ask. “Christina, I know it’s none of my business, but I get the impression you and your mom aren’t exactly close.”
And she spilled parts of her story with the cool remove of a physician assistant explaining a fungal infection, with no hesitation or apparent discomfort. Her explanation ended with this kicker: “Everything I’ve done with my life has pretty much been an attempt to be absolutely nothing like my mother.”
As I cherished this weekend with my own mother -- a woman so treasured in my heart that having her live downstairs in our shared home wasn’t remotely a hard decision -- I felt a slight pity for Christina, but I’m not sure why. She’s well off financially and clearly whip-smart. She’s in amazing shape and so competitive she regularly beats my stud nephew in marathons. She seems truly happy in most ways and lives two time zones from this woman she’s disliked since her toddler years.
Perhaps, without that friction with her mom, Christina never reaches these places in her own life. Perhaps the price of her happiness was, ultimately, the sacrifice of a connection with her mother. Perhaps this was a cost beyond her control, a price of the Fates.
I’m only grateful I was never asked to pay such a toll.