It all started in March of 2020, when my daughter’s boyfriend flew to Pittsburgh for lunch to ask for her hand. Liking him a great deal, I said yes, not knowing that, thanks to the vagaries of COVID, we would have 30 months to think and rethink the wedding, and experience all the drama accompanying it.
The first big question was where to have the wedding. Exotic and idyllic places swirled through everyone’s heads. Maybe a small village in Italy or an island in Maine, near my daughter’s college. I imagined the little town in Michigan where we spend summers. We had a long time to imagine such things, but in the end, our thoughts returned to Pittsburgh. It was within driving distance for my family in Ohio, for the New York in-laws and certainly convenient for our friends here. More important, it’s where my daughter grew up and it’s our home.
After considering virtually every venue in town, we ended up at the country club just down the road and a lovely church blocks away. The club, with its outside terrace overlooking a golf course, couldn’t be prettier in June. Of course, June is also the month when it seems every Three Rivers Arts Festival gets washed away. My daughter wanted to give out-of-town guests a varied sense of the city. So we reserved rooms at the Oaklander hotel — perfect for visiting the Carnegie, Phipps, and the Frick. Our in-laws-to-be chose the Strip District for the rehearsal dinner and a welcome party.
And for the piece de resistance, we’d hold the after party at a neighborhood karaoke place that’s always lit up like Christmas.
The details multiplied, as did a dizzying amount of etiquette and process. Sinking in that strange, uncharted sea, I was buoyed by Fate, which had bestowed a gift on me — the best opening line in 40 years of making speeches. That gave me a false sense of security that lasted until the rehearsal dinner.
In a normal year, the invitation process would have its usual drama, but last year everyone was requiring vaccine mandates. If we didn’t follow suit, I was told, many people simply wouldn’t come. “Perfect!” I thought. “The highest number of invitations and regrets means the most presents at the lowest cost!” The pandemic raised my hopes in other ways too. As it dominated public consciousness, some people we knew opted for a drive-by wedding for their daughter. The invitations hadn’t gone out yet — imagine the savings!
Though I didn’t relish the prospect of the bill, the fact is that I love my daughter, am proud of her and looked forward to celebrating in a (relatively) big way. And that included walking her down the aisle.
That was something I’d kept at arm’s-length for decades. The mere thought of it could bring tears to my eyes. And suddenly, here it was — the wedding rehearsal. As the young pastor described the proceedings and the organist practiced, my eyes brimmed with tears and my vision blurred. All I recall about the rehearsal was the acute emotional intensity and wondering how I could possibly hold it together the next day.
After the rehearsal dinner, the groom’s father gave a terrific speech. As a speech afficionado, I admired it as a tour de force in content and delivery. My next thought was “Yikes! My speech isn’t good enough yet.” So that night I stayed up late polishing it. But then, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t sleep. As the wee hours crawled by, my mind raced. The last time I checked the clock, it was after 4 a.m. I had to be up in two hours for a final weather check and to tell the tent company whether we’d need them. The alarm rang at 6:30 and after I called the tent people, again I couldn’t sleep. It was my daughter’s wedding day — how could I possibly function on two hours sleep? What had I done?
The bridesmaids, hairdressers and makeup people descended on the house at 9:30. I tried to avoid them and I’m sure they wanted to keep away from the weird, old zombie with the hollowed eyes who kept emerging and disappearing. I was trying in vain to find a place to sleep, away from the waves of bridal party noise. Finally, I gave up and re-read my speech until it was time to don my tux and go to the club for photos.
On the way out, the makeup gal saw me and did a double take. “Can you do anything?” I asked. I recalled “The Godfather” and Marlon Brando telling the undertaker: “I want you to use all your powers, and all your skills. I don’t want his mother to see him this way.” After she worked on me for a few minutes, I looked in the mirror. The dark circles and haggardness were gone, and my thinning hair wouldn’t move in a hurricane. It was a miracle.
With everyone else in the sanctuary, my daughter and I stood behind the closed white doors. She looked beautiful, and, arm in arm, we gave each other a final look and smile as the strains of the music rose. The church ladies nodded to us and opened the doors. Light streamed into the hall from three sides and everyone stood as the organist played “Here Comes the Bride.”
We walked slowly, smiling. I looked at all the friendly, familiar faces on the left — the bride’s side — realizing only later I’d totally neglected the groom’s side. Tears welled, and a possible gusher was at hand, when a godsend intervened. Among the elated, smiling faces was one relative who looked as if he couldn’t have been more bored. He wore the dullest, most impassive expression and the hilarious incongruity rescued me from the brink. I whispered it to my daughter and we both laughed.
Two hours earlier, the club had been a mess — leaves and stems everywhere amid a hive of scurrying florists. When we arrived later, the most magnificent flowers I have ever seen greeted us. After the receiving line and cocktails, everyone was finally seated, and the moment had arrived for my speech. I walked to the head table, holding pages of paper with 26-point type, in case I lost my way. After thanking several people, I said, “Aren’t we all lucky to be here and to be alive on such a beautiful day?”
I told them it was actually supposed to have rained that day. That was the unwavering forecast, and it was my fault. At a party in December, our future son-in-law’s mother had given us three little plastic bottles of bourbon with instructions that, if we buried one at our house, one at the church and one at the club, they would ward off rain. We’d buried two but not the one at the church. And as the forecast worsened, that Alanis Morissette song “It’s like ray-ee-ain on your wedding day” grew louder in my head. So just after midnight on the Thursday before the wedding, I grabbed the bottle and a little trowel and drove to the church. I pulled into a shadowy corner, away from the lights and looking this way and that, I crept into the grass and buried the little brown bottle. When I awakened the next morning, I checked the forecast and lo and behold, Saturday would have perfect weather. It was a true story and got a few chuckles.
Then it was time to spring on them the line I’d kept under wraps for a year.
“Everyone knows that fathers and daughters have a special relationship. And of course, I have always wanted the best for my daughter. I’ve hoped that she would find someone special — with a list of good qualities that realistically no mortal man could ever incorporate. However, even I couldn’t have hoped that of all the men in the world — her husband would be the first-born son of Mary and Joseph.”
There was a pause until people realized those were the names of the groom’s parents, and then the place erupted. And with perfect, unplanned timing, my son-in-law’s father stood up in his black tux and gave the crowd a Papal blessing, provoking further gales of laughter.
After saying nice and true things about my son-in-law, I turned to my daughter, recalling how she came to us 30 years ago. Her due date came and went. Days passed, then two weeks. My mother finally said, “You know they used to say that a storm would bring on labor.” And in the wee, dark hours, we drove to the hospital through blinding torrents of rain — our daughter actually rode into this world on the tail of a hurricane. And ever since, she’s been a ray of sunshine — a parent’s dream, really. She even started sleeping through the night at three days old.
I recalled showing a crusty old Pulitzer Prize-winning friend at the newspaper a snapshot of her smiling, pudgy face. “She’ll be the life of the party,” he said. I was concerned because she was a funny-looking baby. Years later, my fears were confirmed when she ended up looking a lot like me. And while it is true that fathers and daughters have a special bond, in our case it’s heightened because we’re so similar in so many ways.
“She has always been the adventurer,” I told the crowd. “Up for anything and everything. And it was my job to say yes when she would ask, ‘Hey Dad, will you take me on the BIG roller coaster?’ Or ‘Hey Dad, let’s go to President Obama’s inauguration.’ And everything in between. She’s always been a creative thinker, but beyond that she is someone who sees the bright side and believes anything is possible and doable.” As the narrator says at the end of “Dr. Zhivago,” “It’s a gift.”
I told the young couple that inevitably they would face challenges — some more difficult than they could imagine. But I said they were luckier than they knew. They were the super evolutionary champions of history, coming from a line of predecessors who since before the dawn of time had overcome every conceivable and every inconceivable threat and managed to survive, thrive and continue the line. “Their intrepid success is why you’re here, and you’re built of the same stuff. With imagination, will and a little luck (which you’ll likely make yourselves) you can overcome anything.”
Finally, I suggested they enjoy their time, and not be in a rush because the years go by in a blink. And before raising my glass, I said, “Yes, make your mark — but remember that above all the accomplishments you might seek and attain, family — in the end — matters most.”
Someone had told me, “The day of the wedding, stop worrying and just enjoy it. Because it will go so quickly and just like that, it’ll be over.” And when we returned home at 3 a.m., over it was.
One thing I’ll remember was our Father/Daughter dance. In the 30-month run-up we had imagined doing all sorts of moves. We’d practice and put on a show. We ended up having a hard time picking a song, because so few aren’t about romantic love. And we never did practice which was fine, because as the two-minute song played, my daughter said, “Should we do some moves?”
I said “No, we’re just going to slowly spin around — and I want you to take in the looks on everyone’s faces. Some people believe in energy — and if you could bottle up all that love and good will in all those faces, you could live on it for a long time.”
And just as I was thinking that I hoped she and my son-in-law would do just that, the singer slowly sang the song’s final lyrics: “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”