“Who’s the new buyer for this place?” I asked Ethan. “Liberace?”
“Think of a male Lady Gaga,” I explained.
We were in a local store where I’d bought decent clothes for Ethan for years. Now, I flipped through a rack of ridiculously flamboyant boys’ jeans. Wild stitching, flower patterns on the pockets, bold block letters running down the legs. Who wore these things? I would have found it funny if we weren’t so rushed. In two days, we were flying to California to attend my niece’s wedding and Ethan didn’t own a pair of pants that weren’t worn and raggedy. Our plan was to buy fresh black jeans and a simple button down shirt, but locating them was like looking for a needle in a haystack made of gold lamé.
Finally, I tracked down a single pair of basic black jeans. We turned the corner to look for shirts and stared in amazement. The aisle was filled with prepackaged shirt-and-tie combinations, the predominant colors silver and pink.
“Look!” Ethan pointed to a tiny three-piece pinstripe suit paired with a ruffled lavender shirt. “It’s a pimp suit for two-year-olds.”
I decided on the spot you can’t get mad at your kid for accuracy. “Yes it is.”
We abandoned the children’s department and continued our search in men’s. After some digging, Ethan found a crisp white shirt.
I checked the label. “That’s going to be too big.”
He grabbed it out of my hands and slipped it on. To my surprise, it fit perfectly. Sometime this summer, overnight it seemed, Ethan had grown long and trim, his rounded baby face suddenly chiseled and lean.
“You look wonderful,” I said.
I was about Ethan’s age when I attended my first wedding — my cousin Donna’s. My father, having taken full advantage of the open bar, leaned over and slurred in my ear. “I’d rather send you around the world than give you one of these.”
I glanced around the room. A handful of people danced to the band’s awful version of Rock Me Gently while Donna, looking exhausted, moved from table to table in her heavy dress making small talk. “Deal!” I said to my dad.
It was a prescient conversation. Richard and I were married, without friends or family present, in a small town in upstate New York. I wore a gauzy dress I bought at a thrift store for seven dollars, and we stood under a tree as the Justice read a Kahlil Gibran poem to us. A waitress we’d met the night before snapped photos.
It’s a sweet memory, but there are hidden truths behind our decision. For one, in my twenties, I was too self-conscious about my palsied gait to relish walking down the aisle in front of a crowd — even a crowd who loved me. Also, I knew that, as a couple, Richard and I didn’t have what it took to plan such an elaborate event together. Surely the effort would have strained us until there wouldn’t have been a marriage at all.
I’ve never regretted our simple choice, but there is one tradition in conventional weddings that fills me with longing. I’ve watched friends stand at the altar and felt thrilled for them, but when the music comes on for the father/daughter dance, I ache to be the one swaying in my father’s arms. He died over six years ago, which of course means — even if I marry again — I’ll never get to have that dance.
Naomi is the daughter of my deceased half-sister. Sixteen years my senior, Tina was raised on the West Coast by her father and stepmother. Sadly, it felt more like we were distant relatives than siblings. She had six wonderful kids, now stunning adults whom I rarely get to see. But here we all were in a lovely home in Berkeley for Naomi’s rehearsal dinner, together in one room for the first time in years.
“Ethan, come meet your cousin, Gabe.”
“Remember your cousins Herman and Joey?”
“Dan, this is Howie, my brother-in-law.”
“My nephew, David.”
“Gracie, my niece. . . ”
With no family near me back home, I sometimes find myself feeling waif-like and unmoored. But here I marveled at faces that seemed both new to me and completely familiar. I hugged bodies that my own body knew in a deep, rarely tapped place.
“You look so much like mom,” David told me.
“Hugging you feels like hugging another me,” I blurted to petite Grace.
That night, after Naomi and her fiancé Galen signed the ketubah, the Jewish wedding document, I guided Dan to the piano. As he played Your Song I kept my arms around Naomi. Moments earlier, she’d made a toast, thanking everyone for coming, adding how sad she felt that her mother couldn’t be there. “Her sister is,” she noted, turning her teary eyes my way.
She and Galen were married the next day in a sloping field surrounded by redwoods. The two of them looked lit with love. Later that evening, they danced their first dance to a jazzy rendition of Just the Way You Are.
Then it was time for the father/daughter dance. I braced myself for my old familiar ache, but as I watched these two people I love, and I’ve missed, glide gracefully together, I felt simply happy.
Ethan stepped up beside me, looking mature and handsome in his hard-won outfit. Putting my arm around him, I realized he’s now taller than I am. John Lennon’s Imagine was playing, a song we both love. And so we had our first official mother/son dance surrounded by family.