Now, it must be explained that “shut up” was not and is not a phrase that I have ever said lightly or regularly. It was not allowed in my family when I was growing up, nor is it allowed in my home now. Still, that didn’t stop me from using the phrase like a bottle smashed on the hull of my marriage as it steamed away from the dock.
June 14, 1986, dawned as a beautiful, if typically hot day on the Gulf Coast. It would be a bright and sunny Saturday, perfect for a wedding. Mary Ann and I had been dating for only a year, but we both knew that we wanted to stay together, to share whatever would be the rest of our lives. And so, all morning, all the normal about-to-get-married thoughts paraded through my head: this is the last time I’ll wake up as a single man. This is the last breakfast I’ll eat as a single man. This is the last time I’ll put on deodorant as a single man. Those kinds of things.
Our wedding was to be at 4:00 in the afternoon, in the chapel of Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. All the necessary preparations had been made, so I donned my tuxedo with a gray morning jacket and striped ascot, and waited. I had arrived at the church about an hour early in order to have all the pre-wedding pictures taken. I had already been in at least half a dozen weddings, so I knew how it went. All the groomsmen (I only had one plus a couple of ushers) would be gathered in a room for various poses, then the bridesmaids (again, just one), then the groom, then the bride, all while keeping the future husband and wife from seeing each other. Honestly, I had been looking forward to this little photo shoot for a long time.
So, it came as a surprise to me when, at 3:45, the professional photographer we had hired had yet to show. Finally, at 3:55, a young woman arrives, looking like she wasn’t quite sure what a photographer is supposed to do. That was compounded when she said it looked like she had forgotten batteries. Or film. Maybe the camera, I don’t really remember, but I do remember thinking we were going to end up without even a Polaroid of the entire event. Luckily, Mary Ann’s cousin had brought his camera, and he volunteered to shoot from the balcony to supplement whatever the “photographer” might get. Fine. Let’s just get on with it.
Four o’clock sharp. Organ music. Candles. Processional. And, standing at the altar, I look up and I see the most beautiful girl that has ever appeared on the earth, and she is gliding down the aisle toward me. My mother is beaming. Her father is crying. He’s weeping, actually, and it occurs to me that he might not be so happy about this whole arrangement, but I just chalk it up to the whole father/daughter thing.
And the ceremony is beautiful. Guitar music. Family. Friends. Rings, vows, prayers. It all comes off as smoothly as might be expected. Until the candle. We have promised our love, glided down the two steps to the unity candelabra, where we will each take our previously lit candle, join them at the one in the middle to start a new flame, and return our individual candles to their holders. Simple enough. Mary Ann, with the perfect grace of an elegant bride, pulls her candle out of its holder and starts going for the top. I pull gently on my candle, and– it’s stuck. So, of course, I do what you always do when a candle is seated too firmly in its place. I twist it.
Now, without drawing a schematic diagram, let me share with you what I did not know in that moment. I didn’t know that the candles we were using were dripless candles. The part that looks like a candle is actually just a plastic sheath that slides down over a spring loaded metal cylinder that pushes a column of wax up to the hole in the top of the sheath as it burns. Again, this is information that I did not have available to me at the time. What might have been more important to know is that the whole devious contraption is held together by a couple of twist-together gaskets at the very bottom of it. Where, as you might guess, it sits in the holder. So, what you really don’t want to do, is to try to remove this particular kind of candle from a candle holder by twisting it.
Finally, after twisting what I don’t know I shouldn’t twist, I yank my candle out of its place, the great force of which causes the flame to go out. But I’m smooth. I veer my sad, empty wick over toward where Mary Ann’s bright fire is heading up to the top candle, I relight from hers, and everything is wonderful. Together, we light the middle one, blow ours out, and we each return them to their respective places. And now, the extent of my ignorance of the dripless design begins to manifest. I was blissfully unaware that as I held it in my hand, it had already come apart at the little twisty gaskets in the bottom. So, I gently pressed it into its holder, and as I take my hand away, it—well, it bounces a little. After a couple of those bounces, it begins to fall off the stand. So, I do the only thing I know to do. I push it into the holder as hard as I can.
And that, it turns out, initiates the launch sequence. When I remove my hand, the whole spring-loaded projectile rockets into the air, and I can still see it as I did that day, in all its slow-motion splendor. The first- and second- stage separations are beautiful, as cylinders of wax and metal tumble through the air in a ballet that would have made NASA proud. Then, as the elements tumble back toward earth, I am propelled back to the reality of what is actually going on here. I instinctively reach out and catch what pieces I can in mid-air, as other parts plunk to the carpet. My back is still to the congregation. I hand what candle detritus I could salvage to the friend/usher unlucky enough to be standing next to me. And I actually think these words: “I bet, if I act nonchalant, nobody will have noticed.”
My bride and I spin smoothly around to be presented to the audience, and the horror dawns. I think they noticed. I can’t see my mother. She is supposed to be right there, on the second row, but she’s gone. We have a picture, though, from the balcony, where you can just make out my sweet little mother literally almost on the floor under the pew, laughing and trying to breathe.
The pastor isn’t saying anything. He is supposed to be presenting us. The organ isn’t playing. And I look to my left, where my new wife is hooked into my left arm, to see if she is okay. And, much like my mother, she isn’t there. I mean, she is, but I can’t see her. She is completely doubled over in laughter, shaking, her face to the ground. It is at this point that I elbow her and utter my first words as a husband: “Shut up!”
Mary Ann, my beautiful Mary Ann, stands up straight and promptly puts her bouquet of flowers right in front of her face, still laughing and shaking. Finally, the pastor starts to present us as a new couple, husband and wife, and halfway through our name, he loses his composure and bursts into his own laughing fit. The organ still has not played, but the roar of laughter and applause is the music to which we march down the aisle into our brand new life.
After the ceremony, I received the most important word of encouragement and promise that has ever been given to me. My brother, who was trying to fight his way through a difficult, troubled marriage, came to me, smiled, and said this: “If you can start your marriage laughing, you can get through anything.”
He was right. And today, 26 years later, the laughter hasn’t stopped yet.