My youngest sister got married while she was still in college. Abigail had gone to prep school in New England, a beautiful hilly campus in western Massachusetts with red brick buildings scattered like giant Monopoly pieces across shady sloping lawns. Although she and her husband-to-be both lived in New York, they decided that they wanted to be married in the lofty chapel of her old school, and for that long sunny summer weekend the campus was ours.
My mother made Abigail’s dress, miles and miles of creamy taffeta; with her hair pinned up Abigail looked like Claudette Colbert rising up out of a milk bath. The whole family was at the wedding: my parents, my two brothers and their families, my middle sister and her husband, my aunt and uncle, cousins, friends, and friends of friends. The group was so large that at the picnic the night before the wedding we all wore special ribbons identifying our own particular relationship to the bride or the groom (LIZ: Abigail’s Sister; BILL: Abigail’s Brother-in-Law).
Isabell and Margaret looked adorable in their matching green flower girl dresses, all white tights, shiny Mary Janes and wide sashes. Someone took a picture of them near the end of the big rowdy reception–Isabell’s sash is hanging low and her carefully brushed hair is disheveled; Margaret’s tights are torn, her face is dirty, and the circlet of flowers that started out on her head is hanging around her neck so she looks as though she had just won the Preakness. Isabell mugs for the camera. Margaret is looking into the distance somewhere out over the trees.
“Last one!” My parents said it over and over again when the guests had finally gone, said it to each other, to us, to the band that was packing up its instruments, to the caterers dumping the ice chests out on the grass. “This is the last of them. This is it.”
Years after the marriage had dissolved and Abigail had spent a restorative couple of years in Spain, years after her second wedding in the North Carolina mountains, I asked her if she knew why she had gotten married so young and so soon. “I think I do know actually,” she said. “To be honest I think it was that I wanted to finally be the one to say ‘I have an announcement….’”
I knew exactly what she meant.
Big families have a way of colonizing any place they go; for my family the colony is more like a nation-state. When we go to the beach together we carry matching low chairs and set them up in a semi-circle facing the ocean, with two striped umbrellas at the center of the arc to protect the bald-headed men and whatever babies might be along. If it’s the Fourth of July we plant an American flag in the middle of the semi-circle, and next to it the specially made maroon, blue and white flag that says SEYMOUR FAMILY REUNION. If it’s Thanksgiving we set up long tables end to end and mark each place with smooth beach stones inscribed in Sharpie with each family member’s name, saved in a basket from year to year. If it’s a trip to a park or a restaurant or a museum we startle passersby by doing the Countdown before we go in—One! Two! Three! Four!–each person shouting out his or her number, youngest to oldest. We began the Countdown years ago when the small children of my generation were so numerous that one day the adults lost track and a child was accidentally left behind on the beach for an anxious twenty minutes. When a new generation started up my mother hand silk-screened t-shirts for everyone, each with a different number. “Countdown!” my father shouts and we all scramble to find our place in line while some willing stranger holds my father’s camera and waits to snap a picture. Mary, my middle sister, stopped coming to big family gatherings years ago. “I love everyone dearly,” she says. “It’s just too intense.”
“I have an announcement!” Marriages, pregnancies, promotions. Bar exam results, doctoral degrees, college acceptances. The chair is pushed back, the throat is cleared, someone taps a glass, the conversation stills—and then the whole room lights up like a jack-o-lantern as people jump to their feet clapping their hands over their heads, and opening their arms wide to offer a hug. My uncle says “Good work!”; my father slaps the table so hard the silverware jumps; my mother says “Darling!”; and everyone asks a million questions you don’t yet know the answer to: “But how…? “When…?” “Are you going to…?”
I had an announcement in February of 1974. There was no family gathering to announce it to, just a phone call to my parents, but the result was just as satisfying as if there had been. My mother’s voice was pitched a little higher with every phone call that evening—and when she wasn’t calling me she was calling other family members, who were calling me. The news was electrifying, though not exactly a surprise. Bill and I had only known each other for four months, but we were so well suited to each other that marriage was inevitable. It seemed pointless to delay. I had graduated from Smith three years before; he had graduated from Columbia. We were both bookish and dreamy, both tall and reserved, both interested in the world but a little old fashioned, both essentially decent people, not unambitious but not particularly hard-driving. We both wanted children someday. And from the night that Bill had walked my bike and me home under a starry autumn sky, we were inseparable.
Looking back on it we were both ready to fall in love, and we did. All that autumn we took long walks together scuffing the yellow maple leaves, talking about books and people and the mistakes we’d made and the things we’d learned. We made up names for our favorite places in town, a private geography of rocks and trees and park benches. I adopted Bill’s opinions of W.H. Auden, Edward Said, Jacques Barzun. He adopted mine of Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott. We drove to Boston in Bill’s rusty old blue Dodge and spent the weekend with my college roommate Alice in her tiny Beacon Hill walk-up. We went down to the waterfront where Alice worked as a yacht broker, and spent the afternoon in a secondhand bookstore near Harvard Square. Alice could be sharp with people who weren’t as quick-witted or as well-read as she was, but she and Bill found common ground in The Iliad, and I felt that she approved. That night all three of us got a little drunk and danced around the miniature living room to Alice’s old Motown records until Alice said “Well, kids…” and went we all went to bed.
Barely two months after we met, Bill made the long drive with me to Indiana—my father was president of a small college there—for Thanksgiving. He sat on the sofa with my uncle, with my grandfather, with my grandmother, her legs elegantly crossed, tapping out a Camel with her black and gold cigarette holder, and had answered all their questions honestly and confidently. He looked everyone in the eye; he shook the men’s hands; he stood up when my grandmother or my mother or my aunt came into the room; he shot baskets with my teenage brothers in the college gym and surprised them by beating them at one-on-one. Both of us were a little aimless, but everyone understood; we were at that aimless stage of life, and at least we were doing something, unlike a lot of people our age. We weren’t living on a beach in Mexico or driving a VW bus across the desert or tuned in, dropped out and out of touch somewhere.
I hadn’t known what to do after college so I had done the easiest thing: I had stayed. I had rented a small apartment in the upstairs of an old house and had gone on working in the college archives, a continuation of the job I had had as a student. Right before Bill and I met I had left that job and had moved over to the Development Office in top floor of the Alumnae House , where my assignment was essentially to sit in a small narrow room with one high window and read The New York Times every day for items about wealthy Smith alumnae. Bill had traveled around Europe for several months after he graduated, studying French and reading Milton (“How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth,/Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year..”); when he came home he moved back into his parents’ house in Levittown and had found a job as a carpenter’s assistant. His mother, who had herself gone to Smith, had grown up in Northampton, and Bill had spent most of his childhood summers in the area; after the carpenter’s assistant job ran out, he moved to Northampton himself, took a one-room apartment near the Smith campus and found a job typing catalog cards in the basement of the college library.
I asked Bill once when he knew that we were going to get married. “Do you remember that time we went to the second-hand bookstore on Masonic Street and found the copy of the Columbia encyclopedia?” he said. I nodded. The one-volume encyclopedia was on our bookshelf. “We both wanted it, so we decided to go in halves on it, do you remember? That’s when I knew.”