46-Love Letters from Vietnam: Five Days Before the Wedding and Counting
Following Tim and Kate's Relationship from the beginning of the letters they wrote. Click Here.
Five Days Before the Wedding
December 18, 1969 was a Thursday. That’s the day Tim came home on Christmas leave. There’s a 4 x 6 little brown spiral notebook in a box somewhere with notes of that day and of the rest of those five days leading up to our crazily, hastily planned wedding on December 23, 1969. It doesn’t matter that I can’t find the notebook, because through the years, I’ve stolen enough moments reading its contents (during those times when I’d move the tiny diary from one storage place to another) that the facts of that day have jumped back that that long-term memory place that preserves the memory of events we cherish until we die. But even if there hadn’t been a notebook, the feelings of that time were intense enough to take on a life of their own and create the story that lives in my head.
I remember that school was still in session on that Thursday that Tim flew home from Fort Gordon, GA to Milwaukee, and I had to teach. I had asked Tim to pick me up in time to visit my fourth-grade classroom on the third floor and let the kids see him in his uniform. (Later on, after Vietnam, I couldn’t or wouldn't have asked him to do this.)
It wasn't that I wanted him to wear his uniform because I supported the war; I didn't. I didn’t ask him to wear it because I was patriotically proud that Tim had enlisted in a war we all sensed made no sense; I wasn’t. (Tim would probably reply that neither was he. His enlisting was mostly a pragmatic decision based 70% (I would guess) on the fact that the draft was coming and enlisting might put him in a better position not to fight in the war; 20% on guilt that others his age were giving up their lives while he was comfortable in school; and 10% on the feeling that reports that atrocities were being committed against the people of South Vietnam could be true and if that were the case, the United States had an obligation to respond.) All reasons for going to war are not created equally, however. The reasons men went to Vietnam were different than the reasons my father and father-in-law enlisted in World War II and why my brother-in-law is in Iraq. In Tim O’Brien novel, The Things They Carried, the main character enlisted from his small town in Minnesota because he was 'too embarrassed not to'.
So let there be no mistake, the reason I asked Tim to wear his uniform to my school was not for any patriotic loyalty; it was simply so that my fourth grade deaf kids would be able to understand, in a truly concrete, visual way, the concept of the word army, the verb phrase getting married, and the idea that after Christmas break, they would need to call me Mrs. Moreno! Teaching deaf students purposefully involves an emphasis on the visual, concrete, and experiential. The reasons for this are not intuitively obvious because the impact of deafness is often misunderstood by the general population. We, as hearing people, tend to think what we would miss if we became deaf - music, birds singing, our child laughing. in fact, the main impact of a hearing loss from birth is the effect on language development. Because hearing is an open sense, a child who can hear is constantly exposed to language and vocabulary while playing, sitting at the supper table, brushing his teeth while the family banters back and forth in the living room. While 'mom' might be talking in the kitchen about cousin Jill’s wedding, the maid of honor she picked, the wedding dress she just chose from Macy’s, the hearing child picks up, even if only peripherally, all that vocabulary and language connected with that topic. The deaf child who is not in the room, does not. All of us in deaf education, therefore, use every real life experience to reinforce concepts our students might have missed to create a rich language environment. So having Tim wear his uniform, talking about the meaning of being home “on leave,” and telling the children about our wedding plans became the language lesson of the week, and Tim became on that day, my six-foot-one visual aid!
After some wide-eyed adoring by my students, the yellow buses rolled up on the sidewalk, I flicked the lights to let the kids know the bell rang, and they were off. Tim and I, after a barrage of well-wishes from the teachers and staff we met on the way out of that sturdy old building, left for my-soon-to-be father-in-law’s apartment for a supper (most likely of traditional Sicilian spaghetti). At Tim's father's apartment, there was just some plain old general catching-up amid discussion of the wedding that would take place in five days! We set up a time to meet the next day (or maybe it would be Saturday, I can’t remember) when the three of us would meet with our parish priest to discuss the ceremony that would take place in a few days. Unknown to me at the time, each of us needed to be interviewed separately by the priest before he could let us be married. My parents, not being Catholic, needn’t attend, Father McHugh* informed me. This was not the priest I had gone to for advice about Tim and my impasse on whether or not it was moral to make love before marriage. Father McHugh was merely the priest who ran the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine religious education classes I was volunteering to teach and thus, knew me only casually and hadn't met Tim as yet.
I know how that evening ended or I can guess. Tim would have driven me back t to the apartment where I lived with my mom and dad. My mom and dad probably stayed up until Johnny Carson's Late Show came on, and Tim and I (with Johnny and Ed’s voice in the background) would connect in the way lovers do when the bride-to-be wants her white dress to have a white meaning. It was probably three in the morning before Tim left back for his dad’s apartment.
Friday December 19, 1969
Four Days Before the Wedding
As I remember, Tim came over in the morning on Friday probably for a breakfast my mom had waiting for him. Our day would be filled with errands - running downtown for blood tests and a marriage license, zooming over to the stores on Mitchell Street to find a veil for me, and a stop at the florist to order the flowers. Family and friends had already been invited to the wedding that would take place only a few days from now. (It had been too late to send invitations so my mother and I simply called the 35 people who would be coming to the candlelight Mass that would take place Tuesday evening).
It was cold on Friday, and Tim didn’t look well. He was thinner than he had been on his previous leave and was pale; I was a bit worried. He seemed joyful, however, at the prospect of our marriage and as we trudged up and down Mitchel Street, huddled together against the cold, Tim made me laugh with his particular brand of humor that was always sophisticated, intellectual, and tinged with just a hint of John Carlin's edginess.
Finding a veil was our primary objective. As a little girl, I was no Monica Geller and didn’t really have a wedding dream, except for one; I could picture myself in a white lace mantilla, a vision that was probably based on throwing a white filmy curtain on my head on the rare occasions my friend and I might have played “bride.” A mantilla was in my mind that Friday, and Tim and I looked for one in every bridal shop on Mitchell Street. I assumed finding a veil would be a simple process. After all, Anne and Matt and I found a wedding dress in less than an hour a week ago. But we soon found out that mantillas were unbelievably expressive. Since my dress cost only $20, it seemed absurd and mildly disappointing to spend 150 times more on a veil! So Tim and I trapsed around in the cold and impending snow for something – anything - that would pass as a veil for my bargain wedding dress. We found nothing. Exhausted after a few hours, I made what was probably one our first “being together” decisions. I’d make the veil myself and Tim could help! After all, we did have four days left. I could simply attach it to some flowers that I would wear and my hair and I’d be set. So Tim and I ran to the Fabric shop, found a pattern for a veil (essentially a circle of the right size to fall correctly) and bought a few yards of white netting.
Our next stop was the florist who assured us she could have the flowers ready by Tuesday and that she also knew exactly what would work with the veil. She’d deliver the flowers for my maid of honor, the altar, our parents, and the table at Nino’s Steak Ranch near the airport where we decided to have the “reception” dinner. (Nino’s Steak Ranch downtown was where Tim had taken me on our first date, and Tim had been aching for a steak ever since leaving for basic last May, so why not Nino's?) The florist suggested that red and white would be an excellent choice since it was the Christmas season. I was hazy in my directions for the flower headpiece, but the woman said she knew exactly what I wanted and I could pick it up separately on Tuesday afternoon.
All of these errands we did while trying to re-acquaint ourselves with each other. We’d be husband and wife in a few days and that we had had together were our letters, our phone calls, and the two times Tim came home on leave. But it seemed to me that whatever it was that held us together was holding fast and making this time intensely happy.
Saturday, December 20, 1969
Three Days Before the Wedding
What a 47-year-old memory can’t accurately describe, logical guessing can fill in, and thus I’m assuming that the Saturday before our wedding day was spent with Tim going for tuxedo measurements with his best friend Matt while I probably was still working on sewing the veil. There was one call I remember accurately. It was from one of my friends who had been in the deaf education program at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. We hadn't seen each other in a long time and she was wondering if I wanted to join her and a bunch of friends for a “girls night out.” I casually told her I couldn’t because I was getting married Tuesday night! I remember that I felt safe and comfortable to realize that all that searching that young people do for the right person with whom to the rest of their life with was no longer necessary for me, and I was filled with contentment and happiness that I had found Tim.
There were probably Christmas presents to yet be bought and maybe cards to be mailed, but I think the most of the plans for this tiny wedding were all finalized at this point.
My father had arranged for “a guy from the stock room at work at Kearney and Tracker to take pictures of the ceremony. "He took some real good photos of the guys in the shop." They’d cost about $150, but my dad offered to pay for the photographer as his wedding gift to us. Sounded good to me!
I know Tim and I waited again until after my Mom and Dad went to bed so we could have some time to “connect” with each other. In spite of, or maybe because of the fact that we had only three more days to wait before we could truly be man and wife, the passion of our “almost making love” was intense. Besides, it would be important for him to leave early since we both had a few last minute details to take care of.
Sunday, December 21, 1969
Two Days Before the Wedding
For certain, Tim and I would have gone to Mass with Tim’s father and we probably all had breakfast, again, at my Mom’s and Dad’s apartment. As I remember, Tim and I picked up incidentals for the wedding while my Dad and Tim’s dad watched the football game together. I was grateful that Tim’s dad and my parents really enjoyed each other's company. Tim’s mother and stepdad lived in the heart of the city of Detroit. I had never met them and knew Tim loved his mother, but he rarely kept in contact with her and his five brothers – none of whom I had met! I had no worries though because Tim and I felt invincible and impervious to any outside factors that could influence our relationship.
I’m sure we were spending a great deal of these days before the wedding calling and talking to our friends, especially Matt and Anne and my maid of honor, Ellen. Ellen had to come down from "up north" and it's only after many years that I realized what an imposition this quick wedding must have been on family and friends who had probably planned on this time for last-minute Christmas shopping! But no one said even one little word about being inconvenienced by our plans - it was wartime; Tim might be going off to Vietnam soon; everyone knew we were so deeply in love,and they were joyful for us. That's just the way our family and friends have always been!
Monday, December 22, 1969
One Day Before the Wedding
There is one thing - and one thing only - that I remember about the day before our wedding. This was the last day - the last day we'd "have to wait."
Ironically, just last night on TV the delightful movie, "Forty Year Old Virgin" was playing. And a scene near the end of that movie, dear reader, is close to how it was for us!
We had been "waiting" a long, long time. Unlike the two main characters in the movie whose time waiting had been spent getting to know each other through shared experiences, ours was spent getting to know each other only through letters and phone calls. But whatever waiting may entail, the anticipation is the always same - intense. Suddenly a person becomes the eight-year-old on Christmas eve who needs to peak in the package on Mom's shelf before morning. Trish, the character expertly played by Catherine Keener, had reached the limit of her waiting the day before the scheduled day, and so, in fact, had my Tim. To Trish, it didn't matter whether it was the day or the next day that she and Andy would make love. There was no more waiting for Trish -and no more waiting for Tim. I admit that I was surprised that on this day before our wedding, Tim suggested that we go ahead. Like the Christmas presents that lay under our tree, I wanted to wait until the exact day. After having endured all the frustration for all of these months it all would be pointless, it seemed to me, unless we waited this one last day. I had few romantic notions growing up, but walking down the aisle in a white dress that meant virginity was one of them. I asked of Tim, for one last time, to wait, and Tim agreed and went home.
Almost 50 years later, do I think that was foolish of me? Do I think it was selfish? Do I think it would have made a difference in Tim's and my relationship? I can now say "yes" it was foolish. "Yes" it was selfish. And "no" it wouldn't have made a difference. The good that might have come of it may possibly have been Tim's assurance that my love for him was unconditional. But would-have-beens and could-have-beens are speculative and useful only as considerations for the what-might-be's of those who follow us.
Stay tuned for The Wedding Day to be posted by 6:00 pm, December 23, 2009 (I promise!)