by Colleen Sutherland
The organ ground to a halt as the six of us filed into the church, past a handful of friends, and up to the altar where Reverend Peets was waiting.
“Marriage is not meant to be the final step but the beginning of a grand adventure,” Reverend Peets began, looking at a small red book in his hands. It wasn't a Bible and it wasn't the liturgy at the beginning of the hymnal. Marriage renewal vows didn't exactly fit in the theology of the church, but it was a fad that year, so we were all going through it, me with Bill, Vi with Lance, and Poppy with Frank. Reverend Peets found the book of renewal vows at a Christian book store, he said.
It was Bill's idea, of all things. It was his alternative to going to a marriage counselor with me. I threatened him with divorce if he wouldn't go. No, I take that back. I promised to get a divorce and I meant it. He begged me not to and I gave him counseling as a last resort, but he said no, let's just renew our vows.
“Does that mean you plan on behaving yourself?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, but I heard that many times before. His idea of fidelity was getting a vasectomy so Artie would have no half-siblings running around town.
“Bill and Sheila, you have shared the blessings of married life for 16 years,” read Reverend Peets. He was gray and tired. His wife was still down in Florida taking care of her parents, he said. Janey had been there with her kids for six months, and the congregation was starting to doubt him, but pastors don't lie, do they?
“Vi and Lance,” he went on, “Poppy and Frank, you each have endured...” he caught himself, “shared eighteen years together.”
Bill talked Lance and Frank into joining us in this ceremony when they met to watch the Super Bowl on the big television at the Den. In a drunken stupor, they signed a pledge on the back of a bar napkin. Poppy and Vi weren't all that happy in their marriages either. Frank pointed out that this could be an anniversary present. “I never know what to give that bitch anyhow.”
Bill came home all glowing and talking about it. He asked me to set it up with Reverend Peets, whom he didn't know since he hadn't been in a church since he was a kid. Artie and I were sporadic members so Reverend Peets knew us.
So I gave Bill this one last chance. It meant organizing the ceremony and the party after, but Vi and Poppy promised to help. Vi did and Poppy as usual, flitted in and out of our meetings with suggestions but no actual hands on work. She decided there should be music at the ceremony and brought in one outrageous proposal after another. Vi and I rejected “Like a Virgin”, “What's Love Got to Do With It?',
and “Time After Time.”
Reverend Peets informed us that Martha was the only church soloist available and that Gertrude would play the organ. Neither of them knew any rock numbers. We finally let them work it out. “Surprise us,” we said.
Now Martha was enthusiastically singing “I Love You Truly” which didn't seem appropriate, but I didn't much care. Bill was staring at his Guccis. Poppy was giggling. Bill looked over at her and grinned.
“I love you truly, truly, dear. Life with its sorrows, life with its tears.”
One day while we were making heart decorations for the party out of sale items left over from Valentines Day, I asked Vi, “Why are we doing this anyhow? Why are we staying married?”
“For the kids,” she said. “And I took the wedding vows seriously even if he didn't.”
After all these years, why were Bill and I still married? I thought it would be useful to think it through so one night when Bill was snoring on the couch, I scribbled down a list of six things I might have expected from a marriage.
I began with sex, which is what got me into the marriage in the first place. In the early years, that had been exemplary. Any imagination Bill had was channeled into our lovemaking, but after a year or two, we had tried just about everything that two people could do without going to orgies. I put my foot down at that.
Eventually, I had a baby and when Bill didn't have my full attention, he lost interest in me. That would have been OK I suppose, if he had been a good father, item no. 2 on my list, but he ignored Artie, too. When I asked him to do something with the boy, he took him on outings to a local bar and fed him quarters to play the pinball machines while he flirted with women and drank until he was legally over the limit. When Artie was old enough to report back to me, the outings were done. “I'll get to know him when he's 21,” said Bill.
Fidelity was on the list but I'd given up on that years ago.
Love endures and is kind.
Love is not envious or jealous.
Love wants not for itself.
Love is not puffed up, nor does it behave wrongly...
Reverend Peets kept reading from Corinthians, but my mind wandered.
If Bill had been a good provider, that would have counted for something, but he couldn't seem to hold a job for long. I earned enough as a teacher to keep us going.
Then there would be friendship. If Bill and I had anything in common, if we could talk to each other on any subject, that would have been fine, but when he came home, he plopped himself in front of the television and ignored us. When I tried to talk bout my teaching day, he told me “I don't want to hear about it.”
A little respect would have been good, too, but he called me “his old ball and chain,” laughed at my weight, told me I was letting myself go.
Love should have been there somewhere, I suppose, but when the first six on the list weren't in the equation, love was not an option.
“Please join hands.” Reverend Peets had been droning on for a while. I missed what he had to say but now we got to the gist of the thing.
Bill grabbed my hand, smirking under his thick Tom Selleck Magnum PI mustache. He thought of himself as a tough guy, and would have worn shorts except it was too cold on a March day. He settled for fake Gucci loafers worn without socks.
We were all slaves to our favorite television shows. Lance had a bright yellow tee shirt under his suit jacket, Miami Vice though his beer belly spoiled the Don Johnson effect. Poppy was all Madonna street urchin with a short skirt with turquoise,magenta and purple leggings underneath. The leggings made sense on a cold day but looked odd in a church setting and even odder on a mature woman. I don't know what Frank's mullet was all about. The Dukes of Hazzard maybe? Vi had enormous shoulder pads, so it had to be either Dallas or Dynasty that she'd been watching. Me, I was proud of my delicate shoulders, one of the few things that a woman going on forty could be proud of. Too many wrinkles, a fat bottom, but my shoulders were pretty. It figured that enormous shoulder pads would be in. I covered my thickening ankles with stirrup pants, with a long business jacket top to cover my belly and let it go at that.
“On your wedding day you exchanged rings as symbols of your love,” Revered Peets read. “Now it is appropriate to reconfirm the meaning of the rings you wear.”
Rings? We were supposed to have rings? Bill lost his while water skiing, or so he said. How does one lose a wedding ring water skiing? Dropping it in Shawano Lake is a pretty good way of getting rid of an encumbrance though. Mine was gone a year later when I washed it down the sink right before turning on the garbage disposal. A ring is no insurance of fidelity anyhow, so I didn't think much about it. We'd have to fake the rings. Reverend Peets didn't notice the lack thereof.
“Repeat after me, Bill and Sheila, Lance and Violet, Frank and Poppy. I wear this ring you placed on my hand as a symbol of my love and commitment to you.” I looked up at Bill but he wasn't looking at me. He was grinning at Frank. Poppy wasn't even looking at Frank as she repeated the words. She looked over at Bill and me and winked.
“Live each day with other, giving love, comfort and refuge to one another, in good times and bad. I bind you all as husbands and wives. Please celebrate this renewal of vows with a kiss.”
Bill, Lance and Frank wound up kissing all the wives. Frank even tried sticking his tongue in my mouth. Poppy didn't mind, she said later.
Our renewal party was held at the Den, but I left early to pick Artie up after his basketball game. Bill stayed at the party but was in no condition to drive by then, so Poppy offered to drop him off after she put Frank to bed.
It was a year later that I held another party at my house to celebrate my divorce. Bill ran off with Poppy to Hawaii where he still pretends to be Tom Selleck for all I know.
Vi was at my party and so were Lance and Frank. Vi took me aside to ask what divorce lawyer I used. Even Janey was there. She was back in town to pick up the final load of children's clothes from the parsonage and pick up the latest gossip, too. She reported that Martha's divorce would be final the next week. Reverend Peets declined our invitation.
A good marriage is a wonderful thing. A good divorce is even better.