I took the late ferry back to the island last weekend. Yet another early autumn storm had turned the sound “choppy” and the travel iffy. But most of the passengers on the boat were in high spirits. They sat in defensive scrums; they were young, employed and carrying their workshoes and thirty packs. The couples smiled, laughed, hugged, and tried not to get seasick. They were on their way to a wedding.
Nantucket must be a great place to get hitched. You have the island to yourself, the weather remains great, and there are more than enough empty rooms for the wedding party. The water washes warm, but cold fronts have come swinging out of Quebec and shoved all of the humidity and fog back out to George’s Bank. The island grows heavy with its finest season, full of corn, golf balls, and parking places.
As a result, the couples and the photographers are out in force. The big white dresses line up on the walk way to Brant Point Light, or on the porch at the Sankaty Club, or out at Westmoor and smile in their silk and linen glory. For two days, the ministers are busy, the innkeepers are busy, the cabbies are busy, and the bartenders are busy. Then the invitation-laden guests get on a plane or a boat Sunday afternoon and head back to their various corporate headquarters. If you listen closely, you can hear their proud post-game analysis: “What a nightmare! You can’t believe how difficult it was to leave Nantucket this weekend.”
I suspect that Nantucket offers something more to the brides and the wedding planners than beautiful backdrops and high quality catering. A wedding, after all, is a play where rookie actors fumble their lines and the audience applauds anyway. We clap in the right places, smile at the right times, and line up with a plate in our hands. We have seen it before.
For the actors themselves, the wedding happens some place out there. Their parents, friends, ministers are all in a downstairs room murmuring and singing while they remain in their own little room, locked away by the secrecy of smiles. Loves calls them from the things of the world. They live without clocks, calendars, or a speedometer. Their dreams are unopened presents. Some were on the registry, some weren’t, and many are the wrong size. They smile and wave from the window of their love.
We know how it is. Many of us moved into that room long ago and are still there. It has gotten smaller, tighter, and shabby, but it is still our room. The presents have been opened, worn, and discarded. Or they are in the hall closet, forgotten. Or they have become the cloth of the table and the sheets of the bed and the blanket the baby cries in at night. We remember what it was like “when we were still first rate and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth.”
Once the two step into that room, they never leave it. Children come, children go, lawyers come, lawyers go, and even the undertaker goes with his formal way, but we never leave the room that we moved into on that sunny afternoon when the photographers are snapping pictures, the flowers are fresh, and the checks were still good.
On the ferry, my fellow shipmates came paired. They left the jobs, the briefcases, the secretaries, the students, and the Vice President for Human Development, paired up and came down. Some are just practicing, some have been married for years, and some walk alone. But the ferry ride strips everything else away and leaves us with our underwear, our dress-up clothes, and our jewelry. It’s just the two of us again.
Like the best of marriages, the island they come to is a little old and worn. The bricks and the cobblestones and the shingles have all worn down in the weather and the traffic, but they remain serviceable and sound. We have seen our storms and waves and twelve-hour shifts with lousy tips and sore feet. Winter comes and stays through July, summer comes brief and foggy, and then winter comes again and we remain out here together.
Our island may be gray and old, but you can see the infinite. Get married in Las Vegas, and you see the lights and the casinos. Get married in New York, and you are surrounded by the crowd. But stand at Altar Rock in your best clothes, open your eyes and you see what your fathers, your children, and your grandchildren see. We are surrounded by one long infinite line. It flooded over the fields and hills and has crept up to this one last island. Beneath it sleep millions and millions. Every wedding is one more bulwark against that line, one more shovelful of dirt on this little hill that stretches up out of Melville’s rolling shroud.
And every wedding has a ring, be it Quaker, Evangelical, Buddhist, or Catholic. One of our favorite ministers speaks about this ring in each ceremony he witnesses. He says how the ring is eternal and never changing, how it stands for cycles and for change, but also for stability. The ring, he says, is a promise we make to each other to weather the seasons of life. He is wise and he is right, but the ring is more than that. To me, the ring is a border. Our actors, our lovers, our couple live within the ring as they live within their little room. Beyond it lie jobs, parents, friends, and that one long horizon line.
Every wedded couple turns their back to the world and makes a home in an island of marriage. On Sunday, we have one more Mimosa, pick up some presents for the kids, and take one more picture. The ferries are crowded, the connections are a nightmare, and we have to pick up the kids from your mother’s house. With our cellphones buzzing, we leave them on their island of marriage. They stand on the dock, smile, and wave.
Photo courtesy: Claudia Kronenberg Photography