There is a certain look people get when you tell them you are going to your mother's wedding (particularly once you assure them you are thrilled.) It's a smile of surprise, mixed with an implied fist bump of "you go girl", mixed with just a touch of eyebrow raised confusion.
At their age? Why?
I suspect I had the same look as I held the chuppah over Mom, who is not quite 74, and Al, who is 82, as they read the vows they had written to each other. They pledged love, yes, but also so many things that their younger selves would not yet have come to cherish -- to honor each other's commitments to their families, to accept each other exactly as they are.
As my mother and new stepfather (I am still getting used to that...) spoke of lifetimes and beginnings, I realized how rare these moments were. Not just a wedding at their age, which is unusual enough (the most recent census numbers say that of every 1000 widows over the age of 65, two will remarry, while 14 per 1000 widowers will do the same) but the chance to stand with a parent when a new door opens.
My grandmother called it shepping naches. Literally translated that means "deriving pleasure" but it is so much more than that. It connotes swelling with pride at the accomplishments of others, and until Mom's wedding I had only ever thought to use it to describe a parent's derivative joy at the success of their children. The reason I never heard it applied to what a child feels about a parent is because that's rarely the way it works. So many of life's milestones are doors opening for children, and closing for parents.
Standing under that chuppah in my mother's Tucson backyard, I spun through the lifecycle moments she and I have shared. Nearly all of them were new beginnings for me, and something much more complicated and bittersweet for her. My own wedding, when my parents sent me off toward a new chapter and closed one of their own. The birth of my children, which inched them further from their parenting years. And the times when I was there to shepherd and support her? All sad, and final. The downsizing of her home. My father's death. Her move to Arizona because the New York winters had become too hard.
None of this is to say that her life has been spent waiting around for her kids to bring happiness. My mother doesn't wait around for anyone. And there certainly have even been moments when I did feel as though I were watching her at the starting gate, certainly not the finish line. When she graduated from law school the year I graduated from high school, I remember thinking that this is the pride a parent must feel. When she shook herself out of mourning and put herself on a cruise ship, I was like a mom whose kid was spending his first summer at sleepaway camp, waiting for emails, hoping she was making friends.
But as I looked past the chuppah and to my own two sons -- both young men, actually -- sitting among their new cousins, I saw clearly that already they were closing doors and moving on, while I could only stand still and watch them go. My job was to wave as they left for kindergarten, and high school, and college -- new beginnings for them, thinly veiled endings for me. I would burst with joy and pride, they would periodically pause and wave back.
When the vows were said, and the glass was broken, and a few happy tears were shed, we headed to a favorite restaurant for the reception. Theirs was one of two wedding parties celebrating there that night, separated from each other by a thick glass wall. Part way through the meal there came a moment when the bride and groom on the other side, looking just like the couple a top the identical cakes, caught the eye of the bride and groom on our side, looking nothing at all like the cake topper, but for their smiles. It was like looking in a mirror through time, and all four of the newlyweds began to wave.
From Lisa Belkin: I wrote this soon after Mom's wedding. But before we could run it, Al's daughter Suzanne passed away from cancer, leaving behind her husband and their 8-year-old son. Her funeral is January 10, two weeks to the day after her father married my mother. A reminder to celebrate whenever you can.