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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

Grassland

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Nearly twenty-eight years ago when I walked down the aisle, bridesmaids in pink and lavender followed me. Except for a college friend, I knew none of them. Two were wives of my husband's friends, one was someone I'd just met, and another was my husband's sister whom I barely knew. As I look back, I barely knew my husband having dated him for merely a year before we married. The lavish wedding was not my choice. Having "just" had a wedding six years before in my parents garden, eloping was appealing, but Mark's family understandably wanted a wedding for their son. Memories of the night are blurry. I was a bride in an odd re-run, and too young to protest without sounding unkind or petulant.

There was a table of my husband's fraternity brothers and wives. The men (including my husband) started as 19 -year-olds at Northwestern, and became a true brotherhood. There are 14 of "us" now with Mark and I as the last to marry -- and children, and even grandchildren.

One of the daughters was married in Savannah last weekend -- the first time I have been among the crowd bringing it to 14.

Hard to believe we have children who are marrying. Wasn't it just yesterday that Mark and I exchanged vows? And wasn't it just yesterday that I believed in all the promises the young bride and groom made last weekend?

At first, Savannah was not the place for me to be. The Universe tested my will as I walked the city streets adorned with filigree balconies and trees dripping with Spanish moss, inhaled the sweet scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, heard the honk of the river boats, the street musicians playing the blues on clarinets...It was all too redolent of New Orleans and Mississippi where my husband spent all too much time in 2004 when he took a marital leave of absence.

I always longed to know and be known by these 12 people who were so connected to my husband. Until this weekend, I never had the opportunity. I was, unintentionally, the outsider. When we were younger, there were celebrations and reunions that I couldn't attend. Whereas others had families with whom they could leave their children, we did not. And our children, born in stair steps, were not portable enough to cart to different parts of the country. I stayed behind as Mark went off to bar and bat mitzvahs with his friends whose children were brought up in traditional Jewish homes -- unlike ours. I am somewhat of a mutt, and Mark did not feel a pull to his roots. In addition to my absence from events over the years, I had a self-conscious feeling from the moment the group celebrated our wedding at New York City's upscale Pierre Hotel in 1981 that I was wrongly perceived to be a Park Avenue chick, not to mention a divorcee. Over the years, Mark came home with wonderful stories after the reunions, my absence further sealing my sense of being a stranger. I envied their unity, and hoped I wasn't misunderstood.

It hurt silently. However, I was taught stoicism, buckling down, and pulling myself together even when the world felt like it was crashing around me.

I didn't know what to pack for the Savannah weekend...how to fit in with my Bohemian wardrobe, long and beaded earrings, too-high heels. I packed enough to stay a month, fearing judgment, practicing holding my head high as I guessed their secrets about 2004 locked in the brotherhood. Yet on the heels of my mother's death, I looked forward to a new beginning.

On Thursday night as the group trickled in, we found a bar by the river, drank shots of tequila (something I hadn't done since college!), and even sang karaoke. One of the wives, in particular, was my companion that night. Did she realize how grateful I was to be let in?

On Friday, I barely awakened, head pounding, my thoughts groaning, Now I look like a lush. Mark and his pals were already on the golf course. Enough water and Advil got me out the door in search of a yoga studio where I might detoxify. As I stood on the corner, a voice called from across the street. I turned. She waved: Another one of the wives.

"How do you feel?"

"Like crap," I said.

She laughed. "I wanted to call you, but I didn't have your number. Let's walk."

The pounding in my head left as we walked the old streets of Savannah for hours, talking about everything that women talk about, with me forgetting the negative olfactory inferences of jasmine and honeysuckle. The next day, 12 of us (the bride's parents were occupied) hopped a trolley tour, but my tequila companion and her husband bailed with Mark and me, and we four walked and shopped the streets, landing at Tubby's Tankhouse around 3 p.m. where Mark and his friend drank beers and watched sports, and my new friend and I talked about everything from mothers to marriage to religion to how much we loved Italy and wouldn't it be great if we could all go to Venice one day. And then the bunch who stayed with the trolley found us, and we stayed until it was time to dress for the wedding.

As Mark's wife for nearly 28 years, and by the end of the weekend, I was embraced by a group I've longed to join and embraced them right back with nearly three decades merely a blip on the time line.

Perhaps I am too sentimental as I revel in the friendships made last weekend. During the post-wedding dinner, I had a bad moment. It was all those wedding vows, the recent loss of my mother, the near loss of my marriage...it all suddenly blind-sided me. I took my wine to a veranda with my "tequila partner" who read my mind, "You know," she said, "all marriages go through rough times." Simple soothing words evoking a sensation absent in my emotional history where I am always the one to buck up and care for others.

On the plane home, Mark didn't read the periodicals stuffed into his briefcase as he typically does. And sloughing the beliefs ingrained since childhood, I bared my soul about the clarinets, the scent of honeysuckle and fried seafood, and the honk of the ferryboats -- how they nearly drove me mad until my new women friends made me feel a part of this "family."

I am making changes -- speaking my mind fearlessly without belaboring, shedding armor and opening myself shamelessly to comfort, admitting that hurting is not weakness.

Can it be that timing in life truly is everything?

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