Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An Irish Wedding

Country Scene near Enniskerry, County Wicklow

Somewhere in Goleta between Francisco Torres Towers and Hollister, driving very late at night, Sally and I decided to get married. It was a simple as that. Sally was Irish, and in the States on a three month visitor’s visa. If we did not get married, we would not see each other for a year or more, and that was simply out of the question. I was an impecunius graduate student at U.C.S.B., and she had sold a cow that her father had given her back to her father to raise the money to come to California. After this transaction, the poor cow died, but the main point was that we could be together. Soon, however, it all became very complicated. Once our parents found out about our plans, it became increasingly unlikely that it would all happen quietly in a small room with a lone witness at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse , as Sally and I had originally plotted. Within the week, we were 30,000 feet above Newfoundland, flying to the Republic of Ireland, Enniskerry, County Wicklow, Sally's homeland, to face a full-blown traditional wedding in the tiny estate village of Enniskerry.           
            Ireland is, of course,  a very devout country, as I had discovered on my first trip there the previous Christmas. My Irish friends at UCSB, spoiled by several years in the California sun, told me that I would be freezing cold in Dublin, so I took a huge black wool overcoat, carried two over-stuffed army surplus green duffle bags jammed with long underwear and sweaters, and wore enormous German mountaineering boots with long, bright red shoe laces and inch-thick waffle soles. I looked as if I were heading for a year in the Tibetan highlands as I boarded the Aire Lingus jet in New York.
            An Irish nun who worked in Texas sat next to me. My exposure to nuns at that point in my life had been next to nothing. I could feel her pious eyes boring through the side of my head into my skull and seeing with terrible clarity a bottomless darkness. Around her neck, she had a large, brown wooden cross with bright red tears dripping down it. She made me rather nervous. She suddenly asked me," Do ya know what "Wow" means?"
I realized then I had never actually spoken to a nun in my entire life. Gathering courage, I looked her full in the face and mouthed a noiseless "No..."
"Well," she responded, her face intense with great purpose," ya see it means "withoot words."
"And that means...," I questioned with some trepidation.
"It means," she responded, "that the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ is beyond the understanding of mere words and we moust accept him into our hearts. Wow. Will ya pray with me?" I declined, but glanced over at her during the jumbo jet's mid-Atlantic bouts with winter storm turbulence to make sure that she was praying for us as the big plane rattled and bounced high above the silent icebergs.
            Unnerved by the invisible cosmic gravel the 747 had been bumping over for several hundred miles and the young nun's insistent skull boring eyes, I was further unnerved when, after I had met Sally at Shannon Airport, the first words out of her mouth were, "I think my father has some detectives following us." But that is another story. It was a great visit, marred only by my ridiculous, sponge-like, rain soaked black overcoat and huge, creaking German mountaineering boots with bright red laces that the Irish stared at with great curiosity but, politely, never mentioned. The nun looked back at me sadly as she disappeared into the waiting Shannon Airport crowds.
            Getting married in Ireland was like disappearing into an eighteenth or  nineteenth century novel for a blurry week or so. Enniskerry's modest, dark-stone Church of Ireland was right out of Jane Austin, the various characters were out of Trollop and Dickens, and my exhausted jet-lagged mind raced blindly through the loony hedge mazes of Lewis Carroll.
            Already, before we had arrived, an ecclesiastical crisis had erupted. The bans regarding our upcoming wedding had not been announced for a month. These bans, whatever they were, should be announced in church for several weeks prior to a wedding. But given the week and a half notice and the transcontinental flight, and the general ignorance of the New World in general, Cannon Stokes, the local Church of Ireland minister, appeared willing to make a concession on this point.
            One day we were sent to low, dark, musty office beneath the huge soot-blackened Christ Church Cathedral near the Liffy in Dublin to register for our marriage. We filled out numerous forms while a gray haired, red-faced man paid close attention to our scratching pens as we leaned against the counter in the silent room.  I had that queer feeling that he, like the strange nun, could see deep into the dark shadows inside me. There was something on the form about having to be a confirmed Episcopalian. It was the only item that I was uncertain about. My parents had me baptized as a sort of afterthought at the age of thirteen because my godfather requested it.
            I recalled the little red Episcopalian church in Solvang, on the corner near where my Danish grandmother had lived. Father Margroft, a large, somewhat sad man, had given me a panic course in Sunday school for several days one summer. Prior to that I had only been to a Presbyterian church one Sunday with our neighbors years ago. There I had picked up a comic book about a poor fellow who was a welder. His welding outfit had blown up and he was blinded. I can still see the explosion and the big colored stars flying round the comic book welder's head. Later, Jesus came to him in a dream and the welder got his sight back. But I have been terrified of welders and welding ever since. Once my father offered to teach me, but I fled out of the shed in a panic. Of my very brief Sunday school experience, I can only remember a book with colored pictures of camels and men in robes with breads and multicolored turbans. There were palm trees in the background and the print was huge, as if it were shouting out on the page.
            On the last day of the class, my parents, who never went to church, except on Christmas eve with my Lutheran grandmother, came. My two older, smirking brothers were there making faces at me. Dressed in black, Father Margroft took me to what appeared to be a drinking fountain on a wall and splashed some water on my head. My godfather was there as well, and as he was a lay minister in the Episcopalian church, he was the reason that this strange flurry of religious activity was suddenly taking place. Years later, he told me that, as my Godfather, he should have taught me the Apostles' Creed. Though I saw him often, we never got around to it.  As for Father Margroft, I think he eventually dropped out of the church. By chance, years later, in a musty used book shop in Berkeley, I bought his signed copy of Edmund Spencer's Collected Poems, a beautiful, bright blue Oxford University Press edition which I still treasure to this day.
            The dust motes floated upwards in the slanting light of the office at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Dublin. So I could put down that I was officially a baptized Christian on the form, but a confirmed Episcopalian? To be honest, I didn't really know exactly what that meant, but if I was not one, did that mean that the church would call off our wedding in two days' time? Had we just come six-thousand miles for nothing?  No one had told me anything about this requirement. Over a hundred guests, some in top hats, would soon be devouring the Aire Lingus catered food and drink.  The red-faced man lifted his glasses off his nose briefly and glanced down at my stalled pen. He, like the evangelical nun, could obviously see deep into the blackened core of my desiccated soul. But I declared myself a confirmed Episcopalian, signed the form, smiled, and handed it to the, red-faced man, who did not smile at all. We fled out into the sunlit, cacophonous, car-crowded, Dublin streets full of diesel smoke and honking horns and had coffee at Bewley's.
            In Ireland, I would always fine strange things in the newspapers. An Irish Times article reported on a miracle that had occured in County Cork that week: at a small shrine in the country a small statue of the Virgin had been behaving oddly, at least according to one old woman. The statue was said to be moving around and sometimes weeping. Tens of thousands of pilgrims flooded the small village everyday for several weeks, filing silently by it, jamming the obscure country roads and causing hundreds of entrepenuers to set up food and trinklet booths. The reporter had gone up to the white stone Virgin and stared closely at it. She confirmed that it did seem to "shimmer" a bit in the sunlight.  Another article mentioned a strange event in County Mayo, far out on the northwest coast, where the priests had closed down a local dance hall after young women were fainting while dancing. They reported being asked to dance by a stranger, and then when the girls looked down at his feet, they were huge cloven hooves. Even after a formal exorism, the country dancehall remained deserted.
            We were next required to have a meeting with Cannon Stokes the Church of Ireland minister who waqs going to marry us. He had on his white collar and a black suit. His hair was sort of curly, but stuck up from his head towards the back at a sharp oblique angle, as if he had had an electric shock digging his toast out of the toaster that morning and then forgotten to recomb his hair. I liked Cannon Stokes immediately and almost wished that I were a confirmed Episcopalian. He was scholarly and very kind, two of my highest goals in life. He sat us down in his parish office in front of his large, dark wooden desk, covered with incoherent piles of papers of all sizes, some rumpled, some folded, some falling to the floor as he spoke. He talked a bit about the weather. It had been a fine October, and wouldn't it be grand if the weather would hold until after the wedding. Then he said something about being good Christians and wasn't it a pity about the Bans. Soon we got down to the serious business.
            He folded his hands together, leaned forward, and lowered his voice. "Then, you see, there's this matter about sex. I wouldn't let it concern you too much. Some people seem to find it to be a wee bit of a problem." I was stunned: did ministers actually talk about sex? Cannon Stokes went on, gaining momentum: " You see," he continued, "it's really quite simple. It's rather like riding a bicycle. At first, you might not be able to even get the machine to stand up straight. You may wobble a bit and even fall off. But once you get your bearings sorted out and learn how to peddle vigorously, it's really no problem a'tall." I'm still unraveling the variant meanings of Cannon Stokes' odd but very Freudian metaphor.
            At the very end of our interview, Canon Stokes cleared his throat in transition, pushed himself back on the rear legs of his chair, fell gently forward again, stabilized briefly, and looked directly at me, his wandering, autonomous eyeballs briefly uniting beneath his high wrinkled brow in higher purpose, trying hard to focus on the dimly perceived, ill-woven tapestry of my inner life: "And you, yourself, are, of course, a confirmed Episcopalian." The last two words' eight syllables, con-firmed E-pis-co-pa-li-an, fell slowly, slowly out of Canon Stokes' mouth, as slowly as a stiff old man throwing small pebbles, one by one, into a vast, still pond at dusk. The entire, great, ponderous church year, with its innumerable saints' days, festivals, holy days, martyrs and feasts, seemed to momentarily grind to a halt, in complete silence, as if to hear my answer. All over holy Ireland, at lonely crossroads, marble statues of the Virgin ceased their strange shimmering and held their marble breath. Strange, hairy men with cloven hooves wandering the boreens of the westof Ireland paused in their relentless stalking of innocent Christian farm girls. It was a portentious moment. "Yes," I said. Later, at the reception, a guest suspecting a minor heresy told me that all of this business could be attended to after the wedding. I wondered to myself if there were a statute of limitations.
            The next day there was a lot of fussing over dresses and clothes. A friend of mine from the east coast unexpectedly showed up at my soon to be In-law's doorstep. A great panic ensued, and we few Americans who were staying there fled to a nearby hotel. Someone said it was bad luck anyway for the bride and groom to sleep in the same house the night before the wedding.
            We had the practice ceremony that day as well, the day right before the wedding. The wedding itself was on a perfect autumn day: Yellow October leaves covered the wet, narrow roads winding over the Wicklow Mountains to Enniskerry. The best man showed up at the bus station in the village in the nick of time. He was wearing his grandfather's ancient dress suit with tails. The lone bridesmaid had finally agreed to wear her dress. The sunlight burst over the church's white gravel parking lot. The tiny granite pebbles each gleamed like mica. Even the black steel fence shone as if polished, still wet from early morning showers. A herd of cows grazed quietly in an adjacent field.
            Canon Stokes had on his black top hat and lead everyone into the church, but I was told to linger outside until summonded, trying to take it all in, still jet lagged, amazed at it all. As I slowly walked up the stone steps into the building, the wet gravel crunching beneath my black dress shoes, the old church groundskeeper was waiting by the right hand side of the door.
            I had only seen him once or twice before, raking the gravel or cutting the grass in the church grounds, but had never spoken with him. He was a tall man, dressed like a typical Irish farmer. His small tweed cap was pushed back on his head, both his hands shoved into the pockets of his old tweed jacket. I stopped next to him. He eyed me up and down, just like the nun on the airplane and the church cleric in the dark and dusty office. He leaned toward me, cracked a broad smile, and said in a soft, confidential tone, " There isn't a ting to worry about. Not a ting at tall. Why, I, meself, I haven't been to church since the day of me own wedding." I smiled, and then burst out laughing. He patted me on the back. I shook his hand and entered the church.

Christchurch Cathedral, Downtown Dublin, the Protestant church where we had to pick up our marriage papers. The records office is on the right hand side of the road; the large church is on the left. You can only see a bit of the cathedral.