Saturday, March 8, 2014

Standing Up (The Best Man)

The first time I stood up in a wedding was when I was 20. I was home from Illinois and my close high school friend, Mike, asked me to have dinner with him and his girlfriend, Cheryl.  On a Friday night we went to an all-you-can eat fish fry near her house in Barrington and they told me they were to be married in December. They wanted me to stand up for them.  I agreed that I would but I was flummoxed because I couldn’t conceive of one of my high school friends getting married this soon in our lives.  Mike’s brother Marcel was the best man, but he was overseas in the army, so I helped out any way I could.  It was a grand wedding. I took as my date a girl, Alicia, who also knew Mike well, and who I had dated on and off throughout high school. My older sister, Melissa, was there too and she took care of Alicia while I did my groomsman duties.   It might have been the first time Melissa and I danced what would become known as the “Polka of Death,” because we nearly killed a good percentage of the wedding guests as we twirled around the floor. My grandmother had come from Indiana to visit us for the holidays and she was up reading when Melissa and I got home.  She insisted on me coming into the room where she was staying so she could see me in a tuxedo.    She rolled on her side, turned on the light, and said, “Oh, Tommy, you’re growing into a fine man.”

The next wedding I went to was for my friend, Cheri. Cheri is like a sister to me and I love her. This time I did not stand up. I wore a nice suit, and my date, Alicia again, picked me up in her father’s sports car.  It was the day before Easter.  Cheri invited all of the people who we knew from high school choir to sing. I did not join my sisters or Alicia in the loft because I was charged with keeping an eye on Mike’s wife who was now quite pregnant.   I escorted her into a pew near the front and my Aunt Sandy reached back and whispered, “Do you have something to tell me, T.S.?”  I shook my head and whispered back, “It’s not mine. I’m just watching it for a friend. ” 

After the wedding a bunch of us went back to our friend, Scott’s house to hang out, play cards and drink beer.  At a reasonable hour Alicia went home. Melissa stayed with all the guys we had known for a long time.  Melissa has always been able to hold her own with that crowd and that she had her hands full occupying our friend, Brent, who did not hold his own that night.  When it got very late, we closed up shop, Melisa went home to our parents’ place, and my friend, Patrick, and I went to get breakfast. The sun was coming up when I finally entered through our front door.  I was still in a suit and trench coat. My mother was at the sink in the kitchen, making coffee.  She wasn’t quite awake yet, but she had that stern “Mom” look on her face when she turned to look at me.  I just said, “Mom, that sunrise Easter service is absolutely beautiful.”   She called me a name that I will not share in polite company and went back to bed.

At my wedding, my next youngest brother did me the honor of being my best man. He was only twenty at the time but with some help from my Dad did a marvelous job. Later on when he got married he asked me to return the favor. I did an OK job, but when it came time to give the toast I stalled because I was so choked up with emotion.  The next time I was a best man for my friend, Kevin. I did a lot better. I got through the toast fine and didn’t fall apart until Karen and I were in the car on the way to my in-laws who lived nearby and had our kids for the night. I wish I could have felt better about that wedding but I didn’t feel good about it at all. I sensed there was something wrong.  Unfortunately, my instincts were correct and the union didn’t last even two years.

 I’ve stood up in a lot of weddings since then for roommates, friends and family, but I think my favorite wedding story has to do with my friend, Dan.  I had just come home from living in Champaign when I met Dan at a party thatMelissa and her roommate, Terri were hosting.  It was a black-and-white party. I was wearing black jeans and a white shirt. I was fussing with the stereo and a man in a top hat came up beside me. He helped me to choose the music for the night. We got to talking about books, and writing and music, and we really clicked.  During that summer we became very close friends.

One night on one of neighbor’s back deck, he came to me and said, “I’m having a problem, Tom. Maybe you can help me.”  I nodded and said, “Of course, Dan, what is it?” He hemmed and hawed and said, “It is your sister, Melissa.”  I had to pause for a minute because I adore my sister. “What about Melissa?” I asked.  He took off his baseball hat and rubbed his head. “I am having a problem because she keeps trying to fix me up with people.” I chuckled. “That is my sister; she has a tendency to be a matchmaker.”  He patiently said, “I don’t need her to do that.” I said “It’s just a sign that she likes you. That’s a good thing, right?  “Dan turned and looked at me. “I don’t need fixing up. Besides I already have a girl I want to pursue.”  I smiled and said “That’s great, Danny. Which girl is it?” I scanned the room to see if I could figure out which girl he meant. He leaned into me and said, quietly, whispering, “You don’t have to look far. It is Melissa. I’d appreciate a word on my behalf.” I started to laugh. I clapped him on the back of the head. “Of course I will, Dan.”

Dan and Melissa started dating and they were Karen’s and my constant companions whenever we went family camping, or on road trips.  They came on weekends and stayed with us in our first apartment. Melissa was a bridesmaid at my wedding and Dan served as an usher. He took care of my mother in her final years. She almost electrocuted him once when he was installing a new dishwasher for her and she didn’t get the power off right, but otherwise she loved him.  He was there when Mom died; when Melissa needed to be with her man, and I needed a friend. 

One night when we were at Dad’s house for Sunday dinner he came to me and Danny. He strangely told us that we needed to run to the store to get some milk, because it was highly necessary. About halfway to the store Dan pulled off to the curb.  He threw the car into park. He said to me, “I need to talk to you about something.”  I asked, “What is it, Dan?”  He looked at the steering wheel and said,” I’m going to ask your sister to marry me.” I thought for a minute and ran my hands through my hair. “Did you talk to Dad yet?” He smiled “Yes I did and he said I should talk to you. What do you think?”  I asked, “You have a ring? “ He pulled a small velvet box out of his pocket and opened it. I said, “That’s a nice rock.”  I sat silently. Then I asked, “You will take care of her always, won't you, right?” Dan nodded and after a minute he said to me, “What are you thinking about?”  I said, “I think, brother, we need to go get some milk.”  Dan started the car again.  I put my hand on Danny’s shoulder because I knew my sister was going to marry the best man for her. 

I was not Dan’s best man, just a groomsman among many, but I threw a “man shower” for him where we all brought him things like poker chips, power tools and bar accessories. The night before Dan and Melissa were married, I stayed over with Dan at the apartment they were to move into after their honeymoon. We ate eggs and drank beer and fell asleep on couches. He wore his top hat, I took silly pictures of him and then the next day got him to the church on time. It was one of the best nights and days I ever had.  What could be better than having one of your best friends marry your sister? With twenty plus years under their belts and four wonderful children, ranging from grade school to college, I am very glad my instincts about Dan and Melissa were correct.  

For the first time in a long time, on the day this spring when I turn 51, I am going to be a best man again.  One of my other best friends, Paul, is going to be wed and he asked me to stand up for him.  He lives in Wisconsin so I don’t have to worry about bachelor parties because his future brother-in-law is going to take care of that. I just need to get a good speech together.   I want to make it perfect because although Paul and I met on a commuter train, he has become very special to me. We once saved each others’ lives.  How that happened with us is a different story for a different time.  Right now I am jus reveling in getting to be the best man again. It is a fun role to have.  It’s a good feeling when people trust you and care enough about you to ask you to stand up next to them on what might be one of the very best days of their entire lives.