As I write this, my sister-in-law sits across from me, rubbing her eyes. She’s spent the past three hours staring at the screen of her pink Sony laptop, working on a rather complicated Excel spreadsheet with which she is reviewing the guest list, seating arrangements and task lists.
“This is what she got from her MBA,” my brother jokes.
My brother sits to her left, staring intently at his Mac. He’s using iMovie to create two slide-shows featuring photographs from the past four years of their courtship as well as live footage of their actual wedding last November at the old courthouse in Santa Ana, Orange County. He’s got his headphones on and is replaying the Vietnamese officiant’s speech, which she strangled with heavily accented English. The idea is to add English and Chinese subtitles to the video so people at the reception, to be held this Sunday at noon, can see the actual ceremony.
They are a good team, but both look as though they’d rather be doing something else.
My brother looks up and gives me a pensive stare. I feel he is about to ask me something important, like how to spell “eternity” or solicit my opinion on the slideshow. Instead he says, “I want sashimi.”
My sister in law closes her eyes and lays down across two dining room chairs. I stop typing to stand up and stare at her over the table.
“Cathy? Are you okay?”
She cracks open her left eye, then sighs, “I’m so tired. There’s still so much to do.”
Back in November, my brother and Cathy rushed back to California from Shanghai to see my ailing grandmother before she passed away. They made it in time, meaning Grandma saw them and even got to impart some grandmotherly wisdom regarding love and matrimony. Advice given at the end of one’s life is succinct but also straight to the point. I’m not sure what she said to the engaged couple, but it couldn’t have been more complicated than: “Do you love her? You him? Great. You guys will make it work.”
Her oxygen levels crept up for a few days, plateaued, then plummeted. There is some Chinese superstition regarding weddings and deaths in a family – weddings are happy events, not to be muddled by dark, dirty spirits of death. None of that “Four Weddings and a Funeral” balderdash for the Chinese. If life were a plate of food, we’d be the anal eaters who dislike our mashed potatoes touching the orange chicken.
If someone in the family passes away, then people in the same family who intend to get married must do so in the next thirty days or wait three years. We didn’t understand it, but we often find ourselves respecting and abiding by things we don’t understand, especially death, around which we tread reverentially. My father, the most unreligious man I know, suggested that my brother and Cathy get registered a few days before my grandmother’s funeral. It was along the lines of, “Just get it out of the way now. Planning the reception, all that can come later.”
So they did. We woke early-ish on a Monday morning and got ready as though for a fancy brunch. Cathy had brought a knee length powdery pink lace dress and my brother donned the suit he would wear to my grandmother’s funeral a few days later. I put on a sleeveless grey linen dress, not the brightest of numbers, but it seemed to fit the occasion. It was celebratory without being celebratory. I walked by the bathroom and saw Cathy start her makeup. She had spent the past year growing out her already long hair, which now hung limply down her back. Not wedding hair, but she didn’t know what else to do with it. I surprised myself by offering to curl it, doubting my own hairdressing skills as I said it. But it seemed the sisterly thing to do. We pulled my desk chair into the bathroom and she sat patiently, completely open to the result as I worked around her small frame.
As I wound her hair around the golden barrel and let it fall down into soft ringlets, I felt oddly maternal. I wondered, would I do this for my daughter someday? My sister in law is petite almost to a fault (I look like a mastiff standing next to her prim poodle stature) and there was something childlike about her that morning, sitting sleepily in the witch’s giant chair with her ankles crossed and hands folded in her lap, waiting for her hair to set. Her hair was long but there wasn’t very much of it and I was done in less than fifteen minutes. I finished up with a sample bottle of hairspray still unopened (my signature look being the matronly low bun), and told her to look. She was happy with the result and for a few minutes, turned her hair to and fro to feel the locks bounce. I was surprised neither of us sported burn marks.
Her hair done, all that was left was her makeup, which she applied swiftly, and a few minutes later we were ready to go. My brother was getting married. My father grabbed his camera, I mine, and we split into two separate cars. My brother, Cathy and mom drove ahead to the courthouse. My father, my cousin and I stopped at Ralph’s to pick up a bouquet. A bride must have flowers and there was, perfectly, just one dozen baby pink roses left. We hoped the florist would cut off a few inches of the stem, but she was too busy and absentmindedly gave us an interminable length of ribbon instead to wrap it with. Kathryn and I wrapped it in the car – it was a far cry from the pristine professional bouquets I see in bridal magazines, but there was a simple, happy elegance to it.
The old Santa Ana Courthouse was also simple and happily elegant. A sprawling “romanesque revival” building erected in 1901, it seemed to glow that morning under the warm California sun. The hallways, paved in small blue and white tiles and lined along the sides with shiny subway tiles and heavy oak benches, seemed to echo faintly with the hundreds of thousands of pairs of feet that had clicked down these halls together. They came in merely engaged and left married, tied together by an invisible bond administered by whomever happened to be on Marriage Duty that day.
On that Monday, November 5th, it was a wiry Vietnamese woman whom operated by the rule that smiles (from her at least) must be earned. My brother and his fiance were just another happy young couple who knew nothing of marriage’s hardships and trials. No smile for them. Not yet. She stood imperiously behind the counter as my brother filled out the forms, asking my cousin and I to stand as witness, then robotically stamped and filed whatever needed to be stamped and filed.
“Okay,” she said brusquely when the paperwork was done, “Please wait outside in the hall and the officiator will be with you shortly.”
We milled around in the hall, wondering who the officiator would be and how long the ceremony would last when the door we had just come through swung open and the Asian woman walked out, putting on a long black judge’s robe. It was the weirdest thing.
“Follow me,” she said, then opened the door across the way and motioned us inside. It was a small room, half the size of our living room at home, but warmed by the sun streaming in from the windows at the other end. Meant for intimate ceremonies, it could at most hold a party of twenty-five. There was a podium behind which the woman now stood and before her and above the bride and groom, a latticed arch around which was wrapped fake flowers. Some romantic words I’ve since forgotten were painted on the walls, and there was a row of wooden benches along the back wall for any guests you happened to invite. There were so few of us no one sat, but instead crowded as close as we could to the couple without stepping on their toes.
The officiant, suddenly all smiles, read them their vows with strangled but extremely audible English. This part of the job she apparently relished. My brother repeated his in his perfect english and Cathy repeated hers in English that was a little bit worse than the officiant’s. My father moved nonstop snapping photos, blocking my mother’s view at critical moments, and running in and out of the video I was recording like a slow phantom. In less than ten minutes they were married and we posed before the fake flowers for a family photo and it was so short but in the history of all the weddings that I’d ever been to, it was, in its simplicity, one of the finest.
And that’s how it was: the six of us plus the officiant, though if the simplest of weddings were boiled down further to its essence, it could have been simply, very simply, just my brother, Cathy and the officiant. We were glad to be there, just as we will be glad to be at the Chinese ceremony and reception this Sunday, with nearly two-hundred and fifty other guests (a medium-small wedding by Taiwanese standards). But even on Sunday we will be, just as we were that sunny November morning, no more essential to their union than the romantic words painted on the walls.