by DeAnna Quietwater Noriega
June is the most popular month for those wishing to exchange their wedding vows. In 1970, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Curtis and I became engaged. I was in my junior year of college, living in my own apartment with my dog guide Tammy. I was managing my finances, my school requirements and busy with friends and activities. Curt was the first young man I had dated who understood my need to be independent and make my own choices. He never tried to rein in my enthusiasm or to control me.
Many of my friends were irreverent, outgoing and extroverted. They couldn't understand why I liked such a quiet person. He made me feel very special and loved for whom I really was. He knew how to make me laugh and allowed me to be myself instead of always having to put on a performance to prove I was just an ordinary college girl. Many of the other people I knew didn't believe that blind people were normal human beings. They could not get past my blindness. Other girls were petite, blonde or cute. Blind was the first defining term in their minds when they thought of me. Curt didn't rush to do simple tasks for me or treat me as if I were helpless. If I set out to do something, he waited to be asked for his assistance. He didn't act as if he thought my ability to accomplish tasks on my own was remarkable.
The night I finally accepted his proposal, he placed my fingertips in the palm of his open hand. Quietly, he told me that I feared commitment because I thought of love as a cage. What he offered was a safe haven to come back to for rest after I had exhausted myself flying in all directions. He promised that he would never clip my wings. As long as I always returned home I could go freely and do whatever I pleased. The love he offered would have no bars to cage my spirit.
I had briefly been engaged during my senior year of high school. The man was 10 years older than I and had been married before. He saw me as a beautiful Dresden figurine he could put on a shelf and keep as an isolated treasure. I broke off the engagement when it became clear to me that he didn’t know who I was at all. I wasn't so sure myself, but I was determined to find out. I knew instinctively that love isn't love if there isn't mutual respect and trust.
I hadn't really considered marriage a viable option. I envisioned a life as a single professional woman. I imagined going interesting places on my vacations, wearing expensive clothes and dedicating my time to working for the well being of others. Of course this future self would have a beautiful well-groomed companion of the canine variety in harness at her side. She wouldn't have to face the world alone.
Curt and I planned our wedding for the following June. We tried to save up money to fly my parents and grandmother out for a small ceremony at school. We had a classmate who was a minister, and I wanted my best friend Scottie Hagedorn to take part in the wedding as my bridesmaid.
My grandmother had never flown and was in frail health. She had always been one of my role models because she was a tough, tiny woman who had been left on a doorstep as a newborn. She married my full-blood Chippewa grandfather when she was very young and bore him eight children. It couldn't have been easy to face the prejudice of society against an obviously white woman with a houseful of half-breed children. Our plans had to be changed when Grandma Luella declared that she wanted me to come to Michigan to be married in the church in which my parents were wed. Indian children are taught to respect their elders. I was the eldest grandchild and was born on the same day Grandma considered her birthday. Since my parents were divorced, I didn't see the point of getting married in that church, but if it was what my grandmother wished, I wanted to make her happy.
Another wrench was thrown into our June wedding date. Curt got a job that was supposed to begin the day after the school term ended. Spring break had to do as a wedding date, even though it fell during Lent. Mom panicked when the wedding day had to be moved up to accommodate Curt's summer job. I had put a dress on layaway the last time I was home. Fearing I wouldn't have the money before the new date, Mom exchanged it. She took two of my attendants to the bridal shop clearance sale and had them try dresses on alternately. Kerri was my height and Nadine was closer to me in build. The poor salesclerk was confused and finally asked, "Which girl is the bride?" Mom floored her when she replied, "Oh, she's not here. She's in college in California."
Early on March 20th, 1971 I boarded a plane from Modesto, Calif. with my two best friends. One of these friends was a large black Labrador that curled under the seat in front of me. The third member of the party was a broad-shouldered young man with a shy smile and a quiet manner that hid a lively sense of humor and a gentle, loving heart. Despite the fact that we had never gone on an unchaperoned date, Curt and I were on our way to begin life as a married couple.
When our plane landed in Detroit, we were bumped from the continuing flight one hundred miles short of Saginaw. I went to turn in the unused portion of our tickets while Curt tried to reach my family to keep them from going to the airport. When Tammy and I joined him at a phone booth, my youngest brother Donny was refusing to accept the charges from someone named Curtis Noriega. I snatched the phone and told him he was not going to live to be 14 if he didn't accept the collect call!
While getting the refund for our tickets, I had learned that an airport shuttle bus was returning to its garage in Pontiac. The driver was willing to race us there to catch a Greyhound bus for the rest of the trip. It was snowing heavily and we only had lightweight coats.
When we reached the bus station, the snow was falling so hard, it was impossible to tell if the bus had come and already gone. The station was closed. Our driver was loath to leave us standing in the snow. He said he had some business in Saginaw the next day and would be happy to drive us the rest of the way in his own car. While trying to call my mother on the pay phone, I pushed the coin return and about $30 came cascading out. It seemed our lucky day.
By the time we hit the road to Saginaw, the snowstorm had taken on blizzard conditions. Our kind driver kept losing sight of the road and driving through people's yards or off on the shoulder of the road. He just laughed and put another tape in his player to sing along with as he drove on throughout the night. It was early morning before we reached the Saginaw bus station and our good Samaritan driver refused to accept any money for gas or his trouble.
My grandfathers quarreled over where the reception was to be held. My stepfather's stepfather wanted it to be in the Moose Lodge. My Grandma Luella's second husband wanted it to be in the steel workers’ union hall. Considering that neither one of them was actually my grandfather by blood relationship, I supposed I should have been flattered to be the cause of the argument. It was hard to see the simple wedding among college friends I had hoped for turn into an extravaganza and bone of contention.
My mother and stepfather weren't speaking to each other. Don had moved out temporarily. He found it hard to see us all growing up. Parenting young adults was difficult for him. I had always played the peacemaker role in the family, but even my skills were barely sufficient to keep things from boiling over.
My mother got into a fender-bender the morning we arrived. Her 10-year-old dog was stolen. My gentle brother Rob had to go over and threaten a neighbor to secure her return. The man made a practice of stealing and selling purebred dogs. This was the second time he had stolen Babette. The first time he must have sold her because she returned home after being gone two weeks. Her pads were worn through from the long journey she made to come home. I kept Tammy at my side and on leash whenever I came home to avoid her being snatched from the yard.
Chaos was the norm for my large, quarrelsome family. Mother was the eldest of 10 and her father was the eldest of 12 children. I was the oldest grandchild. Relatives were not in short supply. The phone never stopped ringing as distant relations called to ask why they hadn't received an invitation to the wedding. Mom kept a stack of cards beside the phone. She asked for current information and reassured the second or third cousin that she was sure their invitation was in the mail as she wrote one for them.
I had asked a young neighbor of Mom's to be a bridesmaid. We had become friendly because I had been babysitting for her two children during my trips home from college. I had also asked a teenage cousin to take part in the ceremony. Various relations had begged to be included in the wedding party. My brothers Rob and Ruben had steady girlfriends who wanted to participate. By the time the date approached, I had five bridesmaids, a maid of honor, a flower girl and a ring bearer. I was beginning to feel like merely an excuse for my family to hold a party.
My maid of honor was a step-aunt that I had fought and played with since we were both three. She insisted that we use her car to travel from the church to the reception. I was uneasy, but since we had shared so many childhood memories, I didn't feel I could refuse. I wondered what her clients would think when they saw her paisley-topped Cadillac go by plastered with a "just married" sign. Nina had turned her beauty to profit by becoming a very expensive lady of the evening.
My uncle John was appalled when I told him I didn't intend to buy any alcohol for the reception. He insisted on supplying it himself. He and his wife also wanted to be in the wedding.
The week before the big day flew by as Mom defrosted and decorated the layers of my tiered wedding cake. I did a few minor alterations to the sale dress and took it to pick out a veil. We needed to replace groomsmen’s gifts that had been stolen from Curt’s suitcase en route to Michigan. Thank heavens they missed his great grandfather's gold pocket watch and chain hidden in one of his dress shoes. Then there was a bridal bouquet, corsages for the mothers and grandmothers to choose and a blue garter to find. Not to mention a bridal shower to attend.
One afternoon, I slipped into my parents' room to phone my mother-in-law to be. I asked her to take us out shopping. My excuse was to look for an outfit to wear to the rehearsal dinner. I really didn't need a new dress. I was just worried I wouldn't have a groom come the big day if I didn't get him out from underfoot. My mother was busy piping roses, lilies of the valley and doves using her secret decorating frosting on the layers of our wedding cake. Curt and my youngest brother were sticking fingers into bowls of colored icing and sword fighting with the wooden dowels used to support and separate the layers of the cake. I seriously doubted Mom's patience would hold out if I didn't drag my intended out of harm's way.
Curt's parents had made a reservation for a room with a king-size bed for their stay. When they arrived, the bed appeared to be queen-sized. When Curt's dad objected, he was told that it was a queen-size bed if one person rented the room but became king-size when two shared the room. Being an engineer, he was stymied by this logic. Beds don't usually grow a foot wider if two people share them. When they asked to reserve the bridal suite for us, the manager explained that they were in it. It appeared that not only did the bed magically expand with double occupancy, but the room also became a suite if newlyweds rented it.
When we arrived at the church to rehearse, I was surprised to find my accompanist had not even looked at the music I had purchased and mailed to her months in advance. She made such a hash of it on the piano that I asked her to try it on the organ. The way an organ blends one note into the next disguised some of her mistakes and at least the music was vaguely recognizable.
There were 30 of us at the rehearsal dinner. Upon arrival at the restaurant, the management charged more than the agreed amount, alleging they didn't have a reservation for our party. This claim was made despite the fact that they had a table set for us for a family-style meal. My baby sister refused to eat anything at the restaurant, even turning down the ice cream. When we arrived back at my parents' home, she placed her little hand in mine and whispered, "Sissy, will you make me a cheese sandwich?" I just had to laugh and make her the sandwich because crying was out of the question.
My stepfather arrived and started pacing at 7 in the morning on my big day. He still wasn't talking to my mother. I scrambled to make sure my things were packed. After lunch, I gave my little sister lessons in sitting down in her flower girl dress. The first time she attempted this feat, the hoop holding her skirt out flipped up and hit her in the nose, causing a storm of tears. I got her calmed down just as Mom rushed into the room to ask if I could manage to dress myself. I replied that since I had been doing so for most of my 22 years, I thought I could handle it. She burst into tears, exclaiming, "Well, I can't, I have got my zipper stuck!" I got the jam solved and went back to hoop skirt lessons.
Finally, we left for the church. The cake developed a list in the back of Mom's station wagon. We arrived at the church to find that the janitor had not appeared to unlock the door. It started to snow and I stood shivering on the doorstep hoping my groom would not appear before we could get in and out of sight. The dress I had originally chosen had a train that flowed from the waist and could be fastened up to form a butterfly effect for dancing. The one my mother had traded it in for had a train that fell from the shoulders and didn't have a way to fasten it up. When I moved some satin roses to disguise where one was missing, I had fortunately added a satin wrist loop. My dress was a sugar crystal organza. As the wind dusted me with snowflakes, I held the train of the dress up to keep it out of the mud. Tammy sat quietly at my side calming me with her presence.
There was a last-minute scramble for safety pins when Nina wanted to practice putting back my veil. The snaps on her full satin sleeves kept coming undone and they slid up to her shoulders. Then I took Tammy to my grandfather to hold for me. He loved dogs. When a heart attack forced him to retire, Grandfather had adopted my Chihuahua and spoiled her rotten. He was having a hard time holding back his tears. I thought minding Tammy would give him a distraction.
The music began and I followed 5-year-old Christina down the aisle. She forgot her shyness and walked with measured steps ahead of me carrying her flower girl basket. As we passed the pew where Grandpa sat with Tammy, she broke loose and came dashing up the hardwood floor of the aisle, sounding like a small pony. Donny, my youngest brother, tackled her from the side and pinned her to the floor. My stepfather hissed, "Don't laugh!" I disgraced myself by breaking into giggles.
During the service, there were the usual sounds of a fussy baby, an elderly person's cough and the mournful wails of a protesting Labrador. Curt swears to this day that the loudest of these erupted when the minister reached the part in the ceremony where he asked if any in the congregation could give a reason these two should not be joined in holy matrimony. I think if I had only let her walk with me up the aisle, she would have been perfectly happy.
When we arrived at the reception hall, we had to coax my new mother-in-law in from playing in the snow to stand in the reception line. Although a buffet dinner was provided, I had no time to eat. After cutting the cake and opening the gifts, the dancing began. My new husband and I led off and my little sister played ring-around-the-rosy with my 6-year-old ring bearer and the rest of the wedding party joined us on the dance floor. Then generous relations lined up to dance with the bride and groom, paying a few dollars for the privilege. The money they gave us allowed us to buy a washing machine, a table and chairs for our new home together.
Many American Indian women get heavy in their later years and Chippewa are usually tall. Curt was very intimidated when several of my great-aunts formed a line to dance with the groom. He said that at five foot seven, and weighing in at 130 pounds, he couldn't help feeling as if he were facing being asked to steer Green Bay Packers in drag around the dance floor. I had my own problems managing the train of my dress as my father-in-law went into his version of Fred Astaire twirling and swooping around the room. Picture-taking and more gift opening took up additional time.
Finally, I slipped around the room to give good-bye hugs to my two grandmothers, great-grandmother and closest relations. We crept away without my even throwing the bouquet. The extended family was so busy dancing, drinking and trying to top each other in the telling of outrageous tall tales that I don't think most people noticed us leave. I was so tired and we needed to catch a 5 a.m. flight back to school the next day. Monday our spring quarter of classes began. If this all sounds a bit like the perils of Pauline, well, at least Tammy and I avoided being tied to the railroad tracks and we ended up carrying off the hero in one piece with us when we made our escape. Forty years later, we are still sharing the trials and tribulations of living as a team.