Ellie Searl Stories


The Greatest of These

Ellie Searl

Ed smiled and said, “Now is the time to declare with a kiss the wedding you have performed and we have witnessed.” Friends and family dabbed tears. The just-married couple embraced, kissed softly, and held onto each other, a little longer than usual, as though they couldn’t let go for fear it might all be a dream.

I took pictures of the crowd, and of the lanterns, and of the flowers, and of the tasseled wedding program resting on the seat of a white chair, and of the radiance streaming through the branches.

My husband Ed, a Unitarian Universalist minister, often asks me to go with him when he officiates at a wedding for people I don’t know. Ed gives me compelling reasons to attend, probably because he doesn’t like to go alone: the mother is a famous writer, the father is a New Delhi cartoonist, the bride is an Argentinean swimmer, the groom is a relative of Andrew Wyeth, the reception will be at the Newberry Library. “It will be great fun.” He says. “You’ll love it.”

So when Ed asked, “Want to go to a wedding in Dubuque? It’s in a park overlooking the Mississippi and the reception is at Eagle Ridge Resort. Should be pretty,”

I thought - Road trip. Wedding in Iowa. Reception in Galena. Great.

And when he told me who was getting married - Absolutely. This was an event I wanted to honor and celebrate, and it didn’t matter that they were perfect strangers.

It took almost an hour to drive west, past the Chicago suburban strip malls, parking lots, and repetitive housing, into any scenery worth admiring. Pumpkin stands, white-fenced horse farms, grazing Herefords, and endless fields of drying corn stalks released the city knots from my brain. No radio, no cell phone. Just the serenity of sweeping glacier remnants - a perfect blend of smooth, black dirt for harvesting, ponds for fishing, and hills for tobogganing. Glorious.

We arrived in Dubuque at exactly 4:00 pm, just in time for the rehearsal.

The wedding was to be held in Iowa’s famed Eagle Point Park, overlooking the grandeur and gentle flow of the Mississippi River. The road meandered up and around and up and around the park, past limestone and wood Depression-Era WPA pavilions scattered among maples and elms, oaks and sycamores, to the highest point where the ceremony would take place.

The cloud-cover and damp air during the rehearsal kept people huddled inside jackets and shawls. Rain was predicted, and I worried that the outdoor wedding the next day would be a bust and everyone would be cold and barely protected under the roof of the open pavilion. I looked at the available space and tried to image a hundred white folding chairs squeezed together on the cement square. Anyone seated on the edges would be caught in the rain. I kicked at dead leaves and spider webs and wondered if anyone would sweep all this away before 4:00 pm the next day.

Tree branches, sensing the inevitable fall chill, held on tightly to their amber leaves, knowing frost would toss the leaves to the ground, where they’d lie in wait for the winter freeze and eventually be buried in snow. That overall sense of tenuous security permeated the atmosphere and unsettled the thoughts of family and friends who supported the almost-newlyweds and wished them well, but who didn’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic for the couple’s future.

Sean and Greg had been in a committed relationship for several years, and they were ready to solidify their union with a civil and spiritual ceremony. But there was a major hang-up. It wasn’t legal in Illinois where Sean grew up. Then once married, if the couple wanted to live and work in the United States, Greg, a native Australian, would have to procure an American Visa with means other than through his marriage to Sean. Because the US federal government didn’t recognize gay marriages.

This fabulous couple, who delighted in each other, who intended to spend the entirety of their lives together, and who wanted to have jobs, buy a house, pay taxes, contribute to society, be legally responsible for each other, and live peaceably among other peace-loving people, couldn’t do so as a married couple in most states – due to laws governing – actually stifling - the lives and activities of same-sex partners. There were only a few states that allowed gays and lesbians to be lawfully married, complete with the constitutional rights that accompanied the union. Iowa was one of them.

I thought about my Uncle Charlie and his partner Jack, who for so many years hid their love for each other under a barrel called “friends who travel together.” Uncle Charlie and Jack stayed in a strong, committed relationship until Charlie died after a long illness at 83. I adored Charlie and Jack. I loved their visits to our house when I was a kid. They made me feel important. Jack read stories to me and played the piano while I sang. Charlie and Jack listened to me yammer on and on, and they never once told me to go away. They paid more attention to me than my parents did. They helped me build my confidence, and they treated me with respect and admiration.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I figured out their relationship, and then I wondered why my mother, who certainly knew, always made them sleep in separate bedrooms. Eventually Jack adopted Charlie as his son. That was the only way Jack could legally make medical decisions when Charlie was hospitalized. It was all so secret. All so cautious. And all so sad. Charlie and Jack, my dear, wonderful uncle and friend, had to keep their relationship clandestine because same-sex relationships were judged vulgar, immoral, illegal. Something to ridicule.

I wished Charlie and Jack could be at the park with me, witnessing this event. I wanted them to see for themselves that attitudes in our country had slowly changed over the years – that some states respected same-sex commitments and even offered them legal status. It was too late for my uncle and Jack to have a marriage recorded in the archives of any state history, but it wasn’t too late for Sean and Greg.

Sean’s mother, Jackie, asked me to take extra pictures of the rehearsal and wedding, so I accommodated my desire to have my own set of photos as well as her need to document her son’s celebration. There was something particularly special about this wedding, this couple, this family, this venue – and I wanted photos for me so I could memorialize the event, not merely through personal recollection, which could alter truth and feeling, but with tangible images that captured the love and beauty of this short, yet momentous, slice of Sean and Greg’s journey to happiness. Perhaps I also wanted an homage to Charlie and Jack.

Ed was great at the rehearsal. He helped the wedding party find comfort levels within the anxiety that ran rampant among them. The couple was anxious about the huge commitment they were making, and they worried they’d falter when they said the vows they had written. Those standing up for the couple worried they’d mess up their parts and spoil everything. And they all worried about the reactions of naysayers and skeptics who still didn’t support this, nor any other, gay marriage.

Ed calmly directed everyone through the processional, the readings, the pronouncements, and the recessional. He reminded them that, yes, this was serious business, but it was a joyous occasion; it should be fun. He cracked jokes. They laughed and relaxed.

Sean’s sister, Maureen, practiced her reading from 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. She figured that if she read it ahead of time, she wouldn’t cry during the ceremony. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. So faith, hope, love abide – these three. But the greatest of these is love.”

She turned to Ed. “Is it ok if I hug Sean after I read that?” And everyone laughed again.

There is always the moment at the conclusion of a wedding when the minister presents the couple to those gathered. Ed makes sure it what the couple wants. Most times it’s the traditional “. . . George and Mary, Husband and Wife.” Infrequently it’s the outdated, patriarchal, “. . . Mr. and Mrs. Walters,” Sometimes it’s simply, “. . . The Newlyweds.”

“So how are we going to announce you two? Do you want me to say, ‘I now present Greg and Sean, Spouses? Mr. and Mr.? Newly Wedded Men?”

Someone offered, “How about Husband and Husband?” And it was settled.

Sometimes rehearsal dinners can be awkward, with people seated at long tables in a restaurant’s back room, where conversation is difficult and food is passed family style, the big eaters taking the best pieces of chicken before it reaches the last person. But Jackie and her husband Dan hosted their rehearsal dinner with charm and grace at The Irish Cottage in historic Galena. No sit-down dinner. Instead, a lovely array of entrée hors d’oeuvres - displayed buffet style, with beer, wine, and cocktails - all in the comfort of a private living room. Just like home.

We sat on couches and over-stuffed chairs and drank champagne and ate cocoanut shrimp and chatted about whether or not it would rain at the wedding, and when the couple would return to London so Sean could finish Veterinary school, and why no one from Greg’s family was able to travel all the way from Australia for the wedding, but that there would be a celebration in his hometown later on in the year, and how Greg, a baker by trade, was going to take courses in a career that was needed in the United States so he could apply for an American work visa. Then we all went to the bar and watched Irish dancers toe-tap their way through precision routines.

It was when I showed Sean’s dad the rehearsal pictures that I understood the full significance of this wedding and his deep gratitude for all the support and encouragement extended to Sean and Greg. Dan’s eyes filled with tears, and he talked about being a father. “ I have only ever wanted happiness for my son. There is nothing more important to me than seeing Sean find his true path in life. He is so much in love, and there is nothing more wonderful than finding one’s true love. I’m so grateful that he found Greg and that Greg makes him so happy.” Dan lowered his head and wiped his eyes.

What does one say after a such a deep-felt declaration of the heart? “You’re right?” “I agree?” “I know what you feel?” No. It wasn’t about right – or wrong. It didn’t matter if I agreed – or not. And how could I possibly know what he, Sean’s father, felt after twenty-some years of hoping his son would find his rightful place in a world where overly-traditional people were still too ready and willing to denigrate those with differences, whether related to race, gender, age, religion, politics, or sexual preference. I hadn’t experienced that. I hadn’t experienced a callous populace unsympathetic to, nor intolerant of, the direction my child had taken in life.

I said, “Sean and Greg are fortunate to have each other. Sean is especially fortunate to have you and Jackie as parents. He grew up in a loving, accepting household. Ours would be a better country if we could say that about everyone.”

Dan thanked me, smiled, and clinked my glass. “Here’s to Husband and Husband.” Then someone grabbed Dan’s arm and dragged him into the bar to watch the Irish dancers. I laughed and thought about how much I loved my life right then.

The day of the wedding changed from overcast to slightly sunny to magnificent, rather like a bad mood that realizes it’s more pleasant, and even easier, to laugh off whatever is making the nerves ache. Guests assembled at the pavilion, and although there were a few people unable to sanction the soon-to-take-place same-sex marriage, they were there, in attendance - with gifts, which spoke louder, and held more importance, than any private opinion about holy matrimony and its traditions.

“Family and friends, I present to you, Sean and Greg, Husband and Husband.” Everyone clapped as the musicians played the first notes of the recessional. Sunlight streamed through the golden tree-gazebo, creating a wispy glow, like a luminous blush under a billow of sheer fabric as it floats in slow motion to the ground. The halo-effect hovered over Sean and Greg touching them like a blessing as they held hands and walked down the aisle, through the leaves, into their lives together.

Ed and I drove back to LaGrange late Saturday evening after a traditional, sumptuous reception at Eagle Ridge Resort and arrived home long past midnight. Ed had church services that morning and then football and a nap in the afternoon. It would be a regular Sunday for us.

It would be a brand new, exceptional Sunday for Sean and Greg.

EVS 09/09