I sit in my white Reem Acra duchess satin gown in a room on the second floor of The Metropolitan Club with everyone I know just downstairs waiting for me, the bride.
Down those great big stairs is Jay, my future husband. My mother flutters about. I am sure waiters are about to trip and spill green apple martinis all over me and ruin 13 months of planning. I take a breath.
My father is not by my side, not here to give me away. He is dead. A suicide when I was four. This is the fact of my life I expect people to know about me instantly. My defining layer.
Then there is Stanley, sitting right next to me, our knees almost touching, like a protector from errant waiters, his tuxedo jacket almost like a superhero’s cape. He was once my step-father, now my adopted father. I still feel a little like a liar, like alarms will blare and the truth police will arrive when I refer to him as my “father” though.
I first met Stanley when I was about nine at Kennedy airport. He came to pick us up after a trip. There he was down the long hallway along with everyone else’s someone special. My mother seemed to know him as evidenced by the hugs and kisses. But I was unsure. I couldn’t sleep in my mother’s bed anymore. He encouraged me to make my own friends and not hover by my mother’s side. I found him suspicious.
Now twenty three years later here we are at my wedding. This man by my side.
Is it okay to admit that I recognize how important a father is at a daughter’s wedding? Is it okay to admit I still mourn for a man I barely knew? Is it okay to admit I still expect him to show up?
“This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” I say to Stanley. My voice cracks and I can feel the tears. I feel as if I am the only person to have ever done such a thing before. He looks at me as if, perhaps, I may just be the first bride ever.
When Jay and I went for our marriage license, I had all the proper papers with me. Passport. Birth Certificates. Driver’s license. We filled out all the forms. I was overwhelmed and surprised that there was a space for my new name. New name? That is the hardest part of all. No one in my family when I was growing up had my name, since my mother remarried. I want my children to share my name, that means taking Jay’s, giving up my father’s. I didn’t know I had to do it then. I thought I could think about it, ease into it.
I had thought about changing my name once before. Stanley and I sat in some judge’s chambers finalizing the adoption. I was about 19. I wanted to speak up, declare I wanted his name. I wanted to please him so, but something kept me quiet.
“Don’t do it then, just leave it,” Jay said.
I filled the space in the form. Rachel Schinderman. I took it as an option. I hated that part of it. A claiming of. But was I upset because I wouldn’t be claimed as my father’s anymore? My father who I go out of my way to remember and to celebrate. My father who left me.
I handed over all of my papers. The woman was perplexed when she saw I had two men listed under father. I handed her both birth certificates. I was issued a new one after the adoption with Stanley’s name. She looked at me as if no other person had ever come before her window with such a situation. I found that impossible. She went deep within her area and conferred with others. They looked over at me with that’s her in their eyes.
She came back and declared, as if she were the ultimate authority in New York State, that since I had the same name as one of them, Jeffrey Zients, that that was who would be listed. Fine.
She turned to her computer. “How do you spell Jeffrey?”
“J-e-f-f…” Was it an e or an r, Jeffrey or Jeffery. I picked up the birth certificate to check. “J-e-f-f-r-e-y.”
Jay took my hand. He could see that I was upset, that I didn’t know off the top of my head how to spell my father’s name with no uncertainty.
Even at the City Clerk’s Office, he was with me. I tried to shake him off. As we waited in the next line, I leaned into Jay’s arm. I was so sorry I was crying. This was a happy time.
My mother, Stanley and I take our place in the hall before the stairs, the stairs I have worried about for almost a year. The club’s coordinator gets the go-ahead on his walkie-talkie and signals us to go. The string quartet below begins to play Over The Rainbow. We come into view for all below to see.
My dress is more difficult to manage than I had thought. My mother holds my arm securely. We are already almost halfway down. Stanley isn’t holding me, just standing by my side and grasping the railing on the other. He won’t even come near me. I must have been too vocal about not making me trip down the stairs – or is he just moving from spot to spot, playing this role, making his way through? Is he my “father,” getting to walk me down the aisle because he pays for the wedding? What does this mean to him?
“I need you to hold me,” I whisper in his ear.
He looks surprised at my request for help, as if to say all you had to do was ask, like he didn’t want to intrude on me. He takes my arm solidly in his and we continue down even further.
I kiss my parents and Jay greets them. As I let them go and take my place next to Jay, I am suddenly calm, even giggly.
I see the rabbi lean back, surprised by the thought, taking it in.
“First of all, thank you very much for coming here tonight and simply joining us.” Adopted father’s? “I think there is just a bit of a void that should be addressed and I would like to address it. And I would like to say a few words on behalf of someone who is not here tonight. And I guess I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m really speaking directly to Rachel.”
I look for my mother. Her face reads stunned. She didn’t know this is what he was going to do. I look back for Stanley in the center of the big dance floor, holding the microphone, tiny in his tuxedo. I remind myself to pay great attention. Do not get lost to the emotion. Is this really what he’s doing?
Yes, it is and I couldn’t have imagined it, couldn’t have dared to dream it. I didn’t know it was just what I wanted.
There is a silence in the air. I go straight to Stanley, hug him and am at a loss. This is more than I ever could have imagined. A true fatherly moment. I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by Stanley. But I wear my father’s death as a badge, a shield. Have I kept him at an arm’s length? Fatherless is how I identify myself.
For on this day I became one man’s wife and another man’s daughter.