After disturbing her father more than she'll ever know by donning my high school prom dress turned college party dress, Kahley returned to Mom's basement to delve into the good stuff - our wedding gowns. First I pulled Mom's dress out of a yellowing box.
My mother was freakishly small when she got married. I quickly remembered after holding the dress up to Kahley's frame that it never passed over my own head - I was much larger than Mom as a teenager, and so is Kahley. Mom must have had an 18 inch waist - I'm not joking. Her dress was created in a flurry when my Dad asked her to speed up their nuptials after being drafted to fight in Viet Nam. Talk about a shotgun wedding - they pulled it off in three days! Now that's some serious wedding planning and furious sewing by a seamstress in the country. Sometimes I think that she actually sewed my mom INTO that dress - I can't possibly imagine how anyone could fit into that sucker. Considering our curves, Kahley and I decided that her dress will make a perfect ring-bearer pillow or baby christening outfit someday for future generations.
Onto my gown. When I opened that box, I sat back and stared. So many wonderful memories washed over me:
- Desire for an overcast wedding day - about 40 degrees - with no rain. God obliged.
- Hair and make-up to make me feel like a princess - check.
- A lunch of spaghetti and meatballs prepared by Aunt Judy before heading off to the church - um, OK. Kind of heavy, but in the end? Memorable.
- Walking down the aisle by candelight, thinking, "Wow - there's Michelle and Angie."
- Choking back tears during one of the songs in our ceremony - the one I knew I'd have a hard time with - but grateful I chose it.
- Cringing when our pastor bellowed into song at the beginning of the sermon, after specific instructions to provide us with a solemn, conservative ceremony. Apparently drama kings can't be reigned in.
- Feigning fury at the back of the church upon learning that my betrothed was throwing back shots with his Uncle John at 2:30 that morning on a Riverboat Casino.
- Dancing to "All my Love" by Led Zeppelin with my husband. Yes, Zeppelin. And yes, a very indulgent song, arguably inappropriate for first dance as husband and wife considering it's about Robert Plant's son who died at the age of five from a stomach infection. And of course, we danced to the extended 7:55 minute version without abandon.
- Fulfilling a childhood dream of dancing with my Father to an obscure country song by John Conlee Jr. - "Rose Colored Glasses" - after a lifetime of dropping what we were doing no matter the time or place and singing and dancing to that song. The only time I cried on my wedding day.
- Best friend, bawling, saying that she'd lost me forever. Silly girl.
- Maid of Honor, singing like a lunatic and dancing like a fool.
- Humbly looking through a champagne glass at the bubbles floating to the top to hundreds of guests enjoying themselves, all there to celebrate love and life with us. I've never looked at a glass of champagne since without remembering my wedding day.
- Ending the night with crazy, wild, delicious, gooey...
...pizza on the hotel room bed.
All of that at the sight of this:
And what exactly is that plastic bag in the lower right hand corner of the box? And to whom is it addressed? Not me. My name is now Jennifer Kahling Czupek. Not Jennifer Lynn Czupek. That is the name of my sister-in-law. I have not been Jennifer Lynn for 16 years. Evidence of my Mother's denial.
I breezed over the envelope. No way was I opening that now. It was most important to get Kahley into that dress to see her play grown-up.
But Mother wasn't going to let me off that easy. That envelope was nagging at me. "Open me!" But I knew there were going to be things in there. Words. That would tug at my heartstrings and make me weep.
I ignored the envelope and pulled out the dress.
Then flopped it down to my lap in frustration. If the letter is in there, and was purposely placed in the sealed package, then am I not supposed to open it when pulling out the preserved gown?
What to do? To read or not to read?
My mind: "Open it. No, don't. Yes, open. No, don't. You're gonna cry. So what? It's gonna delay dinner. Who cares? You are meant to see this when opening the box, and dammit, you are going to read it and get blubbery before moving on. It's SUPPOSED to be emotional! How often do you open the box containing your wedding gown with your impressionable thirteen-year-old daughter sitting next to you, boring holes into your soul?
So I opened the letter while Kahley watched.
It was dated July 1996 and began, "My Dearest Jennifer,"
She had me at "My."
Tears. Immediately, just because of the date she wrote it. July 1996 was 18 months after we were married. My dad had not suffered a stroke by July 1996. I had not conceived a child by July 1996. Our cat (still limping along today) was not yet born. We had never visited the Northwoods of Wisconsin by July 1996. We lived in an apartment in Darien, IL. We were a whopping 25 and 26 years old and we had barely begun our lives together.
I read on, and actually held it together remarkably well until this:
"...It was very hard to say goodbye to you as you left for your honeymoon and new life with Tony and we cried and talked for a long time about our love for one another and the strong bond we share. I could not explain it then or now, but if God blesses you with a daughter as special as you are to me, I know you'll know of what I speak..."
Sobbing hysterically with tears splashing the precious letter, Kahley rushed to the floor to put her arms around me. Concerned, she demanded, "Mom, are you OK? Are they happy or sad tears?"
Oh, so happy. She'll never know how happy. How could my mother, wise beyond all human understanding, have possibly foreseen how this would play out? Reading this letter, my daughter by my side, wedding dress in my lap, and mother on the page and upstairs, oblivious to what is going on in her basement. This is unquestionably a top five favorite event in my life.
"...I will pack this beautiful dress away and I pray that God blesses you and Tony with a daughter or even a special daughter-in-law that would want to wear this gown of love for her wedding some day. I also pray that I get to live to see that wedding and know my grandchildren some day.
There could be no daughter more special than you, and no mother more proud than I to have had the opportunity to share your life thus far. I have so many beautiful memories of you growing into a beautiful young woman that I shall treasure a lifetime and more. God could have never given me a more special gift than you and John.
Be happy, and always know how deeply you are loved forever.
I love you, Mother. For the parent you are, the friend you've become, and the grandmother my children adore.
You epitomize unconditional love and we are all better for having you in our lives. You are a constant presence and we are forever grateful for all the little things you do.
Like placing sappy love letters in wedding boxes. You rock.