My cousin wears white, even though she and Piotr had been married in a civil ceremony six months ago. “Here I am a bride almost 50 years old,” she says in the vestibule, as if suddenly embarrassed to cause everyone the trouble of attending a formal wedding.
But this is her first marriage, she sparkles, and I tell her that is all that matters. The bridegroom, a widower with three daughters, looks respectably nervous. He allows his girls, dressed as bridesmaids, to fuss over his collar, and place a pink rose in his suit jacket pocket..
Inside the church on Chicago’s North Side, women compare amber. “Mexican?” asks the mother of the bride, raising a young girl’s hand to examine a bracelet. “Polska,” says the girl, as others approve. We finger our necklaces. “ Polska, polska,” we say, Poland being the only legitimate provenance of the genuine article.
The organ fills the church with a hymn. I hear a woman’s voice in the pew behind us whisper to a neighbor, “I don’t see why they bother with all this commotion, since they’re already married.” I know the person behind the voice. She is not Polish.
The wedding procession slowly descends the aisle of the century-old church, walking through variegated light from stained glass windows. During the Catholic Mass, the priest takes one end of the narrow white stole he wears about his neck, and wraps it around the joined hands of the couple, who face each other to repeat the words of promise. I would like to tell you what else the clergyman said that brought tears, and a couple of rounds of laughter, to the church, but my Polish is so poor I just didn’t get it.
Hours later, in a neighborhood ballroom, guests shimmer in cocktail dress under crystal chandeliers. Older relatives pour shots for all from vodka bottles on white-clothed tables. I know the homes in Poland from which some here come. Small, fourth floor walk-ups in Soviet-era apartment blocks. Farm houses where bags of wheat lie stored in the attic, and in the cellar, potatoes. Celebrations like this must ooze glamour and joy.
And food. Thick, fresh mushroom soup, slaw and chopped beets with more horseradish than an ordinary mortal might consume in a year. Jacketed waiters bring oval main dishes of hearty winter food -- never mind that it’s August. We pass them around, commenting aloud on which aunt or grandmother had made a special version of just such a dish: pork with baked apples; garlic mashed potatoes surrounded by slices lightly fried; tender veal; steamed carrots and cauliflower, pirogy stuffed with potato; steak rolls on barley. We toast with the shots, and drink clear rose, or spumante.
After the couple’s first waltz, dancing swings into high gear. The singers turn everything into Polish, including Lady Gaga. Babies are passed to others as parents hit the floor. The noise is deafening, so men and women in their 80s and 90s answer questions never asked, conversing pleasantly as ice cream in glass bowls appears at each place. Meanwhile, a train of waiters is wending its way to a serve-yourself section, carrying a dozen more kinds of desserts, like apricot and raspberry kolatchkis, cheesecake, huge chocolate truffle drops, dark and white.
The atmosphere of a Polish wedding, whether here in Chicago or in Krakow, is a mix of stories told by the old, and memories in the making by the young. It was at such a wedding that my grandfather taught me to polka, and to waltz. I remember the thrill as if it were yesterday.
At my cousin’s wedding, while most adults sat about recovering from dessert, children filled the dance floor and the bridal couple wandered the tables greeting guests. Meanwhile, waiters carried in more and different foods for the vodka-drinkers and anyone else to pick up at will: salmon; egg halves with caviar, black and red; crakowski; ham; salmon roe; polish sausage. We left before midnight because my daughter had an early flight. The Slavic tunes were just beginning.
There was no easy way to reach the bride and groom, so I waved goodbye across the room to my cousin in her white satin dress. Malagoshia and Piotr waved back, looking tired but ecstatic. The memorable day, I supposed, was the reason a civil ceremony had not been enough, and they had bothered with all the commotion.