When I was in law school, my next-door neighbour in the dorm had a boyfriend with whom she celebrated each and every monthly anniversary. They had that peculiar tradition because they first started dating about a month before going to seperate schools and they figured they wouldn't get a chance to have an anniversary celebration if they waited until the traditional one year mark. I think they were on their 57th anniversary when she explained this to me.
Peter and I celebrate two anniversaries each year- our real wedding and our sham wedding. But then we've never really taken the normal relationship route. After my visit in Ireland in 1994, the bulk of our getting to know each other and falling in love happened in email, IRC, and Unix chat sessions. We moved in together before we had our first date. When I couldn't find legal and gainful employment in Dublin, we spent 14 months apart.
We saw each other for one week, right in the middle of those (very long and difficult) 14 months. Peter shocked me by proposing one night and I said yes, of course. Then we got down to the practicalities. The easiest thing to do was to bring him to the States on a fiance visa (K-1, I think it was at the time). But that would mean getting married within 90 days of his entering the country.
As I alluded to in a past post
, Peter's family and I got off to a rocky start. They weren't my biggest fans and we knew that having Peter move to the States would be rough for them. They would miss him terribly and would worry about whether or not he was making a mistake. Having their youngest child move 3000 miles and an ocean away would be difficult enough. Had he moved 3000 miles away to marry a greatly disliked and distrusted girlfriend could very well have caused irreparable damage to their family.
So we decided to get married in secret. Not to elope, exactly, well....okay, to elope. But when I think of eloping, I usually picture the the confrontation that typically occurs when the news is announced to family and friends. We wanted to avoid that whole mess and so made the decision not only to marry in secret, but also to keep the marriage itself a secret from our families. (At this point, even the engagement was a secret.) Then, when we were settled and had the money to pay for a wedding and - most importantly - had universal familial approval, then we would have the whole white-dress-church-ceremony-big-party wedding.
So, on 15 October 1995, Peter and I waited in the crowded hallway of the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in downtown Cleveland. (Peter had not even been in the country 24 hours at that point.) A clerk told us the judge usually liked to wait until a few couples were ready and then do all the weddings consecutively, a break in her day from the usual sentencing, bail hearings, and low-level criminal trials. So we waited with the people waiting for their court dates (and believe me, it was a bit of a rough crowd and I was probably the only woman there who didn't have my name spelled out in gold on a necklace). Poor Peter was exhausted, jetlagged, and coughing up a lung.
Around noon, the clerk rounded up the blushing brides and nervous grooms. Peter and I were first to go, since we'd been waiting the longest. The judge asked for our witnesses, only we didn't have them. It never occured to me to bring someone (probably because only 2 of my friends and my baby brother knew what were doing). Some college girls who were in court for a field trip for their criminology class acted as our witnesses. Another bride offered to take pictures, but it hadn't occured to us to bring a camera.
The judge, a pleasant woman, went through the marriage ceremony with more enthusiasm than you'd expect from someone who had to do this at least five or six times a week. The ceremony was super-fast and just didn't feel real. Until the judge read the Apache Wedding Prayer
. That really go to me. "Oh my god. We're really doing this. we're getting married."
I started to cry a little then, in that happy emotional girl sort of way. (To this day, I can't hear that damn prayer/blessing without bursting into tears.)
And then, just like that, we were married. When we moved to Chicago at the end of the week, we were a married couple. Everyone knew us as married. When we'd go to first our families, we were not married. (Seperate rooms, baby.) Eventually, I told both my brothers and all my non-Chicago friends. Peter told one sister and, over the years, the truth trickled out to our friends in Dublin. (We'd been reluctant to tell anyone because Dublin is really just one big village.)
It's nothing short of a miracle that we got through eight years without ever really slipping up. We had some tricky times. I had to remind myself in Cleveland not to utter the words "my husband". We danced around issues like work visas and health insurance. To make a trip to Cleveland sound more exciting one Thanksgiving, I pointed out to Peter that my aunt's friends from Ireland were going to be there. "Great," he sighed, "more awkward questions about my immigration status."
You might wonder why we didn't just come clean, especially when Peter's family had accepted me and learned to appreciate my charms. It was just never an option because we knew his family, or at least his mother, had a high possibility of feeling hurt, tricked, or betrayed. (I knew my family would be fine with it - I'd be the third generation of secret weddings, which is a story for another day.) The anecdote I always used when the question came up was a story Peter's mother told me. When Peter was a boy, he got to eat his breakfast in front of the television in their study. His mother would bring him a tray with his breakfast and a fistful of vitamin pills. Peter's mother was a Firm Believer in vitamins. Peter, being a small boy, hated them and invented an ingenious way to deal with them.
There was a built-in bookcase along one wall of the study and Peter would stuff the vitamins down into the space between the bookcase and the wall. He did this for years and no one was ever the wiser. Peter's mother often told people that the reason he was so healthy was all down to the vitamins he took every day. Then the remodelers came one year and decided they'd have to detach the bookcase from the wall in order to properly affix the wallpaper. I really wish I'd been there when they did it, when they unwittingly opened the floodgate to years of vitamins, a cascade of a hundreds of brightly coloured capsules and tablets.
The workmen thought this was hilarious and called Peter's parents in to see it. They were quickly able to identify the culprit. Peter's mother, even a good 15 years after the event, was not at all pleased. She felt terribly hurt and betrayed. She felt that she'd been made a liar of, after all those years of attributing Peter's good health to vitamins. If that was her reaction to a relatively minor deception, I couldn't imagine how she would take the secret wedding and marriage news.
On 29 May 2004, after nearly eight years of real although semi-clandestine marriage, we were officially married in the Catholic Church by a lovely and understanding Jesuit priest. We were able to have the wedding that would have been impossible eight years earlier. It's sort of funny that our sham wedding was the elaborate deal and the reah wedding was courthouse elopement.
After Peter's dad died, we agreed we could come clean. It just seemed better to do it on our own terms that to keep the secret in the background. (And living back in Ireland, it seemed an increasing likelihood that someone who didn't know would somehow accidentally find out.) As I suspected, my parents found it hilarious. One of the first things my mother said was "All those years I said to people 'yeah, I have a daughter but she's living in sin in Chicago' and all that time you weren't really living in sin at all. You little stinker! Now I can tell everyone that you weren't living in sin."
A secret marriage is a bit unorthodox, but in many ways, it's been the unexpected secret of our success. The first few years of a marriage can be difficult. You're getting used to living with this other person, learning how to behave when your life is not just about you, figuring out how to be a team. When your families are involved, especially when there's tension and mistrust added into the mix, the pressures and difficulties increase exponentially. When are you going to have kids? (Or, conversely, please don't do anything to tie yourself forever to this dubious person.) Where are you spending Christmas? We think you should do XYZ, why aren't you? Keeping the secret let us build our relationship based on what we wanted and needed. We didn't have any pressure or heavy-handed suggestions from outside, since the only suggestion out there was (eventually) "You should get married? When are you two finally going to get married?" (Sometimes keeping a straight face on that one was difficult.)
I'm a practical person and the shortest route between two points is a straight line, even if sometimes that straight line goes over some very strange terrain. We got the best of all worlds - we got to be together, got to sort out our immigration issues in a straight-forward manner, and got to have the big party when everyone was ready to celebrate. After eleven years, I wouldn't change either of my weddings.
P.S. - Happy Anniversary, Big B. I'd marry you all over again.