We were on our sailing trip in Central America in 2012, and out of the blue Soleil said to me, "Mama, I wish I was beautiful like you." "What?! Honey, you are gorgeous. What do you mean?" "I wish I had pink skin like you guys." Uhhhh. My worst nightmare. My absolute worst nightmare. There's no dancing around this topic with a child in a mixed race family. ESPECIALLY, when she is the ONLY one! I tried to convince her that it's not the color of your skin that matters but who you are on the inside that counts. She didn't buy that for a second. With the look on her face she said to me, Mom, seriously. That is SO cliche. Next I tried to convince her that we all have different color skin. We lined up our arms. See? Mine is quite pasty, Daddy's is more tan, Cole's is quite pink, Evie and Emerson are a little yellowish, and yours is a beautiful shade of chocolate-mocha-latte-brown. But she and I both knew that was a bunch of crap, too. You are all pink and I am brown, she said. I decided to change tacks. Cole had been given the equivalent of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition from Latin America. The women were stunning. And they all had varying shades of chocolate brown skin. The pictures were very tasteful and exquisite. I showed it to her and asked her about the women, "Do you think she's beautiful?" "Yes." "What color is her skin?" "Brown." "What about her? Do you think she is beautiful?" "Yes." "What color is her skin?" "Brown." "What color is your skin?" "Brown." "Brown skin is beautiful. YOU are beautiful. Brown is beautiful." Cole gave her that magazine and for the next few months she would thumb through the pages and admire the beautiful brown women. "Brown is Beautiful" became our favorite family saying as we traveled through Central America. Everywhere we went we made a point to notice beautiful brown people and whisper to each other, "Brown is beautiful". A turning point came one day on the boat when I was downloading pictures to my computer. I came across one that I had taken of Soleil on the beach. The setting sun on her face was stunning. I called her to me and said, "Look at this girl." She stared at herself for a long moment and said, "Brown is beautiful, Mama." It sure is, my sweet girl.
This past summer we took the kids to Montana for our annual summer visit. We visited the Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City where Dave and I were married in 1996, almost 18 years ago. (Sheesh! How did that happen??). As I recounted the tail of our nuptials for the kids I realized that it was a story worth sharing and documenting for the great grandkids. (Yes, I fully expect that the great grandkids will enjoy GG's blog!!).
Here's the story...
It was the summer of 1996. I was 20 and Dave was 26. We were planning to be married on the Madison River in Montana. We had planned an ultra groovy ceremony perfect for our river-side-dog-friendly-shoe-optional-locale. Our ceremony would be complete with bare feet, Enya, and an ivy covered trellis, hand made by Dave. It would be my dream wedding (and my husband-to-be conceded to my every whimsical desire. Thanks, Honey.). One detail that we both agreed upon was that we didn't want an officiator. We didn't feel the necessity for the state's permission in our unity. At least not in the ceremony of our unity. We agreed that we wanted to spend our lives together, and why did we need the blessing of the state to make it so? We felt that all we needed was our life long commitment to each other, the blessing of our families and a ceremony to be witnessed by our dearest friends and family. (Aside - Now, almost 20 years later - March 2014, in light of the recent denial of marriage equality by so many states, I am proud to have foregone the blessing of the state in my own ceremony.)
But back to June of '96 - So there we were planning our groovy ceremony, and we realized that even though we didn't want an officiator to be a part of our ceremony, we did want to come out of our "wedding" as legal husband and wife. We realized we would have to go to the Madison County Courthouse beforehand to get a marriage license, which we assumed was how you made a marriage legally binding. So about a week before our nuptials we made the 45 minute drive to Virginia City, adding to our "To Do in Town" list: file marriage license. We figured filing our marriage license would be as simple as getting a license for our dog: fill out an application, pay a fee, and file it with Bundy, the county clerk. You filed everything with Bundy in our tiny county: dog licenses, car registration, property tax, and, we figured, marriage licenses. So we arrived at the county clerk's window, wearing our usual errand running attire of the 90's: Levi's and hiking boots and told Bundy we were there to get our marriage license. We explained to her that we were planning a groovy wedding ceremony and we wouldn't have an officiator but that we wanted to be sure that we were legally married when it was all said and done. She tilted her head and looked at us through the readers on the tip of her nose, assessing whether or not we were serious. Once satisfied she said, "Ok. Then you two will need to go see Judge O'Malley." Great. We thanked her and inquired as to where we could find Judge O'Malley.
"I'll have her meet you upstairs in the courtroom. Did you bring a witness?" she asked as she glanced down at our matching flannels and hiking boots. We looked at each other.
"A witness for what?"
She smiled and said, "Never mind. I'll send someone up."
So up to the courtroom we went figuring that was where the applications for the marriage licenses would be found.
The courtroom of the second floor of the 150 year old, brick Virginia City Courthouse was empty and cold and slightly creepy with the 20 foot ceilings, heavy red velvet drapes and rows of wooden pews that had surely seen all varieties of atrocities since the 1860's. We sat in the front row and waited. Eventually, Judge O'Malley arrived wearing a long black robe. She was trailed by two women in business suits and sneakers. I recognized them from downstairs. Smiling, she said, "You two ready?"
We were slightly confused. Ready for what? To pay our fee? To sign our application? But we didn't want to seem like the ignorant, barely twenty-somethings that we were so we hopped up from our pew and said, "Yes, ma'am." We approached her where she stood in front of her heavy oak desk with the name plate that read Honorable MaryAnn O'Malley. She asked us to face each other while the other two women shuffled around and stood behind us. "You can join hands." We looked at each. Weird. But it wasn't until Judge MaryAnn O'Malley said,
"Welcome everyone. We are gathered here today..."
that we finally understood.
"...to witness the joining of these two people in matrimony. Do you, Dave, take Heather to be your lawfully wedded wife? To love and to cherish her, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?"
Holy $#@%! We were getting married!! Right then and there. In our Levi's and our hiking boots. At the Virginia City Courthouse. In Madison County, Montana. And we hadn't even planned it!! Honestly.
"And do you, Heather, take Dave to be your lawfully wedded husband? To love and to cherish him, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?"
"Do you have a ring?"
"Uhhh." I took off the ring that Dave and I had chosen to symbolize our groovy commitment to each other and that I already wore on the ring finger of my left hand and gave it back to him. The ladies shuffled in their sneakers.
"Repeat after me. With this ring, I thee wed."
"With this ring, I thee wed." And he put it back on my finger.
Dave took off the ring that I had picked out for him and gave it back to me.
"Repeat after me. With this ring, I thee wed."
"With this ring, I thee wed." And I put his ring back on the ring finger of his left hand. I daresay, we both trembled a little.
"By the power vested in me by the state of Montana, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride."
Holy $#&%! We just got married!! We had just eloped!!! And we didn't even mean to. Our parents didn't even know!! Our siblings didn't know! Holy $#&%! We looked at each other and we could hardly contain ourselves. We laughed right out loud. Right there in the Honorable MaryAnn O'Malley's courtroom we laughed. And we kissed. And we laughed again. And we hugged. We were married. Just like that.
"Congratulations!" The two women said, clapping their hands.
"Congratulations," said MaryAnn O'Malley.
And we all went back downstairs to sign our marriage license, pay our fee, and file it with Bundy.
Dave and Heather in front of the Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City, MT, June 24, 1996 - right after we got married without knowing it. Four years later to the day, our second son, Emerson, would be born.
A visit to the courthouse in 2003.
A visit to the courthouse in 2013.
Virginia City, MT 2013
In our Levi's and hiking boots with the Honorable MaryAnn O'Malley in 2013.
Last summer Emerson turned twelve. We had a really fun bonfire at Carmel Beach to celebrate. We had arrived early with Emerson and a few of his pals to get set up and get the fire going before the throngs arrived. (He'd invited the entire 7th grade.) Just a few minutes before "go time" I looked up from the fire to see Em's friend, we'll call him Will, pick something up out of the sand. He held it up to get a better look and I could see that it was a clear plastic container the size and shape of a film canister. Inside there were two...well I couldn't tell what they were. So I said, "Will. Bring that over here."
"What is it, Mrs. Stewart?" he asked as he handed it over.
"I don't know," I lied as he scampered back to join his pals in the ice plant.
Well, I didn't know for sure what it was, but I felt fairly certain that the clear plastic canister with the two dried herbaceous looking "flowers" inside was not something I wanted in my hand just when I was expecting a bunch of parents to be dropping off their 7th graders in my charge.
I looked around quickly for a place to get rid of my stash. I though about burying it in the sand, but I wasn't keen on the idea of another 12 year old finding it again in the future.
I thought about stashing it in my purse. But then I realized that I was likely to forget about it entirely for months until I was about to go through security at the San Francisco International when I would wonder if I had any nail clippers in my purse that would be confiscated. Gulp. Yikes! Bad Idea. Do not put it in your purse. Mucho bad idea.
But what was I supposed to do with it?! I was starting to panic! Parents were going to be arriving any second!
Then I had a brilliant idea. I would burn the evidence. It would burn to oblivion and no one would ever have to know. Yes. Perfect. Brilliant. Do it fast. Before any parents get here. But don't burn the plastic. Imagine the toxins and there are kids around! Yes. Good. Take off the top and dump it in the flames.
So anyone who has any experience with such things will know that this was NOT a brilliant idea. And I knew it too just a split second after the buds hit the flames. That was one groovy bonfire. And for about 20 minutes Dave had to stand guard at the bottom of the stairs, upwind of our fire, to cut parents off at the pass.
'Twas two weeks after Christmas when all through the house, Not a twinkle light twinkled to the joy of my spouse. The stockings were nestled all back in their crates Along with the snow globes and fancy red plates.
The ham, long since finished, the soup from it, too. The yams were delicious, but those days are through. The fire'd gone cold, having not one more log. And the fridge was entirely void of egg nog.
The paper 'twas crinkled and thrown in the trash. The bows piled high for the children to smash. A plain silver tack was all that remained In the place on the wall 'twhere the mistletoe hanged.
The poinsettia was dropping one leaf at a time. It's depressing to see it as bare as a vine. So to the back porch that plant had to go, In hopes that no neighbor would see it like so.
The tree, it was gone, and the ornaments, too. The needles turned brown, not much I could do. With one kid in tears it was dragged to the curb, "To cut down a tree for a month is absurd!"
The children were sent back to school on Tuesday,
The toys, long forgotten. The bill, on the way.
Their rooms are still messy with nowhere to sit
With all those new toys like that model car kit.
My house now feels empty and quiet and cold. "You should be happy." To myself, I do scold. But, alas, I'm all misty and just have to say A year 'til next Christmas seems a long way away.