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The Gift Of Showing Up

(Alasdair Elmes/Unsplash)
(Alasdair Elmes/Unsplash)

In the weeks leading up to my daughter’s recent wedding, I embraced all the frantic activities that a mother-of-the-bride is supposed to pursue.

I bought 11 pairs of shoes online, returning 10 of them before landing on the pair that I gratefully removed as soon as the photo-taking ended. I experimented with hairstyles, bought items for gift bags, and suggested songs for the DJ to play. My husband and I repeatedly wrote and revised the toast that predictably, we failed to deliver as written. I fretted about the seating charts, double-checked the menus to confirm that the vegans, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, kosher eaters, and omnivores would all be satisfied. When asked about what to buy the newlyweds, I dutifully steered people to the registry while saying “Your presence will be gift enough.”

Of course, other than dressing and grooming myself, none of this was necessary; my daughter was firmly in charge.

And none of it ultimately mattered. It was the intangible that made this wedding weekend one of the happiest of my fairly long life.

It wasn’t just the quiet elation and relief of seeing my daughter with a partner who gets her, admires her, and supports her. Nor was it seeing how she brought into the ceremony the memories of those who helped to raise her — wearing one grandmother’s brooch as her hairpiece, another’s pearls around her neck, her grandparents’ 50th anniversary ring on her finger, and bringing a box of my late father’s favorite cookies that the two of them used to eat in conspiratorial comfort.

The author's daughter and son-in-law. (Courtesy)
The author's daughter and son-in-law. (Courtesy)

It was, of course, all of those things — the jaunty Beyonce tune ("Love On Top") that played as she glided down the aisle in the plain, light-filled sanctuary; my son-in-law’s gasp and sudden, uncharacteristic tears at seeing his bride; my daughter’s uncontained joy in declaring this fine man her husband; their wit and history and spontaneity as they declared their vows; the laughter and applause that greeted their words and their gaffes and their kiss.

But above all, it was the pulling together, the showing up.

In the days before the wedding, on social media, in the red pins on Google maps and in the accelerating volume of emails, I started to see evidence of the mass mobilization. A nephew who lives in a remote region of the Canadian Rockies drove five hours to catch a red-eye East. Three of my daughter’s oldest friends — little girls with plump bellies who’d bonded in sequined bathing suits at the age of 6 — flew in from across the country, materializing in the hotel lobby as stunning, self-possessed (if weary) women.

Our siblings, nieces and nephews, extended families, friends that my husband and I have cherished for longer than we’ve known each other — they all caught flights, drove great distances, incurred costs, took time off from work, arranged to leave ailing parents and new puppies. They coordinated overnight stays for the older children they left at home, and gamely soothed the infants they’d brought with them.

Planes, trains, and automobiles, rendezvous and reservations, babysitters and dog walkers and caregivers — all that arranging and coordinating and cost in order to be there, to witness, and to celebrate.

Like millions of couples before them, my daughter and son-in-law are creating a new kind of life -- a life together. They’ve been ushered into it by those who showed up... 

Their presence was indeed “gift enough,” their effort the present that moved me so.

Poet Lewis Hyde describes a true gift as an offering always in motion, meant to be passed on and not retained. “… Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept,” he writes. “Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred.”

While we’ve traveled to attend the milestones in the lives of beloved friends and relations, we went and they came with no expectation, let alone guarantee, of reciprocity. What I felt as these people from our tribes appeared at the entrance to the ceremony, their faces tired but beaming, was the momentum of relayed love and essential continuity.

“When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith,” Hyde writes. “…The gift is not merely the witness or guardian to new life, but the creator.”

Like millions of couples before them, my daughter and son-in-law are creating a new kind of life — a life together. They’ve been ushered into it by those who showed up, driven by an understanding that dwells deep in the bones: Mutual obligation is a gift that doesn’t indebt us. It lifts us.

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Also by Julie Wittes Schlack:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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