When my cousin decided to marry a Catholic, my family was horrified. Her parents tried to talk her out of it, to no avail. The wedding was in a Catholic church, of course, and on the appointed day, family and friends made the trek from my hometown to Fargo for the ceremony.
We gathered in small, uncomfortable groups in front of the wood framed building. Most of us had never been in a Catholic church before. We didn’t know what to expect. We conversed gloomily, making small talk, boring each other to death as Lutherans will.
I recalled the stories I heard when I was a child about the arsenal of weapons that the Catholics had hidden away in the basement of their churches, preparing against an attack, perhaps, or possibly a coup d’etat. Even then I doubted that there was any truth to the rumor, but growing up, I was as wary of Catholics as the rest of my Scandinavian brethren.
Catholics prayed to the Virgin Mary, for goodness sakes! How could they put a mortal woman on an equal footing with Jesus and God?
We filed into the church, escorted by ushers resplendent in their tuxedos and took our seats in the pews on the left hand side of the center aisle. The audience proved to be about equally divided between Catholics and Protestants, the former on the right, the latter on the left. The bride’s entourage gawked at the candles and statuary and eyed the Catholics suspiciously.
It was cold in the room, I noted, and I recalled hearing that the Catholics didn’t heat their churches.
We were all right until the service began, but when the group on the groom’s side began to stand and sit again and sometimes kneel at unexpected and unpredictable moments, the huddled masses on the left side of the aisle were thrown into confusion. We stood when we should be sitting and sat when we were apparently supposed to stand. Up, down, up, down. For a time, the service became a comic opera.
There was one couple sitting up front on the bride’s side that seemed to know the routine. Catholics obviously. It occurred to me that if I watched those two, I would know what to do and when to do it. The stratagem worked like a charm.
The ceremony was mercifully brief. After the vows, the organ rose in its throaty chorus of joy, the bride and groom promenaded down the aisle, and a bevy of witnesses, some grinning, some tearful, escaped into the meager sunshine of a midwestern spring day.
We milled about on the lawn for a time before the happy couple got into their car and drove off to a chorus of shouts and catcalls from the well-wishers. The newly wedded were spending their honeymoon at Big Pine Lake.
Before they left, I kissed my cousin on the cheek and shook hands with her husband. The bridegroom was a big, red-faced young man. His head was the size and shape of a bowling ball. He had a hand like a ham. I wished them both good luck.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and wandered back to the church. My father and my uncle, the bride’s father, were standing by the steps. My uncle looked spiffy in his new Hart, Schafner, and Marx suit, but he had a stricken look on his face.
“Where did I go wrong?” he asked me. What could I say? That he should have given his approval? Knowing my cousin, she would have called off the wedding if he’d done that. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make the poor man feel any better, so I didn’t say anything.
Food was served in the church basement a little later, and the company dug into the spareribs and chicken with gusto. There was jello, of course, and a bewildering assortment of home baked cookies, cakes, and pies.
On the way out, after the meal, my father’s friend Leland buttonholed me. Leland Foss was a real estate and insurance agent in my hometown. He was a fat, jovial fellow with a somewhat mixed standing in the community. He was a good Christian on Sunday, a pillar of the Lutheran church, but the rest of the week he was a businessman of the kind that gave widows and orphans nightmares. “Larceny Leland” was his nickname, although I never heard him called that in my father’s hearing.
Leland had just come out of the men’s room, and he bumped up against me and whispered into my ear. “Smells as bad in their can as it does in the one in our church,” he said. Leland clapped his hand on my shoulder and headed for the door, presumably to get some fresh air.
I don’t know if Leland thought of what he said as anything more than a joke, but to this day I consider it a profound observation.