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Phyllis Puffer
Appalachian Wedding

The invitation is still taped to my office wall. It is an open rectangle five and a half inches by seven and three quarters inches, like a deluxe, jumbo post card. It has a wide border of tiny, elaborate, delicate designs in gold. The lettering of the message is also in gold writing. It announces the good news of a wedding reception. The youngest daughter of a local, highly regarded surgeon was being married. The actual wedding ceremony had already taken place in India where the groom’s family still lived. The bride’s family had permanently settled here in the eastern Kentucky mountains, and both the bride and groom were born here and were University of Kentucky students. This was the American celebration.

It was an evening reception at the arts center. The Mountain Arts Center is an unexpectedly large, modern, attractive, and well-equipped concert and drama auditorium for such a small and out-of-the-way town as ours. It’s a major music center well known throughout the region and the beginning point of aspiring country musicians. On the evening of the reception, I putt-putted into the center’s parking lot in my old jalopy and joined the expensive, well-washed and waxed vans and Suburbans already there.

The father of the bride stood back from the spacious entrance, greeting everyone in general and no one in particular with a broad, happy smile. He wore a dark, Nehru style jacket over long, white, gathered, traditional Indian pants. A couple of other men stood with him. This was a dark crowd, dressed in charcoal or black with occasional white in both Western suits and the traditional costumes of several countries. I watched the crowd from the side.

A young, slight, tall man in a costume I did not recognize came by. I stopped him for conversation and asked what country he was from. He wore a white turban, loose white shirt, and pants with a loose black vest. He gave me a quick, complicated response, which didn’t answer the question. I tried again with the same result. I finally told him that
it looked to me that he wouldn’t tell me where he was from. He smiled and walked on. I wondered whether he was from Afghanistan and was afraid to say for fear I would think he was a terrorist. Whatever his nationality, he was very good looking.

A young man came up whom I had seen around my college. Also handsome, he wore a Western suit and talked to me about going into teaching. I was a little surprised that he was not going into medicine, belonging as he did to a physician’s community. The conversation ended with my being impressed with his dedication to a teacher’s career.

The large area with a wall of windows, where theatregoers usually gathered before performances and during intermissions, was filled with parallel rows of tables covered in white cloths and holding bouquets. The catering staff was in full action. The head of the operation dashed as fast as he could without running back and forth from one end of the area to the other. He had a fixed look on his face like a man under pressure. He and his assistant, a slim, young American woman in pants, did their work without interacting with the others in the room at all. It was as if they were completely alone. The boss had tightly waving hair that lay flat and hard against his head. It seemed as if his hair, skin, and eyes were the same golden brown color. He wore white Western shirt and pants. Perhaps he had come from India, as had the host family.

The men started drifting toward one part of the large reception area. The father of the bride and a few of his companions spread a large white cloth on the carpet. The cloth was like a sheet only larger. It was time for the Muslim evening prayer. The family was very religious, and I had been told that this man had led the community in building the local mosque. About fifteen men stood on the sheet, bowed, kneeled, and rose together in the movements of the ritual.

Our eastern Kentucky town quite remarkably possesses a Muslim community and a mosque. The Muslims are overwhelmingly medical doctors, responding to the needs of a medically underserved rural area to which US born and trained doctors generally are not attracted. Most patients who crowd their waiting rooms do not know they are Muslim though they know they are “something,” in the words of a townsman. They only need someone to cure them.

It was time to see what the women were doing. A short hallway led off one end of the reception area to a large room where the women were celebrating along with their children. The bride and her sister were wearing white headscarves as usual, but they were in saris, which were heavily embroidered with gold thread. The bride’s sari was green, a favored color in Islam. Every other time I had seen the sisters, they wore the loose, Middle Eastern women’s gown.

Here were noise and disorder as numerous, small, healthy, active children raced around.

The tables here were round, large, and crowded together. They were covered with white cloths and had bouquets in the center, just as in the men’s area. I talked with one of my friends, a physician like her husband, who was wearing a white headscarf, a long loose, navy blue dress, and a navy blue coat. The scarf was modestly tied closely around her head and neck. No glimpse of sexy hair or neck was available to tempt men.

Two of the women fascinated me. They were hefty mammas, as they would say in the ghetto, not only tall but also broad, even rotund. They both dressed the same in powder blue gowns, somewhat in the design of choir robes. But more than that, they were actually veiled. None of the women in our area veiled. The women I knew wore head enveloping scarves of various shapes and colors, but whether they were from Jordan, Syria, India or born and raised in the US, only their hair was covered, not their faces. I was told these two women were from Palestine. Their hair was covered by identical white head coverings, somewhat like flat, cotton helmets, rather than the scarves of the other women. A matching crisp rectangle hung from their eyes to their chests. They moved astonishingly quickly as they chased after one or another child.

By this time, the caterer and his staff were setting up the buffet for the women in the hall outside their large party room.

On my way back to the men’s area, I met the mother of the bride pacing back and forth.

She would go to the entrance of the big hall, then come back down the hall and repeat the exercise.

When she saw me, she asked, “Would you get Moustapha for me?”

About then her son, Moustapha, appeared. He was a very large young man and certainly handy for all sorts of a mother’s chores.

Back in the men’s area, I asked around the room, “Where is the groom? Who is the groom?”

Ordinarily, identifying the groom at a wedding reception is no problem.

They all replied, “You just missed him. He gave a little talk.”

How disappointing. But something else was happening. A tall thin man started to talk into the microphone. He wore the same costume as the younger man I had talked with before who wouldn’t tell me the country he was from. The speaker talked about peace, and I was impressed with his calm, dignified manner and his words. Later, I saw him talking to someone I knew. I stood near them, anxious to tell him how impressed I was at his words and thankful for them. The men broke off their conversation and my acquaintance introduced me. It turned out that he was a physician who was planning to move to the university city of Louisville over three hours away.

The host started going from one end of the hall to the other.

“Go get some snacks. Help yourself to the snacks. But don’t eat too much!” with a big smile, “There’s more to come!”

I lined up with the men for the appetizers. I checked with someone before each dish to make sure it wouldn’t be so hot as the take the skin off the roof of my mouth. They understood. Many had lived long years in the US. They were accustomed to the ways of the native born and some of them were native born themselves.

A tall, dark, handsome man with a little gray at the temples motioned to me from a distance. I gladly walked over to him.

“Phyllis. Would you please ask my wife to come over? It is my turn to hold the child.”

He made a cradling gesture with his arms.

Besotted of this three-year old daughter, he was seen holding her and watching over her at every public function since bringing her home from the hospital.

“Of course,” I nodded and went through the open doors and started down the hall.

I met his wife coming toward me carrying their daughter. Contrary to her tall Ali, she was small, wearing a stylish black dress with sleeves, shoulders, and collar of gray. Unlike most of the other women, she did not wear a loose, long, all-encompassing gown. She didn’t wear a headscarf either, though a light colored, filmy scarf hung over her shoulders as a token. They met and transferred the child. She returned to be with the other women, and he walked joyfully away.

This was the second time that evening that I had seen family members anticipate each other’s needs across the male/female social divide. Or perhaps they had made prior arrangements.

The father of the bride came through again. This time it was the main course. We lined up and again my neighbors helped me interpret the food.

It turned out that all the action was in the women’s section. That’s where I finally found the groom. He was the only man in the room. He was standing close beside the new wife at a small table in a corner, about to cut a cake. The cake was small, a single layer, plainly decorated. He wore a charcoal gray, Western suit. Both bride and groom wore around their necks heavy, thick, matching garlands of flowers like red and white Hawaiian leis.

Ignoring the rambunctious children in the background, the silent, smiling couple, with a gathering of the women looking on, ceremoniously cut a slice from the cake. One of the women took photographs.

In the men’s section, a middle-aged couple was arriving. These two were from India, as was the bridal family, but were not Muslim. They were Hindu. They said hello to me and the wife went back to be with the other women. The man remained with us, but soon became anxious and paced back and forth.

“Where are they?” He was worried about his recently married daughter and his son-in-law who were coming from Louisville.

“They phoned they would leave at five o’clock. They should be here by now.” He paced toward the women’s section. His wife reappeared, as if from long married experience she knew he would be needing her.

He asked her, “Where are they?”

She smiled, said a few words, and went back to the party.

Soon he was asking again, “Where are they?”

His wife returned again.

The “children” finally arrived. The wife in slacks and maternity top greeted her mother in sari and they went together to join the other women. The Indian daughter, a physician like her parents, was born and educated in Kentucky and had married a fellow medical student the previous year. He was tall, blond, and very Anglo-Saxon. The two made a striking couple because of the contrast in height and coloring. The husband was over six feet tall and the wife was under five feet tall. The tall husband sat down with his much shorter father-in-law. The older man was now at ease and went over the details of the delayed arrival with the young man.

The men were distributed at wide intervals over the hall talking quietly among themselves. They were in small groups here and there, and I wondered whether the groups were composed of men from the same country, such as Syrians with Syrians and Jordanians with Jordanians. Along one wall were several small boys about nine to twelve.

Some of them sat on the carpeted steps leading to the concert hall above. Ali was there walking back and forth with his daughter. Another man was there with a similarly young boy. Ali was not the only father to take an interest in his children. The party was coming to an end. One last trip to the women’s section showed the crowded room to be in disarray.

The tablecloths were soaked by children’s accumulated accidents with cups and glasses of liquids. Scarved women conversed in little groups among the crowded together tables.

The bride and groom now stood in front of another small table in another part of the room. It looked as if they were performing another marriage ceremony. The mother of the bride stood in the hall with gift bags for everyone. We exchanged smiles and thanks and said goodbye.

The caterer was cleaning up and I saw that it was OK to take one of the table bouquets home with me. The father again stood by the main entrance of the center, this time saying goodbye to everyone. It had been a good party.

It turned out that the gift bag held enough of different varieties of the pastry, baklava, to last two months.

Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 30 countries, mostly in the Third World.

 

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