A Green Wedding at the Donner Pass
Here in the high Sierras just west of the Nevada state line, a place of almost unbearable beauty, the Callahan and Green clans finalized a familial merger.
The wedding site is not far from the place where the Donner party, European-American immigrants from the east, found themselves snow-bound and starved a century and a half ago, resorting to cannibalism to survive before the spring thaw, when they stumbled out, picked up the pieces, tried to forget the horror and remade their lives as Californians. Jim, my brother-in-law’s father and a Navy man possessed of a macabre sensibility, mentions it first, but several of my own kinfolk bring it up as well.
It’s surreal to think about that historical footnote, with traffic zooming past on Interstate 80 from Reno to Sacramento, us campers settled into canvas-covered cabins situated along the tumbling Yuba River accessed with the ease of new rental cars navigated down rutted dirt roads. My sister and her new husband picked this spot because of their simple love of the outdoors, and the mutual trust and joy they’ve found together from rock-climbing, hiking and mountaineering. In this new century, it seems increasingly appropriate as a gathering place for family and friends to witness these partners’ vows.
My sister came west after a stint working in Washington, DC following her graduation from Cornell University in New York. She came to Davis to study for her doctorate in nutrition in California’s north-central valley, where she met Rob and began a new life. A native San Diegan, Rob too is a product of restlessness and migration. His mother, from an ethnic Chinese family in Indonesia, made her way to Hong Kong, and then to southern California. So there is family from Indonesia here this weekend, along with a university friend from Spain. Our second cousin, Tracy, who is officiating the wedding, has an adopted daughter from China. There are many hues and cultures melded in the circle of love that surrounds my sister and new husband.
From our side of the family, there are Sawyers here from Illinois, friends from Kentucky – where my parents went to pursue their Aquarian experiment of voluntary peasantry – Greens from all points: Philadelphia, Florida, Los Angeles, Kentucky, again.
The groom and the groomsmen are dressed in these Mexican-made suits – a dark brown that is classy in a World War II-era way but earthy enough to camouflage the dust – matched with white dress shirts, brown Oxfords and ties of turquoise and blue. My sister is resplendent in her white dress, and the bridesmaids wear blue. My sister has chosen an essay by Wendell Berry, our distant neighbor in Kentucky, for me to read during the ceremony. I adopt my best Hebrew Scripture cadence to convey these passages about the way life does not conform to individual wills; at best it’s an unpredictable result of collective efforts. Mostly though, like farming, you do not try to perfect what nature has already produced, but only to honor its integrity with your mutual care for each other.
But before we get to that point, one of the bridesmaids begins to lean against my sister’s childhood friend, Laurel, and then to wobble and sway under the bright sun. Christy’s knees buckle and she begins to slide to the earth, and three or four people cradle her head to break the fall. The bridesmaid’s boyfriend, one of the groomsmen, breaks from the line with an expression of alarm and rushes to her side. Rob, who is a doctor, steps out from the bride and officiant, and hovers briefly over Christy. Another doctor and a pre-med student materialize, and Rob lifts the swooning woman’s legs to drain the blood back to her head. A volunteer server is soon on the scene with a cup of ice water.
One of the elderly guests surrenders a wheelchair and Christy takes her place in the shade with the groomsmen, while I switch out and join the bridesmaids. It’s the high altitude, the sun, the lack of food and maybe a touch of alcohol. In any case, Christy revives and stays through the reception.
Such is the unpredictability of life. In the moments we designate as special, life intervenes and binds us together in care. We improvise and carry on.
All of us have a role. Rob’s cousin from the Bay area, a food writer, serves whiskey punch made with Jim Beam, the vintage of Frankfort, Ky., where I graduated from high school. My cousin DJs from a catalogue of songs on his laptop. I toast my sister and her new husband, and they dance to Tom Waits’ “Alice.”
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