Madeline: Crossing Oceans

It’s hard to imagine planning a transatlantic wedding reception without flights, but that’s just what my grandmother did, seventy-odd years ago. Alicia turned one hundred in November, and she won’t be making the trip from England to our New York reception in June. But although she can’t participate, her earlier experiences give a welcome perspective to the event we’re planning today.

My husband would tell you that I suffer from anxiety dreams about airports. Not flying, but airports themselves—I’m en route to one, but without a ticket, or I’m there and I can’t find my gate. So when it comes to international RSVPs, I barely have time to be thrilled someone’s coming before blurting out, “Have you booked your flight yet? (Did you get the aisle seat?)” I worry about everything from what it will cost them and how grueling it will be to fly in just for the weekend, to whether they will remember their passports.

What makes this ridiculous, of course, is how easy it is to travel between New York and London these days. Alicia, who did my journey in reverse, moving from the U.S. to the U.K. to marry a Brit in 1938, had a much more demanding itinerary. She took the bus from Upper Michigan to New York, then boarded a boat for a ten-day winter crossing to the eastern port town of Tilbury. She had met my grandfather in Paris when, after working multiple jobs through the Depression to fund travel to Europe, she ended up sitting next to him in French class. They corresponded and he visited her afterwards in the States, but she had never been to England before she made that crossing alone, carrying her hope chest, to be married.

Here’s the comforting thing, though: She was frantic too. “Eventually we got to England,” Alicia told me when I was growing up. “I was just terrified. I sat still and didn’t move. I couldn’t face the thought that he might not be there.” Meanwhile, my grandfather John was watching all the other passengers disembark. One of the deck hands finally found her and let her know her fiancé was on the dock, pacing up and down in desperation. It was time for her to go and meet him.  

Meeting and building a life with Brandon has been a breeze in comparison. We already lived together when we were navigating the proposal, and that ten-day ocean crossing can be done today in six hours. Hells, we’re planning our reception when we’re already married. What could go wrong? Alicia worried about the basics—will he be there when I get off the boat? My troubles are far more abstract: Did I give enough notice for everyone to get a good seat on the plane?

All this is to say, yes, I have it easy. But it’s also to say that getting married remains a strange and terrifying leap into the unknown. Sometimes flight arrangements or seating plans or birdcage veils become the vehicle of our fears, and sure, it can seem petty and nonsensical. But perhaps there are bigger issues beneath the surface, and doubts more akin to what Alicia felt on a freezing January day in a British port town, scared to go forward, unable to go back. I am saying “Does everyone know whether they’re flying into JFK or LaGuardia?” but I’m thinking something more along the lines of, “What am I doing? And, what will happen next?”

Here’s what happened next for my grandmother. She got off the boat. She didn’t sweat the details, even gracefully accepting the (brown) wedding china that her mother-in-law foisted on her. A year later, World War II began. She and John were repeatedly bombed out of their early London apartments. Her marriage faced challenges that I can’t even imagine, but it thrived.

Today, after several years grappling with Alzheimer’s, details are all that’s left for Alicia. The focus of her attention has dwindled to the point where she worries most about where she’s hidden the silver—including pieces of the dinner service she brought with her to England all those years ago. But it’s hard not to believe that greater fears lurk beneath. She’s asking where the forks are, but at some level, is she thinking, “Where am I? And where am I going?”

I won’t say that she’s taught me not to worry. Rather, her story reminds me that it’s natural to be scared in the face of things we can’t control. Her marriage is an example of how couples can overcome difficulties like distance, whether it takes a day or a month. And at age one hundred, Alicia is still my example of how to step forward into an unknowable future.

Photos of Alicia from Madeline’s personal collection

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