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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  • mimi

    Wow, what a great story! Thanks for sharing! And good luck getting on (and off) that plane!

  • I loved this so much. Alicia’s story is so sweet. Thanks for sharing.
    And you are wise to notice that worrying about xyz is a). normal and b) a sign that you are really sensing that you are going into something bigger, terrifying, unknown.
    It will all be fine.

  • Ceebee

    My grandmother travelled weeks on a boat (not ship!) to get to Nanyang – what is now known as Southeast Asia – from China to marry (in her words, said with a sly chuckle) – WHAT! A little boy!
    But of course, he wasn’t a minor, just that my grandfather is far from having a stately stature.
    She took the voyage not knowing if she would ever see or hear from her family again (she never did) and what and who awaits her. She was a mail-order bride (we called her Imported :) )

    Last month, my father spoke of how they became the pair that loved one another so much – the only time he has seen anything like that in his life. She took on her new family – so large with about 20 under the roof, not knowing the language, culture and region and managed it like a charm until the day she died – 40 years after he did.

    Piecing the 2 narratives, I finally understood after 20 years of hearing her first animated gasp (in her still very foreign accent and dialect) – that chuckle was not an insult but the depth of her soul – of how much they loved and laughed in life and death.

    • “She took on her new family – so large with about 20 under the roof, not knowing the language, culture and region and managed it like a charm until the day she died – 40 years after he did.”

      Your grandma is going to be like an example for me… sounds like what I’m going through. If only I will manage to do it gracefully.

      • Ceebee

        I know! She’s the best.
        Ah-Gran* is a person of so few words.

        She was 20 – with natural feet and educated (double whammy to her marriage prospects). He was 19. She outlived him by 40-50 years when he died in his 40s.
        Had under her wing 10 children of her own and took in at least another 6 to feed, clothe, school from the extended family, 2 mothers in law, a father in law who is in the fashion of the day – opiated.

        She never complained.

        Her head worked like she has a Macbook in it, she planned every function down to the single cent and second. Our memory of her cooking was how she timed everything – a grouper take 1 commercial break to another to cook on each side! No way was she going to miss her soap operas, and nothing ever burned or charred.

        Maybe she didn’t have anyone to complain to, so she just took it all to adapt as best as she could and made do with what cards she was dealt with pure class.

        *”Ah-” to Asians is a prefix, much like how Mike becomes Mike-y, that sort; and yes, somewhere along the way we started calling her that)

        • dysgrace

          I love this story, Ceebee, because it sounds like you’re talking about my tiny little Teochew grandmother, who, I swear, is made of steel. (With some variations – they met in China, married, were separated for years by war; she finally came to Singapore, knowing not a soul but my timid grandfather. Dealt with it. Produced four children, starting with my mom. Nagged and scolded and loved my grandfather till his dying day.)

    • Madeline

      wow, another amazing story!

    • Claire


  • Great post, Madeline. Lots of wisdom! Your grandmother sounds like a brave and inspiring woman.

  • Maureen

    What a truly beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing ~ it’s good to be reminded that when it comes to marriage – or any big life change – that it’s ok to be afraid.

  • Class of 1980

    Ah, here I am worrying about my next move and wondering when I will find the right house … but I’ve never been repeatedly bombed out of apartments!!!

    Great story.

  • KatieBeth

    A wonderful story, this part made me tear up, “She’s asking where the forks are, but at some level, is she thinking, ‘Where am I? And where am I going?'” I totally agree – worrying about the little things is most often subtext for the larger things. People may think it’s crazy when you start crying about whether there will be blue tablecloths – when really you’re anxious about something completely different. And, as so many great posters on APW have said, even though it’s really scary and consuming sometimes, wedding planning seems to be a great training ground for “The Big Stuff” later on – negotiating, listening, communicating, fighting, etc.

  • Emily Rae

    What a wonderful and inspiring story. As I prepared for my own wedding and move to another country to be with my partner, I too drew inspiration from my ancestors. Most have had pretty “conventional” lives, but every person and every story is extraordinary, especially in the context of strength and love.

  • carrie

    There seems to be something in my eyes…

    Lovely story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Genevieve

    This was a wonderful read. Thanks.

  • A gorgeous leap-of-faith. What a sweet story. :) And to think, we worried about tablecloths, or out of town bags.

  • Snow Gray

    Our stories are similar, but in reverse!

    My great-grandmother, nearly 92, was a war bride who sailed from England to America (with their newborn son) to make a life with my great-grandpa. Now, almost 70 years later, I am immigrating to the UK to be with my love.

    Guests that have to fly in are stressful, but this story is wonderfully inspiring. We can all overcome the distance.

  • Awesome post…I was definitely getting teary throughout!

  • Lisa

    I totally know what you mean about “airport dreams”! I rarely sleep on nights before I need to travel, and for a few days before a flight I invariably have a dream where I’m late for a flight, or need to leave right now but haven’t packed at all, etc.

    Lovely story about your grandmother, thanks for sharing!

  • MDBethann

    Thank you for the lovely story Madeline!! I hope your grandparents had a wonderful life together and that you and your husband have a marriage as good as theirs was.

    All the best!

  • Krista

    Lovely post & story. Thanks for sharing… such inspiration!

  • Fantastic story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sarah

    “I was just terrified. I sat still and didn’t move. I couldn’t face the thought that he might not be there.”

    I felt like I was with her on the deck of that ship docked in a foreign port and about to step off the gangplank into the unknown. That leap of faith is what getting married is all about and it can be heartstopping – which is what makes it wonderful and exhilarating.

    And you are so, so right about little things becoming vehicles for our fears.

    Thank you so much for sharing Alicia’s wonderful story – and your own.

  • “Rather, her story reminds me that it’s natural to be scared in the face of things we can’t control.”

    I am sitting here crying because that is exactly how I feel right now. I am already married, and my husband is awesome. But I just finished grad school, and I am navigating the real career waters. I’m almost 30, and I’ve never had a real career. I’ve just held down a series of jobs. The thought of choosing a place to spend the next 2, 5, 10, or more years working is absolutely terrifying. I can barely imagine having a job with benefits.

    Thanks for the lovely story and the fabulous quote. This is going on my inspiration board.