Yesterday's Magazette

6 – One Day In May


One Day In May

By George Thomas

 

“Saturday, May 23, 1942: an unforgettable day for our family.”The Congregational Church in Colrain, Massachusetts, had thrown open its doors for the three o’clock wedding of my oldest sister, Madeline. Reverend Everett Johnston, dressed in his customary double-breasted, pinstriped suit, had led me out to the small porch off his office. He smiled down at me. “It’s a perfect day for a wedding, young man.”Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, the little village of Colrain sprawled five miles east of our white-clapboard farmhouse. The public library, a general store, the post office, and two churches–one Catholic the other Protestant–lined up in formation around the town square in this quintessential New England town.

Lilac bushes bathed the air for blocks around with their fragrance. No clouds spoiled the cerulean blue sky. The groom, Joe Pinter, a U. S. Marine, had finagled a two-week furlough away from fighting in the Pacific for his wedding and honeymoon. His shiny new 1941 Plymouth sedan, parked in front of the church, had been festooned with “Just Married” signs and tin cans, ready to whisk the married couple off to their honeymoon.

Madeline, who worked as a nurse in Newark, New Jersey, had met Joe there. Many of their friends and relatives from New Jersey, our kinfolk from nearby Vermont, and folks from Colrain, jammed the little church, anticipating the start of the service. All ingredients were assembled for a perfect wedding–all but one.

Unaware of events at our farmhouse, Joe and his brother, Ed, the best man, entered the church’s oak-paneled minister’s study. Ed pointed at the grandfather clock, ticking in a corner. “Only ten minutes to go, ole buddy.”

Reverend Everett Johnston, dressed in his customary double-breasted, pinstriped suit, pumped the hands of both men. He beamed. “You both look quite handsome.”

He appointed me errand boy–a momentous assignment for an eight year old. He donned his clerical robe and turned to me. “Young man, it’s time for you to go to the bride’s waiting room. Tell Madeline she has five minutes before the ceremony begins.”

I knocked. Nobody answered. I pushed open the door into a sun-flooded but otherwise deserted room.

Panicked, I rushed back to the minister’s study. “Sir, nobody’s there.”

Our gray-templed, patrician-looking minister squinted at the clock and frowned. He stood undecided for a few minutes, then strode to the wall, lifted the telephone receiver off the hook, and turned the crank. He barked, “Emma, get me the Thomas residence … Yes, I know they’re all supposed to be here. Just ring the house, please!” Drumming his fingers, he waited for several minutes and then his eyes widened. With an effort, he steadied his voice. “Grace, what’s happening? Why aren’t you here? … What?!”

At ten after three, Mr. Osbourne, the organist, plunged for the second time into the prelude music. In the sanctuary, the wedding guests fidgeted and darted nervous glances at their neighbors.

By 3:25, Reverend Johnston, visibly agitated, strode to the phone, gave the crank a vicious twist and asked Emma to ring our house again. He listened for a few seconds and looked dazed, “… but … but …” He hung up the receiver and stared at it, then shed his robe and slouched into the leather swivel chair behind his heavy mahogany desk.

Emma Swett, the town’s “central” telephone operator, filled her spinster days with unconscionable eavesdropping on all the party lines in town–and made it her business to spread any news, the juicier the better. As I learned later, not ten minutes had elapsed after the second call from the pastor to our house before she’d relayed the news to most of the townspeople. Singly or in pairs, they emerged onto their porches along the street leading up to the church and peered toward the building, shaking their heads in disbelief.

In the minister’s study, Ed removed his bow tie and mopped his face and neck. He whispered hoarsely, “Where the hell is she? Oops, beg pardon, Reverend.” Joe perspired profusely, soaking the front of his tuxedo shirt.

I just knew something was wrong. Maybe she’s been hurt or fainted from the excitement. I pictured her spread out on the bed, her face as white as her wedding dress. I bit my lip to keep from crying, but it didn’t help. I fled to the farthest corner of the room so no-one would hear me blubbering. It didn’t work. Ed came over, lifted me up onto his lap and dabbed my tears with a handkerchief. “Now, now, Georgie. Everything will be okay. You must be brave.”

The grandfather clock chimed the quarter hour, signaling 3:45 and rousing our pastor to his feet. As he advanced toward the door, the phone rang. He jerked the receiver off the hook and listened, and then replied briefly, his face ashen.

She must be worse than just hurt! Maybe she’s dead. I knew she was 23. That was old, but it wasn’t old enough to die! I sobbed again, picturing her laid out in the coffin in her wedding dress. I’m terrified of funerals. Maybe I won’t have to go.

She’d promised me I could come visit her when she went back to New Jersey after the wedding. That would probably be the last chance I’d have in my whole life to visit a foreign country! I bawled even louder. The minister glared down at me. “Son, that doesn’t help at all. And you look a sight!” He patted my shoulder. “Go wash your face with cold water. And try to think of something pleasant.”

In the pastor’s bathroom, I turned the key to keep anybody from coming in to discover me with a tear-streaked face. I rose up on tiptoe to look at myself in the mirror. That awful cowlick! I wet it down and that helped. But there was nothing to be done about the freckles all over my face and my big ears. As for my red eyes, I splashed water on my face and tried to think of something nice.

What about our neighborhood swimming hole, in the North River, down the hill from the church and to the right of the bridge? I remembered how I learned to swim there with my big brother holding me up to keep me from drowning. How I loved to swim under water with my eyes open and explore the magic world of sunlight filtering down on rocks and sand and rainbow trout: it seemed like I could see forever! Those pleasant thoughts helped me to forget about my sister dying on her wedding day.

I returned to the pastor and he sent me back to the bride’s waiting room. I sat down and counted the long minutes. When are they going to tell me about my sister dying? At last the door flew open and there stood Madeline, alive, serene and unruffled, her bridesmaids and our mother in tow. She tweaked my ear as she flipped past, “Why do you look so peaked, hon? It’s my wedding. I want to look perfect, so I took my time getting ready. They can hardly start without me, can they?”

I rushed back to the pastor’s study. “She’s ready.”

He pulled on his robe, guided Ed and Joe down the hushed, carpeted corridor to a door opposite the pulpit, opened it a crack and signaled the flustered organist. As the initial chords triggered the processional and the remarkably calm-looking pastor entered the sanctuary, his grandfather clock chimed the hour of four.

Down through the years, Madeline would create many memories for us by arriving late for important gatherings. But, for me, this would be the most unforgettable.

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