Over the Rainbow or The Sixth Wedding
July 10, 2010
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue...
and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” E.Y. Harburg
(For Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version)
Was I dead? This was much too peaceful to be one of my dreams. Was this heaven?
The sun was just beginning to set, but the temperature was still sweltering as the women in their flowing dresses and the men in light shirts and khakis removed their shoes and padded through the sand to the forty white chairs. The harmonics from the flute were accompanied by percussion of the surf on Seven Mile Beach. The smiling Caymanian officiant carried no Bible and few props except for some notes and a tall empty decanter next to two smaller vases filled with sand, which he gingerly set on a table beside him. Above the justice of the peace, a simple white canopy, contrasting with his dark skin, framed the vivid blue of the Caribbean.
My family had just returned from the Galapagos, which was blessed by more breezes, and now we're here! Could this really be our life? People like us don't travel this close to the equator twice in one summer. As ideal as it felt to me, I had to drag my heat-averse family out of their elegant, air-conditioned rooms at the Ritz Carlton to make sure we were on time. The music changed to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".
Lev, accompanied by his parents, looked tall and slim and was dressed in an ivory suit. His mother, Vera,was dressed modestly in a light gold and ivory silk brocade that flattered her full figure. In her hand was the bouquet of the large, ruffly pink and white camellias, native to the Cayman Islands. Alexei's smile was softer than his usual ironic expression. He gazed straight ahead while Vera's eyes never left her son's face, her tears falling onto her smile.
Hearing the lulling melody of the flute , in my mind I sang the words "and the dreams that you dare to dream come true". This was a celebration of those wishes.
Lauren, a serious, dark-eyed, beauty with pale white skin, barely 22 years old, imported her elegance to the beach. One arm in her father's, the other holding a bouquet of white camellias, she floated down the aisle dressed in a mermaid gown barely touching the rose petals beneath her feet.
That captures it. We definitely were not in Leningrad anymore. Sitting barefoot by a warm ocean with a cloudless, blue sky and sunlight, clearly we were a world away. This scene was as beautiful as it was surreal. This is Vera's son. Vera, whom I met on a street corner in Leningrad thirty-five years ago. How did we get here?
Alisa, Vera's best friend from Leningrad college days, refers to the Grand Cayman as a "bubble island" or a "pirate island." The only people who were accustomed to this type of elite resort were Vera and Alexei, the groom's parents. They felt at home at the Ritz Carlton. Why shouldn't they? They owned two apartments here in addition to the villa they had just renovated. Alisa was used to elegance, but Swedes did not indulge themselves too much. For the guests from Minneapolis, Rumania, Russia, and Ecuador, this was not another ho-hum weekend
Now, Lauren and Lev are standing in front of the Caymanian justice of the peace. I'm pinching myself. That canopy could be a huppah, as required at a Jewish wedding. Alisa told me she had the same thought. It's not. But it could be.
Now, the island lilt of the officiant's voice guides the couple in marriage vows without mention of the bride's Catholic/Jewish roots or Lev's Jewish/Russian roots. They each transferred the sand from their small vases into a larger glass vase to symbolize their union. Through this glass, the blue of the ocean and the pinks and yellows of the setting sun were visible.
I consider for a moment the myriad of unlikely events necessary for all of us to be in this moment. First, Lars, RD, and I had to choose to study in Leningrad in 1976. Next, Lars and I had to argue on a street corner where Vera would soon be passing. Vera had to approach us although she had never before talked to Americans. Vera's father had to have left the Communist Party so she would dare to approach Americans. RD had to be accepted as a guide on the US Agricultural Exhibit and seek out Vera when he returned the following year. Lars, RD, and I would need to all move to the same city to start our adult life. Finally, Vera had to value our friendship enough to maintain the relationships from afar with us for fourteen years until 1990 when she could finally visit the US for the first time, and eventually entrust RD with the guardianship of her son.
Phew! The number of required conditions is exhausting. Perhaps Vera would have succeeded to the extent she did in her business ventures without having American business partners or RD as investor, cheerleader, psychologist, and friend to enable her to keep forging ahead even after bombings, fires and other threats on her life. Perhaps, but that would be another story.
Vera has a gift for reframing the past so that each event seems a necessary piece in her destiny. She would begin with an unfortunate turn of events such as her father losing his job and then would name each successive event in order for the final good event to happen - meeting us, this wedding. This was Vera's definition-a unique one- of the phrase "Jewish luck." Bad luck could lead to good outcomes. For Alisa, "Jewish luck" minimized the real efforts it took to make anything out of nothing in their lives. There was no Jewish luck, according to Alisa. Hard work created success.
For Alexei, the father of the groom, there were no words today, only feelings. The strongest feeling was a bit unfamiliar to him -- gratitude. Lev was the youngest of his three children, the only child from his marriage to Vera. This healthy, young college graduate was the same son who was so fragile in infancy. Alexei had spent many nights worrying that even if Lev did survive, the chances of him becoming a healthy adult were remote. If Alexei had been a spiritual man and knew his father's Jewish religion, he might have recited the shehehiyanu, giving thanks for being able to live to reach this day.
Vera was the one who had seen it again and again, in her mind. This was the sweetest of her visions communicated to us many times. Her son, Lev, would be the vanguard of the family. He would be the first to leave Russia, that "disgusting country." Now he was marrying a woman he loved and would raise his family in a free country. Grand Cayman Island was a good choice for the wedding, Vera insisted. It had initially upset Lauren, who had hoped for a St. Petersburg wedding; however, Vera was right. This was the setting that felt best -- away from the complications of Russian life.
Before the photographer moved down the beach to take pictures of the bride and groom in the sunset, Vera motioned her over to the guests sipping their champagne and discussing their good fortune. Vera collected RD, Lars and me and introduced us to the photographer whom she had not yet met.
"You know, if it hadn't been for my three dear friends, I wouldn't be here today. None of this would be happening." She pronounced the words "three," "dear," "friends" slowly and with the utmost care to articulate every syllable for emphasis. There we were, Vera still the shortest, even in her heels. We two very pale, plump, Jewish looking "girls" surrounded by our best friends, middle-aged men who had aged gracefully. Vera and I still referred to them as "the boys." RD, after all these years, is still trim, blonde, and dapper and with his characteristic moustache, and Lars, handsome and burly but very much of a teddy bear to us.
It was RD, Lars, and I who served as loving and watchful aunt and uncles for Lev through his high school and college years. We listened to Lev obsess over needing a girlfriend, hating calculus, missing his motorcycle and joyously choosing his first car. We observed first-hand the loving relationship begin between these two teenagers and how their love matured and changed them over the next five years.
RD gave Vera a kiss on the cheek, "Vera, we've come so far. Who would have thought years ago, we'd be here together?"
RD appreciated how remarkable this friendship was and how valuable each moment is. He was instrumental to Vera's success and to Lev being transplanted to the US, but he understates his role. Lars and I like to remind RD on all special occasions of the last words he had spoken to us after our summer in Russia in 1976, "We'll never see each other again."
With one hand clasping me and the other firmly on the photographer, Vera guided the photographer to Alisa directing her to take another picture. Vera wrapped her arms around Alisa and me, saying "And you are my dearest girlfriends. I feel so complete today."
Alisa and I had already talked at length realizing that we often had the same agenda with Vera working from two different countries –- encouraging escape and embracing her Jewish identity. The picture shows us all with big smiles and our trademark accessories. In the middle, looking straight at the camera through her rhinestone glasses stands Vera with her sleek, black shoulder length hair. Diamonds all over her body, in all the places diamonds can be worn, are sparkling as are the sequins in her dress. Slim Alisa is attired in her chic Israeli sundress and wears her "serious" big black glasses and her "funny," whimsical jewelry. I am wearing what my daughter calls my "gypsy hippie skirt" which makes a great swooshing sound. I have on my hip purple frames and wear the same simple jewelry as always except for the gold earrings which Vera's father crafted for me himself.
Conversation continued as a murmur with the forty guests mingling on the beach until we were called into dinner. We entered a fairytale ballroom There was nothing left to chance at the Ritz Carlton. Vera had orchestrated the details of the dinners, the rooms, guests flying in and out of the Caymans as only a professional logistics person could.
"Good logistics always makes people feel like things are just flowing naturally."
She generously hosted so many of us taking care of our rooms and flying in her family doctor, the household manager from Russia, and Alexei's sister and brother-in-law.
A full orchestra played for the small group. The table was set for royalty and the menu was no less elegant with seven courses, and waiters attendant to all special diets.
Vera assigned Alisa the toughest job--policing the Russians at her table. Vera feared raucous eruptions of Gorko! goading the newlyweds to kiss to the accompaniment of clinking glasses. Alisa groaned inwardly wishing she didn't have to play mother to these Russians. She had swapped her Russian nationality for Swedish. Ironically, when things did get out of hand, it was a fellow Swede who led the pack into wild festivity. Vera had not expected such exuberance from this group.
Vera decided toasts would be limited to two, but she had neglected to tell RD and me the rule; so, RD gave his Scottish family toast ordering everyone to stand on their chair with one foot on the table and shout "Here's to it and to it again because if you don't get to it to do it, you'll never get to it to do it again." I toasted to the memory of Vera's parents, saying they would be smiling down on all of us today. Their hardships were finally rewarded by their family gathering together in a place of freedom.
Lauren and Lev surprised their parents by doing a Spanish inspired dance to "I Can Be Your Hero." Usually, I'd be groaning from the sappiness of the lyrics. Tonight I was tolerant and reflective. If Vera was listening to the lyrics, she would identify with the request for total commitment and then would weep; for this represented her marriage to Alexei- VeraLex, a complete union. Even Alisa, now Swedish, might have shed a tear or two knowing that her husband made her feel the same way -- safe and protected. Both women were experts on marriage. Alisa was in her third (though one didn't really count) and Vera and Alexei had been married once before.
That morning, sitting in the warm Caribbean ocean, a drink in our hands and unbeknownst to the busy Vera, Alisa and I sealed a pact to write a story about the secret weddings, Russian mafia pursuits, skyscraper deals, and pirate, bubble islands. Most importantly we would write about the weaving together of friendships over three decades that made our story possible.