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Happy for the Rest of My Life

Planned just a week before, my brother's wedding  was an embellishment on the French government’s requirement for a family visa needed to live abroad. Tim and Tamara had already proven their commitment by living together nearly ten years and producing my two nephews.

Flowers filled the tiny bathroom off the kitchen until the ceremony, exhaling Hawaiian memories every time someone opened the door to pee. It was hot, 102 degrees in the shade according to the thermometer by the pool, and still, unlike other seasons when I visit and the Oklahoma wind tosses wind chimes and tips over lawn chairs. As I helped drape the patio tables with lime green netting and tied it up with purple bows, the air felt like a held breath. I filled three baskets with fragrant limp rose petals, admired the freshly-ironed miniature Hawaiian shirts my nephews would wear, and checked on the flat box in the back fridge containing two leis—yellow plumerias for the bride and palm fronds for the groom. Tamara’s four sisters arrived all of a sudden at the door from three different cities, variations of the same small chin, wavy hair, freckled arms, their names a jumble I had to keep sorting out and reassigning in my head, embarrassed to call one of them wrong when they had it easy since there was just one of me.

Two hours before the ceremony Tamara burst into the living room asking me to paint her fingernails coral. The shiny polish globbed and I had to go back with a tissue and redo some. A veterinarian, she usually wears scrubs or jeans or muddy boots or a swim suit and never does her nails. But she’d never married before either.

While three or four of us jockeyed for the bathroom mirror, rolling on lipstick, the two dozen rented chairs waited in rows on the grass. Two cans of bug spray sat by the sliding door. Both fridges were full of food my stepmother had spent the last two days preparing and two pink salmon which would be grilled later. The minister arrived and told my dad he was planning a road trip to Cindy Sheehan’s peace camp in Crawford for Labor Day. The Bulgarian family of five that Tim and Tamara had sponsored arrived, bringing cakes from the French bakery where they worked. The men, along with one of Tamara’s sisters, drank a shot of Tequila in the kitchen and then we all went out to the backyard.

Hawaiian music played on a CD. Tamara looked like a forties movie star with her short hair in waves, red lips, and a Hawaiian wrap skirt and the worry lines on my brother’s forehead fell away. Wearing a sun dress made from a pink silk sari, I read a Pablo Neruda poem about traveling to distant places and coming home to each other. They kissed. Then my father, strikingly handsome even at 69, presented a red rose to each woman. We passed the cameras around and got photos of everyone but the new couple alone. After a glass of champagne I jumped in the pool in my dress to cool off and to retrieve a Hot Wheels car one of my nephews had lost. A sister joined me. Someone pushed my father in. He got out grumbling because the digital camera was in his pocket. A while later he realized he hadn’t lost the photos and a slide show of the wedding played on TV while we brought out all the food. After dinner someone put on Middle Eastern music and all the women belly danced in their bathing suits, towels wrapped low on hips, and then we ate two kinds of cake.

Sipping cool wine after another dip in the pool, I relaxed into the candle glow while someone told a funny story or maybe the sisters, some of which used to have a band, sang folk songs. I missed my husband terribly. I was there alone—school had already started so Jim and our son had stayed behind—but I felt their presence because we had visited here together so many times. More than a dozen years ago we announced our engagement to my father and stepmother while carving a pumpkin on this porch. Cope had laid as a naked baby on a beach towel here by my feet. We soaked in the hot tub at Christmas, the trees lights twinkling on my husband’s bare shoulders. Alone, yet surrounded by family on the wedding day of my half-brother, whom I considered whole, I remember thinking: I am so happy. I couldn’t remember the last time I wept—except for that very afternoon at the wedding, from joy.

When I was younger, twenty years ago or so, this place used to break my heart. A child of early divorce, I spent my infrequent visits to my father’s house measuring his love for me and my brother. The evidence was overwhelming: photos of him around the house outnumbered images of me ten to one; he had a new bike while I had a used one; he went to private schools while I went to public. Once I had even clawed the inside of my arms with rage, unable to contain my grief. Even the happy times, my brother and I baking my grandmother Italian cream cakes for her birthday, playing dress-up in old clothes my stepmother found, or trouncing my brother at Monopoly, were disappointingly fleeting and rare. Through the years I had grown up through forgiveness and empathy into accepting my place among a family I hadn’t grown up among.

But that wasn’t all. After an unlucky childhood, I had created a life even better than the one I imagined in my old twin bed of tears. At age 43 I have a true partner, a son who amazes and fascinates me, a job I love, and I had just mailed off the manuscript for a novel I’d been working on for five years.

Someone mentioned a hurricane heading for the gulf. My father smiled and poured me some more wine. The sisters sang “the river is wide and I can’t cross o’er.”

At that moment, staring into the sweet mouth of a lily, the scent warm and more dizzying than wine, I was struck with the foolish, but certain truth:  I will never be sad again.
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Robin Bradford
, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Send feedback to Robin at motherload @ austinmama.com (remove the spaces). Visit her at www.robinbradford.net

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