Chapter One: Wedding Day

 Thursday, July 3, 1941


A loose thread catches my attention. My sister would never forgive me if I pulled the hem out of my jacket two minutes before I finally get to walk down the aisle. Transferring my bouquet to my left hand, I tug gently on the fiber, testing to make sure it’s not attached to anything important. The fingers on my right hand quiver as I free the pink strand from my suit, release it, and watch it float to the stone floor. Florence begged me to buy a white wedding dress. First marriage or not, I told her I couldn’t spend money on a frivolous, one-time outfit, not with war on the horizon. The success of the Nazi’s advance into Russia has everyone on pins and needles. My fiancé, Frank, is sure the U.S. will officially enter the war by the end of the year. And when war comes again, so will rationing. So, I made a practical choice and purchased a rose-colored suit in rayon—an ensemble I’ll be able to wear time and again. I did take my sister’s advice and splurged on a hat. Florence suggested a matching fascinator with a detachable white face veil. And she was right. As soon as I put on the hat and pulled down the veil, I felt like a bride, a forty-three-year-old bride, but a bride nonetheless. Not sure how to quiet my trembling fingers, I fiddle with the brooch on my lapel.

“Stop fussing,” Florence whispers, straightening my jacket. “You look beautiful. Pink, but beautiful. Try to relax and enjoy your special day.”

I adjust the brooch again. Mrs. Henderson surprised me this morning when she brought her jewelry box up to my room in the boarding house. We sat on my bed with the box between us. The jewelry box itself was exquisite with little gold feet and a painted scene of courtly lovers on the lid. When Mrs. H. lifted the lid, I gasped at the contents. The blue satin-lined interior overflowed with gem-stone rings, pearl necklaces, and diamond earrings I’ve never seen Mrs. Henderson wear in the twelve years I’ve known her. I browsed through her treasures until my hand hovered over the brooch—a gold filigree oval surrounded the carved image of a woman’s head and shoulders. Mrs. Henderson nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I had a feeling you’d pick my grandmother’s cameo. It’s a family heirloom and will serve nicely as your something old and your something borrowed today.” My suit is my something new. Florence tied blue ribbons to my bouquet in order to check off the last item on my required “bride’s good luck” list.

Florence places her hands on my shoulders and turns me toward her. She adjusts my veil and tucks in a few wayward strands of my hair. Looking at my sister is practically like looking in the mirror—same round face, same untamable mousy brown hair. When we were little, people mistook us for twins, but I’m the older sister by fourteen months. You’d never guess it from the way she loves to boss me around. I let out an audible sigh.

“You’ll be fine, honey,” she says, patting my shoulder. For someone who intentionally tried to derail my romance with Frank, Florence has been a wonderful matron of honor today. Helping with the flowers and my hair. Reassuring me at every turn.

I stare down the aisle and survey the endless sea of vacant pews. My heart beats faster and I clutch my bouquet with both hands. Given our brief six-week courtship, Frank and I thought a small wedding would be best. The list grew to sixty people overnight. Like grains of sand on a beach, the hats and heads of our guests barely make a dent in the first few rows of the Baptist church. Yet, once the music starts, all sixty guests will rise, turn, and stare in my direction. The distance to the altar seems far longer today than on a usual Sunday. My stomach flutters.

 I didn’t ask my daddy to give me away because Florence can’t stand to be near him. I couldn’t imagine the three of us waiting in awkward silence at the back of the church. My sister doesn’t understand why I invited Daddy at all. I don’t love him the way most people think about daughters loving their fathers, but I don’t despise him the way Florence does. Forgiveness has never been her strong suit.

Frank and I discussed asking my brother, Eddie, to give me away, but we decided it was better for Frank to ask him to be his best man. “I’m a grown woman and perfectly capable of walking down the aisle by myself,” I told Frank when we were planning. My legs tremble. I may have overestimated my newfound, almost-married-lady confidence. Truth is, I’d be happy clinging to my brother’s arm right about now. Unlike my sister, I’ve never been one to crave the spotlight. The queasy, sinking feeling running through every limb of my body right now feels like stage fright. I was a jittery wreck every time I sang a solo in church when I was a teenager. At this moment, I’m not sure my legs would move if I asked them to and it’s—

“Almost time,” Florence says, completing my thought and causing my top lip to quiver.

Mama gave me some tips to combat stage fright when I was younger. What were they? My mind wanders back to the kitchen where I grew up. Daddy used to run a general store in Indian Territory. The kitchen ran along the back of the building and we lived upstairs.

I close my eyes and picture my mother. She’s ironing. Blue and white checked curtains billow in the open window behind her. “Breathe in deep from your belly,” she tells me as she adjusts a long calico skirt on the ironing board. “Stand as tall as you possibly can and imagine a successful performance. Then blow those butterflies out with your breath and set them free.” Mama’s voice rings in my head, crisp and clear as if she’s standing with me and Florence at the back of the church. We lost Mama and my baby sister, Mae, to the influenza epidemic more than twenty years ago. Breathing from the very center of the butterflies in my belly, I square my shoulders and pull up through the crown of my head, rising taller than my five-foot frame. I imagine walking with grace and confidence down the aisle to join Frank, to join our lives together here in the presence of God and all our friends. I open my eyes and blow the butterflies up into the rafters of the sanctuary and watch them fly away. The trembling stops.

“Remember what Reverend Harper said. Forget about everyone else in the church and keep your eyes on Frank,” Florence says. “I’ll be right in front of you.”

Keep your eyes on Frank. I search for my fiancé at the front of the sanctuary. I can barely make out his silhouette to the right of the Reverend. Eddie stands by his side. Overcast skies bathe the church in a gray, mid-day twilight. Rain on your wedding day is supposed to be good luck or so Florence says. Of course, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky the day she said her vows. The tall, narrow stained glass windows do little to illuminate the space. The only light comes from the glow of the metal organ pipes, lit from above.

Frank and I set the time for the ceremony at eleven-thirty because Mrs. Henderson said it’s good luck to marry when the hands of the clock are on the rise. Just like you should hang a horseshoe with the heel calks pointed up, you should marry when both hands of the clock are moving up toward noon to ensure your luck moves up with them. For a day that should be focused on the sacred union of two people ordained by God, my head is spinning with wedding-day customs and superstitions. Frank and I were lucky to secure this time and date as Reverend Henry’s calendar is booked solid these days. Seems every young man in Washington County is in a hurry to marry before his number comes up in the draft.

“Ready?” Florence asks as the organist plays the opening notes of the “Bridal Chorus” by Wagner. Suit coats and dresses crinkle and swish as the guests rise and turn to face us.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I joke. Florence rolls her eyes and starts down the aisle as my attendant—step, together, pause, step, together, pause. I wait until she’s five strides ahead and follow, just as Reverend Harper instructed. The guests are a million miles away and Frank’s even further. My bridal veil provides a strange sense of security and my gaze is drawn not to Frank, but to our guests who grow closer with each stride.

As the guests’ faces come into focus, my legs feel steadier—step, together, pause, step, together, pause. These are the people I hold closest to my heart. It’s wonderful to see them gathered together. Throwing the Reverend’s advice out the window, I make veiled eye contact with as many people as I can and smile. Each guest beams back at me, filling me with confidence. Some of the church ladies dot their eyes with handkerchiefs, overcome with joy, no doubt, that the old maid has finally found a match. My nephew, Johnny, looks so handsome in his new suit you’d think he was much older than thirteen. From the back of the church, I watched Johnny figuring out where to sit today. He greeted Daddy and Cousin Waya in the family pew, then hesitated like he wasn’t sure where he belonged. After a moment, he walked back to sit with Mrs. Henderson and the rest of his boarding house family.

I turn my head to the groom’s side of the aisle and am surprised to see Boots Adams, the president of Phillips Petroleum, and his wife Blanche sitting with Frank’s engineering team and their wives. Frank and I both work at Phillips, though Frank spends his days in the research facility and I work in the office machine room at headquarters. Frank’s family pew is empty. They didn’t make the trip since we’re spending our honeymoon in Frank’s hometown. I’ll meet his family tomorrow in Joplin, Missouri. I can’t wait to get to know his sister, Helen. Frank speaks so fondly of her.

My gaze turns across the aisle once more and lands smack dab on Daddy and Cousin Waya. At six-foot two, Daddy towers over most of the guests. Eyebrows raised, mouth cocked to one side, his disbelief is evident. I acknowledge him with a soft smile from behind my veil. No butterflies. No weak knees. Cousin Waya gives me an encouraging wink and loosens his tie.

As I rotate my head to the altar, my eyes lock with Frank’s. He’s smiling so broadly the grin barely fits on his face. When Frank smiles, he gets the most adorable little wrinkles around his eyes. He smoothed back his wavy, sand-colored hair for the occasion. In the dim light of the chancel, I can’t see the scar running below his hairline—his lasting souvenir from the Great War. Florence arrives at the chancel and steps to the left. She scowls briefly in the direction of our father.

Dear Lord above, please bless my marriage to Frank Davis. Bestow upon us your gifts of trust, compassion, and forgiveness that we may live together in love and peace. Amen.

And Lord, please help my sister get along with Daddy at the reception this afternoon. Amen again.

Three more steps and I reach Frank, the organist wraps up the final notes of the music in perfect synchronization—years of practice, I suppose. I pass my bouquet to Florence, and Frank and I join hands. I lose myself in his hazel eyes. In the dim light, they look more brown than green, deep and inviting. Whenever I stare into Frank’s eyes, I’m sure I’ve known him my whole life not six weeks. The Reverend asks us questions and we answer. He gives a short talk and I stay wrapped in the warmth of Frank’s eyes. Before I know it, we exchange rings. The Reverend blesses our union, Frank rolls back my veil and we kiss. It’s a public kiss, short and sweet, but Frank gives my hands a little squeeze at the end as if to say, “Don’t worry. I’m saving the good stuff for later.”

We walk back down the aisle, arm and arm, as the organist plays the “Wedding March.” Frank and I stop for the photographer to take our picture at the entrance of the church. Light rain falls like mist, turning the parking lot into a glistening sea of wet glass, metal, and chrome. The photographer offers us an umbrella, but we look at each other and shake our heads. Frank’s car, freshly washed and waxed, sits directly in front of the church. Rain water beads in perfect circles on the hood. We make a run for it. Frank opens the passenger door for me and I climb in. He scoots around to the driver’s side and we pull away, heading to Henderson House and our reception. The windshield wipers swish back and forth as the drizzle continues.

“How do you feel, Mrs. Davis?” Frank asks.

“I don’t remember any of the ceremony. Are you sure we’re married?”

Frank takes his hand off the wheel for a second and wiggles his wedding band at me. The gold shines even on this overcast afternoon. I admire my own wedding band for a moment before quickly moving my engagement ring from my right hand back to its familiar spot on left. My friend Anna told me it would be easier to wear my engagement ring on my right hand for the service. Now, my wedding band resides closest to my heart and the engagement ring sits on the outside to protect our vows.

The rings nest together beautifully on my left hand. I rotate the diamond ring back and forth and around my finger. “One minute I was looking at everyone as I walked down the aisle, and the next I woke up in this car with you. I might need to see the license to make sure I’m not dreaming,” I tease.

“I’ve got a copy of the license right here,” Frank says, tapping his breast pocket, “and I will be more than happy to review it with you later. Whatever it takes to make you comfortable on our wedding night.” He holds the steering wheel with his left hand and puts his right arm on top of the seat back. I slide over next to him and he drops his hand onto my shoulder.

“Our wedding night,” I say with a sigh, “and I thought I had stage fright about the ceremony.”

“Bessie, all kidding aside,” Frank says, pulling me closer, “we’ve got the rest of our lives together. We can take things as slowly as you want.”

“What if I don’t want to take things slowly?” I put my hand on his leg.

“Fast is also an option,” he says with a laugh.

“Well, fast or slow, we’ve got to get through cake and punch at Henderson House and then we have a long drive to Joplin. Who knows, at our age we may be too tired for any wedding night activities.” I give his leg a squeeze.

“Then I’ll ask Professor Rutledge to brew a pot of coffee for us before we hit the road,” Frank says. As he pulls into the driveway, the rain stops. Steam rises off the gravel. In the dampness, the stately house shimmers as if the bricks are made of crushed red velvet and the broad front porch covered in yards of gleaming white satin.

“Mrs. H. instructed us to position ourselves on the porch to receive our guests,” I say as we walk hand in hand past the back garden. “She knew we would be the first to arrive. We’re at least five minutes ahead of everyone leaving the church.” We step into the kitchen. Plates and platters, bags and bakery boxes cover every available horizontal surface.

“I thought we were having cake and punch,” Frank says.

“You know Edna and Mrs. Henderson can’t pass up an opportunity to feed people,” I say. “The kitchen ladies from church started dropping food off this morning at quarter to eight.”

“Hmm, so the guests are a good five minutes behind us,” Frank says, drawing me into an embrace.

My entire body tingles. I lean in and kiss him full on the mouth. “I was hoping for more than five minutes of your attention, Mr. Davis,” I tease. “Besides, we have a job to do.”

“Right, position ourselves on the front porch to receive our guests,” he moans.

“You know, Mrs. H. and the Professor will be alone together in the house tonight,” I say as we walk from the kitchen through the dining room. “Florence, Eddie, and Johnny are heading back to Tulsa right after the reception”

“Don’t worry, Louie will be here to serve as chaperone,” Frank says with a laugh.

“I don’t know who I’m going to miss more, Mildred Henderson or that sweet dog of hers,” I say.

A slight chill runs through house as if it’s not sure either. Sensing the house is new to me, if it’s real at all. It started the day Frank and I got engaged and announced our intention to buy Henderson House. Mrs. Henderson’s moving to New Jersey to live closer to her children. Frank and I plan to transform the boarding house into a bed and breakfast. The minute the house knew we’d be the new owners, I began to hear it. Mrs. H. always talked about this house needing people and responding to its occupants, but I thought it was nonsense, merely part of her eccentric personality. But that evening when I heard the house humming, well, I had to think again. I’m still not sure how to interpret what I sense or feel. Mrs. H. said to give it time. “Understanding is something you have to develop and tend to in a relationship,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Not with people and certainly not with houses.”

 “After you, Mrs. Davis,” Frank says as we reach the front door.

“Together,” I reply.

Frank turns the knob, opens the door, and I gasp. A tall man blocks the entrance with his fist raised. “I was just about to knock,” Daddy says, lowering his arm. Cousin Waya peeks out from behind him.

“Lucky us!” Waya says, moving forward to give me a kiss on the cheek and shake Frank’s hand. “We’re the first ones to congratulate the bride and groom.”

“We certainly are.” Daddy pauses. “Congratulations, Bessie. Better late than never!” His deep, gravelly voice reverberates in the foyer behind us and the backhanded compliment echoes in my heart.

Daddy lumbers forward and envelopes me in an awkward embrace. My arms take a moment to comply, but eventually they wrap lightly around his slender frame. Holding him, I’m aware of how frail he is. He must be seventy-eight by now. Frank says I should be open to reconciliation. He’s working to repair his relationship with his brother Pete when we go to Joplin on our honeymoon. The Lord calls us to bear with each other and forgive one another. Maybe the time has come to reconnect with my daddy. Maybe I need to learn how to understand him the same way I’m learning to understand house. I pull my father in closer for a proper hug. It takes a moment for both of us to adjust, but in the end, it’s a good hug.

As Daddy and I step back from each other, Florence appears on the edge of the porch behind him. With one hand propped on her hip and the other reaching out to me in exasperation, she mouths silently, “Are you kidding me?” 

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: Punch Bowl