My Sister’s Chuppah
By David Feige

Shortly after getting the official word that my Brother in Law Ken would make an honest woman out of my sister, I received a strange envelope.  I have long since converted to electronic communications, and so anything  personal arriving in the mail was unusual.  It was especially so since it came from Michelle and Ken-I talk to them on the phone, but never actually send them anything.  Inside the envelope was a small cream-colored square of silk and a simple but daunting request: Please decorate this square of silk and return it to us.  We intend to make a quilt and use it as a chuppah. (The chuppah, a feature of almost any Jewish wedding is a canopy that shelters the bride and groom as they exchange their vows).   Oy.  It is bad enough to have to attend a younger sister's wedding, enduring the ceaseless prodding about  'when is it your turn'.  But to have to come up with a design idea too. that seemed over the top.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the rest of the family had received the same request.  The creative half of the family dove into the challenge heading directly to art stores to buy complicated supplies in cheerful hues. I on the other hand preoccupied myself with potential technological solutions.  They key was that I only had one square-one chance to make part of a beautiful thing with which to shelter the bridal couple.  No second chances-no botched attempts-no finding out too late that the fabric was not meant to retain some certain kind of permanent ink, no chocolate milk spills--no shaky lines.  I tried composing poetry but the thought of a scribbled banal tribute enduring for what I hoped would be at least fifty years of marriage was scary-not to mention the potential for a misspelling. I was stumped.  I put the project aside.

In the ensuing months, as the date slid steadily closer, word of the inventiveness of others began to pour in from around the country. Applique, Weaving, Stenciling Embroidery, Tie-Dying, Needlepoint, and Cross-stitch were all in evidence.  Someone even stuffed the square in an attempt to quilt the quilt.  Grandma worked exclusively with stickers. 

Some people attached items that reminded them of Michelle and Ken or were otherwise significant.  A friend from Paris sowed a metro ticket onto a drawing of the Eifel Tower, Another attached a mezuzah-guarding the door to wedded life and a third, who remains nameless at Michelle's behest, inexplicably glued on a leather strap surrounded by a field of dried sage.  'I was never quite sure exactly what that was supposed to represent' Michelle said.

There were others who struggled.  Ken's brother Russell, aware of his limits, made his girlfriend do it, and Uncle Nick and Aunt Gwen turned their squares over to their six year old son who promptly decorated theirs as he had his-with abstract pictures of trains. Another friend, not particularly artistically inclined merely drew a stick figure and sun.

Had I been aware of the license taken by others, perhaps I might not have been so concerned with my square, but most of my information came from Dad.  Dad appropriated three squares (one from his mother who was over 90 at the time) and promptly went off to the library, attacking the problem of the empty squares as he did most academic issues-with creativity and research.  He got books on 16th century Jewish calligraphy collected postcards of Chagall drawings, and bought special implements designed to cut stencils.  He created a tryptich, tracing the Chagall etchings and heat transferring them to the fabric.  He stenciled in ancient Jewish lettering celebrating the bridal couple and attached other things including a piece of his grandmother's lace and his father's prayer shawl. All in all enough to make me wish I could just glue on a leather strap and some sage.

I had made no progress.  Spring had arrived and it was time to make up my mind. Michelle and Ken had decided to get married in the back yard of the house where we grew up (and where my father still lives).  Here they are already finalizing menu's and confirming tents for the backyard, while my friend Peter, who was to officiate had received his mail order priest/rabbi certificate and been authorized by the state of Wisconsin to marry them.  And here I was, a designated holder of the chuppah sans square.  It was high time to get cracking.  I needed a methodology. 

First, I took a time out.  I went out to my little deck and considered.  I started with what I couldn't do.  Forget about sowing or any of the gentle arts--not my thing.  Then I considered what I wanted to say--it went something like this: Ok, you are my sister--we come from this messed up family, the product of a messy divorce.  Mom and Dad haven't had more than a polite conversation in over 10 years and can't seem to be in a room together without incredible tension. We haven't lived together since we were pre-pubescent and we have both had a tough time.  And somehow this wedding moves me deeply.  To return to the place where our childhood was intact, where we believed in love and where our parents seemed happy, to stand on the lawn where we used to play, before all the pain and separation and confusion and disillusionment--to proclaim your love for one another there--in defiance of everything that had happened--to say, in effect, I believe in love and marriage--I am not defeated--that has to be one of the bravest things I have ever seen.  And for me to be a part of it, to stand at the corner of the chuppah--the sown together love of your family and friends--to shelter you from all the pain and memories of the times we lost is almost enough to make me believe too.  I am honored to be a part of this declaration of independence, redemption and love".  Whew.  Now I just needed to expresses that on a blank six inch cream colored square of silk. 

Because I am not particularly artistic, I wound up more or less where I started--with words--I wanted to say something about love and courage.  I needed some color and figured that, drawing on my summer camp experience, I could probably get through a careful tye-dye without tremendous mishap.  And so, with great trepidation, I went to the art store, bought some dyes and a super-permanent art marker and set about the long delayed task.  I let the dye soak in from the edges, darkest by the edge fading toward the middle--two colors coming together in the center of the fabric to form a light mixture.  And then, with the pen, I made an acrostic.  Diagonally across the square, I wrote LOVE.  Using the center of the word, I wrote OUI using the O and TOV (The Jewish word for good) using the V.  Oui.  In every combination seemed to unpack some meaning.  It means yes (in france where they spent much of their courtship), sounds like We and contains I-O-U and U-O-I--the simple components of a marital relationship.  Maybe not as clear as I wanted to be but at least not ugly.  I sent it.

Michelle, who didn't sew, learned, and sowed the squares into a beautiful chuppah--bright and varied like the friends and family who contributed to it. The wedding was beautiful, and I cried at my corner while they exchanged their vows in the sunshine amidst the trees we climbed as kids.  I wept at their courage, their love, and the beautiful thing they had created.

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