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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 5, 2006
Three months, three rituals
Ritual enriches us as a society.
Two months ago, in November, I was privileged to be invited to Paige Spawns wedding. She had worked as a reporter for The Enterprise and I appreciated the grace and care with which she wrote. Her grace and care as a bride were stunning.
Paige and her groom, Joseph Pierle, had included family and friends from different places and parts of their lives. Together we gathered in a Civil War-era church in Albany to witness their union.
As the couple said their vows, I held my husband’s hand and said the words over again, very softly, to him "For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, until death us do part..."
I had memorized those words and spoken them more than a quarter of a century ago. I felt uplifted now to be part of a ceremony that celebrated them. A pledge of the most personal kind grew and soared in a hall of well-wishers.
After the ceremony, as the bride and groom and their families and attendants posed for pictures inside the magnificent church, my husband and I waited in the cold bright day outside. We talked to the driver of the limousine; he had stretched a 1950s finned sedan into a limo to make a grand statement for such occasions.
Finally, Paige and Joe Pierle emerged as a married couple from the church they had entered as two separate individuals. The crowd had left for the lavish reception. It seemed every moment, though, was captured by the photographer who followed the couple. After Paige got in the limousine and its owner was behind the wheel, the photographer was out of sight.
It was then Joe noticed a piece of Paiges train was hanging outside the car. He carefully, almost reverently, tucked the bit of gown inside, then got in the car himself. That small, undocumented gesture made me like him.
Paige said many times that she and her sister, all through their girlhood, would play at being brides, and this day was the culmination of her dreams.
Last month, in December, I attended another ceremony this time for my daughter, Saranac. As she graduated from Cornell University, I realized that my daughters, in their girlhood, had played at being graduates more often than being brides.
Our treasured family pictures involve caps and gowns more often than veils and tuxedos.
We have a turn-of-the-last-century photograph of my Aunt Lu on her graduation from teachers school. She went on to earn a graduate degree from Columbia University and to become the first woman to be a school principal in her town. She posed in a white dress, holding a rose with an open book at her feet.
We have a sixties picture of my sisters and I adjusting my fathers mantle as he prepares to receive his Ph.D. Another favorite is myself in cap and gown at Wellesley College in the seventies, hoop in hand, for the seniors traditional rolling contest.
These pictures flashed across my mind last month as I watched my Saranac in cap and gown proceeding past me on her march to graduation. I clicked the camera to preserve the moment but discovered later my tears had blurred my focus.
She walks now on her own, this child who was once literally a part of me. She sat with her classmates as I sat with my husband and elder daughter and friend, mingled with other families who had come from across the country and around the globe to celebrate their children.
A map of the world was, fittingly, etched on a wall of windows at the far end of the cavernous hall.
Together, we listened to words spoken by the university's president, Hunter Rawlings III. "Ask difficult questions," he urged. "Distrust simple answers."
And then he recited a poem about "the other Ithaca," as he called it, the ancient Ithaca, home of Odysseus, Homer’s hero. Ithaca was the place that Odysseus, after fighting the Trojan War, longed for and journeyed to, facing many difficulties on his way.
"Hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery," Rawlings intoned and I along with him, quoting the words of the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy.
"May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time...
"But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich."
I hoped for my Saranac just such a life. As we toasted her the night before, I had recalled the way she brought us together as a family, even as a little girl. She would host dolls parties, including graduations, where we each had a part to play. As our dolls wore her handmade mortarboards, they had to deliver appropriate speeches.
I recalled, too, how Saranac wanted to learn things in a true way. Once, when I was busy at my typewriter, being a reporter, she had begged me to teach her to embroider so she could sew a handkerchief for the stuffed bear she had made. I was too busy and told her a shortcut.
"You can pen in stitches, like this, with Betsy Bear’s name," I said. "She’ll never know the difference and you’ll be done in no time."
Saranac didn’t bother to argue. Two hours later, my news story finished, I found her outside under the honeysuckle bush with her bear, sewing, with painstaking care, in real stitches, "Betsy Bear."
That reminds me of the way in college, as a newly declared philosophy major, Saranac labored through learning Latin, eschewing advice that she could simply read translations.
Yes, I feel sure her road will be a long one, full of adventure and discovery, because, like the groom privately looking after the tip of his brides gown, she cares for substance more than appearance.
This month, in January, I have been witness to another sort of ritual, several times over. Our towns are installing new leaders for a new year.
Those who were elected in November raised their right hands on New Years Day, and, before the citizens who had gathered at Town Hall, they promised to support the federal and state constitutions and to faithfully discharge their duties.
The god of the gates in Roman mythology for which the month is named, Janus, had two faces one looking back, the other forward. During these ceremonies, gratitude is often expressed for those who have served the town; in a process of reckoning, accomplishments are noted. And, at the same time, goals are often laid out for the year ahead as appointments are made with the future in mind.
I watched candidates who ran against each other sit civilly at the same table, the loser applauding the victor. Certainly, differences continue to exist; thats part of a democracy. But the varying viewpoints are contained by the ritual. The words spoken in public have resonance. A personal promise has been made that must be kept. The government, which is larger than the individuals who create it, carries on.
As Judge Anthony Cardona put on his black robe in Westerlo Town Hall on New Year’s Day, before presiding over one of probably hundreds of such ceremonies over the years, he said, in a vibrant voice, "It’s great, it’s fun."
These rituals speak to something larger than the individuals involved. They inform and enlighten us as a society.
Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor
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