Column: 30

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The Stone Pavillion in Tower Grove Park. Photo by Brennan O’Keefe.

We are walking down a side street off of Grand Boulevard in south St. Louis, my parents and I. City ordinances typically prohibit the amount of sushi we have just consumed, and absolutely forbid following such gluttony with gelato. But we eat it anyway. It’s a Tuesday, which is unusual for us; we normally have dinner together on Wednesdays. But tonight is special.

“I was just talking about it with Kenny,” my father says, referring to his closest friend. “About the people who were there. It was a completely different universe back then, huh?”

My mother shakes her head. “Not that different…”

“Well, do you remember who was there? Tim and Nancy, Becky, Kenny, Al Lambert-”

Mom cuts him off. “Al Lambert was not there. He hadn’t been around for months by then.”

“He absolutely was,” says Dad.

“No, he was not!” says Mom.

They stop to argue in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to the First Church of Divine Science. They give each other annoyed glances, but they’re chuckling all the while.

“How much you want to bet?” asks Dad.

Mom pauses, thinks about just how right she is. “Twenty.”

“Twenty bucks,” he echoes. They pinky-swear on it, and we’re finally free to move on towards the truck.

Despite the bet, neither of them claims to know where they kept the wedding photos in order actually prove or disprove the presence of one Alvin Lambert. I suspect neither of my parents is sure enough of their memories to commit to an archeological expedition for the photos of their wedding; after all, thirty years is a long time to remember.

*                *                *

My parents were married in 1983. It was not a big wedding; they held it in Tower Grove Park, only a few blocks away from the sushi restaurant where we celebrated their anniversary. They rented the only pavillion in the park with an electric outlet so that they could bring dad’s stereo for music, and the catering was provided by Lee’s Fried Chicken. Mom claims the catering van had a plastic chicken leg mounted to the top, which is one detail I’ve always had some trouble believing.

Dad’s uncle Lark, who had a Missionary Baptist church, did the preaching and the marrying. I think this was a choice borne of practicality and frugality, just like dad getting married in his old gray suit instead of a tuxedo, or having the chicken van handle the food. They didn’t have much money. It wasn’t a perfectly sculpted dream wedding, and they knew that; knowing my parents’ character, I suspect that the ramshackle elements of the wedding were a point of pride for them. They’ve always thought of themselves as more Onslow and Daisy than Richard and Hyacinth.

It was a Christian wedding – because what else could they have had, back then? – but my parents had already been involved with the occult for a few years at that point. They had been going to Golden Dawn meetings since the late 70s, and from there had ventured into Wicca, joining Pleiades, the coven my family is still in today. Most of the elders of my coven were there – not really elders back then, of course. They were barely older than I am now; kids, really.

Did it bother them going in? They had only been Pagan for a few years at that point, I guess; I doubt they could have seen more than a couple of handfastings at that point. And I don’t think the idea of having just a handfasting would have ever been an option for them. Paganism might have been a major part of my parents’ lives even then, but it’s never been the entirety of their identities. It’s not as though they were snakes shedding a skin, after all. They were still the people they were before they found the Golden Dawn and Pleiades. Paganism was an additive, not a substitution.

Almost every day I find myself thinking about how my parents and their friends managed to make those first few brave steps into the Pagan world. I think about all the obstacles they had to negotiate, all the trouble and effort, the plain damned improbability of it all.

And perhaps I think about it even more this year. Not just because of my parents’ 30th anniversary, but because of the impending developments in my own life. I proposed to my girlfriend at Beltane this year, at Tower Grove Park, the same place my parents were married. Now we’re facing many of the same questions my parents did: what sort of wedding to have, which relatives to appease, wondering when we’ll actually have time to do it. (My girlfriend – fiancé now, I suppose, though the world is still strange to my tongue – is probably going off to Central Asia to do her dissertation research in the next year. Whether that means we get married sooner or later is anyone’s guess.) She comes from a very Catholic family, and we haven’t had that talk with her parents yet, and that conversation scares me to death.

These are different problems than my parents faced, and yet very much the same. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I know how my parents dealt with these things when they were my age – I doubt any child ever knows. That’s the story of the species.

I talk here mostly about my childhood as a Pagan, as a product of Pagan parents and a Pagan community. But that can’t be taken in isolation: this person I am, these beliefs I hold, these words I write, they all trace back not just to the religion my parents practiced, but to their working-class childhoods, to the troubles they had with their families, to the chance meetings that became decades-long friendships. I am not just their religion; I am their anger, and their hopes, and their failures. I am the thousand tiny coincidences that shaped them and therefore shaped me.

It is a tapestry whose handiwork I can only just begin to see, much less understand. As for me. As for everyone.

*                *                *

We are in the truck, driving away from the anniversary dinner. It’s the hottest day of the year, and work is terrible, and the waiter never did bring us an extra dish for the soy sauce. But we are full, and we are happy, and we are going home.

I don’t think anybody ever fully understands their parents; I surely don’t. It’s too complicated a relationship, too full of memory. But thankfully, understanding is not a prerequisite for gratitude, much less for love.

Thirty years is a long time. Happy anniversary, mom and dad.

Certain names obscured to protect the guilty.