©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.
—Maya Angelou


articles200408They met on neutral territory. At least that’s how the two lovers describe it. In fact, if their respective families had not immigrated to Canada, Leejan and Teresa might never have met at all. It was pretty smooth sailing during their two-year courtship—except for the lack of common ground between the families. Everyone was polite to each other—marginally although not congenially. Polite, that is, until the couple announced their intention to marry. Then the wind suddenly changed and the sailing got rough.

“My son,” intoned Leejan’s father, “we are from Lapland—the northernmost region of Finland. Seven months of winter with lots of snow. It’s cold: the mean temperature varies from a few degrees below zero in the Northwest to a couple of degrees above zero in the Southwest. Laplanders play cold-weather sports and raise reindeer!“

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.

—Malcolm Forbes

Teresa’s family is from Portugal. I’ve done my research, too. Average temperatures can be around 82 degrees F, with summer highest temperatures routinely over 104 degrees F. They play hot-weather sports in Portugal. They eat different foods. They like bull-fights! The only commonality of those two locations is being on the same planet!”

“Teresa!” bellowed Teresa’s father in turn. “Leejan is a good boy, but his family comes from nomads who herded reindeers. We come from a long line of fishermen. They speak Finnish; we speak Portuguese. I’ve also done my homework. The Finnish language has 29 letters; Portuguese, only 24 letters. Plus, they like bullfights! Is that different, or what?”

When he paused for breath, Teresa asked, “And your point, Dad?”

“My point,” he replied, “is tradition. TRADITION!” The tilt of his chin indicated that this fact alone should settle things.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

For her part, Leejan’s mother was concerned that her grandchildren wouldn’t learn to speak Finnish. Teresa’s mother, on the other hand, worried that her grandchildren wouldn’t be able to converse in Portuguese.

“I’ll teach them Finnish,” said Leejan.

“And I’ll teach them Portuguese,” said Teresa. “Your grandchildren will be tri-lingual. Just think of the advantages they’ll have being able to converse in three languages!”

“We always thought Teresa would find a nice boy from Portugal,” moaned Teresa’s aunts.

“We always thought Leejan would marry a nice Lapland girl,” groaned Leejan’s uncles.

And so it went. As the family members concentrated on their differences, each side feared the worst, not the least being that their unique heritages would disappear.

Leejan and Teresa thought long and hard about their families’ perspectives. Eventually the young couple decided—notwithstanding the lack of common ground between the families—to spend the rest of their lives together.

“Viewed from one perspective,” Leejan said, “we marry each other’s family. Viewed from another, we will create our own home. Hopefully our families are sensible enough to at least be polite to each other.”

“And we can spend time with each family separately,” added Teresa. “Apart from the wedding, they don’t have to be in each other’s pockets.” And so the date was set. The prospective bride and groom were excited; their respective families, not so much.

The July wedding day dawned warm and wonderful. The ceremony, set for 7 o’clock in the evening, was attended by triple digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures. However, inside the tiny non-denominational chapel, the frosty atmosphere had nothing to do with air conditioning: there was none. But a definite chill lingered in the air as family members were exceedingly careful to sit on the correct side of the center aisle.

Some of Teresa’s relatives showed up in traditional Portuguese costumes. Regardless of its appropriateness for the season, a number of Leejan’s family wore clothing obviously aligned with life in the Arctic Circle. A few polite nods were exchanged across the aisle, and that was about it. The only sounds came from the wheezing organ, sniffling from the aunties, and clearing of throats from the uncles.

Wonder of wonders, the bridal party arrived on time. Murmurings could be heard throughout the chapel as the bridal party proceeded toward the front. Leejan and Teresa were relaxed and smiling, obviously enjoying themselves.

Their families were not.

Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.

—Mary Parker Follett

There were the usual wedding-ceremony glitches. It was so warm that the rose petals stuck to the little flower girl’s fingers until the ring bearer, her 4-year-old twin, upended the basket to, as he put it, “get the petals moving.” Some of the 18-inch narrow tapers were drooping to the point that the coordinator decided to forgo lighting them. Admittedly, the service—with its music and readings and admonitions—dragged. As the cleric droned on, the twins sat down on the floor beside the wedding couple and fell fast asleep. The warm air became so heavy that a groomsman tried to open a window. No success.

Then, what no one would argue...the not-so-usual....  

At the traditional moment in the ceremony, the bride turned to hand her bouquet to the matron-of-honor, also the mother of the twins and four months pregnant. Instead of taking the bouquet, however, the matron-of-honor moaned softly and lurched sideways, her eyes rolling back in her head. The first bridesmaid, not anticipating the 147 pounds, sagged precariously against the second bridesmaid. A bit wobbly anyway—what with nerves and 5-inch platform spikes—the line on the bride’s side collapsed. In slow motion, one on top of the other, the matron-of-honor and two bridesmaids went down like dominoes, creating a jumble of pastel dresses, missing shoes, and scattered bouquets.

A collective gasp arose from the audience. The bride squeaked and dropped her bouquet. Leejan looked around to see what had startled his voluptuous and beribboned bride. Grasping the situation, he dropped Teresa’s hand and leaped behind her in an attempt to reach the fallen women. Unfortunately, he tripped on Teresa’s trailing veil. Groom, veil, and headpiece tumbled to the ground.

The bride squeaked again, louder this time, followed by more gasps from the audience. In an effort to help, the line on the groom’s side, out of duty, and leaped into the fray. In the process, the best man crashed into a pedestal table, knocking it and the fat unity candle to the floor. The crash and thud awakened the twins who promptly began to wail.

Although we are in different boats, you in your boat and we in our canoe, we share the same river of life.

—Oren Lyons

The first groomsman tripped over the cleric who had bent down to comfort the wailing twins, taking out a huge vase of gladiolas from atop a spindly four-foot pillar. Soon flowers and ferns and water were cascading down the marble steps of the altar. The second groomsman’s downfall was attributed to the slippery steps.

Comments floated in the air:

          What a mess! Told you it was a bad idea! Told you!
          Bad omen. Ruined it for both families!
          Have you ever in your entire life seen...?

Suddenly from the midst of the chaos and shambles came the sound of giggling. Like a babbling brook on its way to the sea, the sound gained strength and volume. The little flower girl had traded tears for laughter.

“Funny, funny, funny,” she gasped between giggles, pointing here and there. “Too funny, funny, funny!” Her twin joined in and soon both children were squealing with laughter.

“Stop it, you two,” hissed a family member. “It’s not funny. Stop laughing right now!”

“I can’t!” cried the little flower girl between peals of hilarity. “This is the bestest wedding ever! Look! Leejan has a flower in his ear!” So he had, along with a sprig of trailing baby’s breath.

Their laughter was contagious. Gradually, discrete coughs converted into outright guffaws, morphing into uproarious hee-haws. Teresa, her headpiece restored at a precarious angle, looked at Leejan helplessly.  Then they both began to chuckle—timorously at first and then more robustly, until before long they were hanging onto each other, tears of laughter cascading down their cheeks.

Within minutes, people on both sides of the aisle had given up trying to be proper and were literally doubled over with mirth. For her part, great granny laughed so hard her wheelchair rocked precariously.

Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.

—Mahatma Ghandi

When everyone in the bridal party had been righted--notwithstanding missing shoes, sodden and crumpled clothing, and crumpled posies—the cleric took one of the most salient actions of his entire career. Retrieving the rings from the tiny white-satin cushion, he made sure that Leejan and Teresa got the right rings on the correct fingers. Then he raised his voice above the noise. “I pronounce you two married!” 

The cleric, water-sodden notes clutched in one hand, directed everyone to “Move to the reception tent for food.” His job completed, he gave up the struggle to remain composed and burst into unrestrained laughter during which he could be heard saying, “In thirty years...I say, in my entire career.... Oh my!”

The organ wheezed into life for the recessional and tried its best to compete with the uproar. Lost cause, that effort.

But something wonderful happened to the atmosphere between the chapel and the reception tent. Where there had been cool nods and formal handshakes, now smiles and conversation flowed. Guests from both sides of the aisle were chuckling and slapping each other on the back. It was hard to tell who belonged to which family system, except for those garbed in traditional dress.

Bits of conversation drifted around the reception tent:

          Did you see the matron of honor go down?
          I could hardly believe my own eyes!
          The bridesmaids! And then the groomsmen!
          How fortunate no one was hurt!
          If ever there was a wedding to be remembered, this is it!
          Lucky that heavy candle didn’t bonk one of the twins on the head!
          Smart cleric to cut the service short!

And so on.

The camaraderie continued through dinner, through toasts to Teresa and Leejan, through repair of make-up and costumes, through more pictures, through the first dance, and you-name-it. Everyone was telling and retelling the story, each from his or her own perspective, and finding yet another reason to laugh. Long before the festivities were ended, the twins had crawled under the bridal table and fallen asleep...again.

Our cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience.

—Yo-Yo Ma

Over the years as recollections of the wedding continued to be told and retold, the story itself became a source of commonality. People from both sides of the aisle were quick to credit the twins with breaking the ice by daring to giggle at the catastrophe.

Laughter, they pointed out, brought everyone together in a way that might never have happened otherwise. Whenever an untoward event occurred, someone was sure to comment, “Oh, that...that’s nothing. Remember Teresa’s and Leejan’s wedding? Now that was something!” And, predictably, laughter would break forth.

One of the elders ran across the phrase unity in diversity and it caught on. Leejan’s father was heard to say, “I used to think our families were as different as night and day. Maybe not so much. We got unity in diversity. How about that?”

Of course, not every member was on board, but the majority embraced the new concept. Even to the point that the few remaining holdouts were pitied generally as individuals who could be happy if they would only chose to do so.

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.

—Desmond Tutu

A decade later the bride and groom are going strong, and people from both sides of the aisle have actually become good friends. At family gatherings, especially when the story of the wedding is retold--the tri-lingual children never tired of hearing it—Leejan and Teresa often look at each other and smile, or wink, or nod in unspoken agreement.

And sometimes they even mouth the words: Unity in diversity. It can happen.  

TRADITION—at its finest!