Our daughter is getting married next week. She is the last of the three girls to marry. I was 21 when I married. I didn’t have a clue about what I was getting myself into. Thankfully, God was watching out for me in ways I didn’t even begin to fathom. Tim and I grew one another up. We are still growing one another up.
Shelby is far more aware of what marriage entails, having the benefit of having worked for a family law firm for nearly a decade and having the benefit of watching friends marry, divorce, and remarry. She is taking this step with a good deal of wisdom and insight.
Cristhian won not only Shelby’s heart, but the heart of every member of the family. We love his wit, his intelligence, his grace, and his kind heart. That is one thing that he and Shelby have in spades: When they marry next Saturday it will be the joining together of two very kind hearts. And we get the additional benefit of welcoming another grandson into our lives. For a family where the girls once outnumbered the boys 3-to-1, we are now reversing that order with 4-1 odds. (Our first granddaughter is due in July!).
The wedding is mostly a family affair. Shelby could fill a barn with just her cousins alone. Many of those cousins now have children of their own. When you are a military child, you rarely get the luxury of growing up around your cousins, so we all made sure that our own children spent plenty of time with their cousins when they were growing up. The cousins love getting together and sharing their families with each other.
While every wedding has its inherent stresses, Shelby has been fairly focused about the things she wants. She wanted to marry in a small white church with a steeple. Those of you in Appalachia might think that’s easy enough to find, not so in Eugene, Oregon. That was one of the most challenging tasks. Weddings on the West Coast are venue, not church, oriented. Ashley and Zack married in a museum. Konnie and Jon had an outdoor wedding. Those seem totally fitting now given that Ashley works for a museum and Konnie is Ms. Outdoor Adventure.
But Shelby? She has always wanted a simple church wedding. So when we found a country church with steeple and shiplap interior, she was delighted. The fact that the pastor had served in South America and could converse with Cristhian in the regional dialect of Peru where his family was from was one of those God Poetry moments we never could have imagined.
We experienced such a moment again last Saturday when Shelby went for her final fitting of her wedding dress. Shelby is wearing her Grandma Gwen’s wedding dress. Tim’s mom had pulled it out of the closet during one of our visits late last year and offered to let Shelby try it on. It was a near perfect fit. Unbelievably in great shape after 60 some years, Gwen had made the dress herself. A simple but elegant tea-length lace dress of the 1950s era.
It really needed very few alterations but I knew exactly the woman who could help repurpose the dress so that it included some elements that would retain the integrity of the legacy of the gown, while helping Shelby create a legacy of her own wearing it.
Xuan Nguyen had designed the bridesmaids dresses for Ashley’s wedding. Xuan and I first met at a writer’s retreat called Fishtrap years earlier. She was there along with a documentary filmmaker to share the story REGRET TO INFORM. Xuan had been a young girl when the war in Vietnam began. She lived through the bombing, the deaths of many friends and loved ones. She shared those stories at Fishtrap, alongside poet and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa. Both Xuan and Yusef had encouraged me to write the story that eventually became AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (William Morrow).
It was her ability to transform a dress into a work of art that enabled Xuan to make a living for herself and her young boys when she immigrated to the US following the war. Those skills also led her to return to Vietnam and open up a school to help rescue girls from the sex trafficking business that had ensnared so many post-war. Xuan was not only a child during the war, she was also a young bride during the war, and a young widow of that same war.
War fashioned the bonds that bind us. We both recognize that. As she helped slip Shelby out of the wedding dress she has so artfully and thoughtfully designed, Xuan spoke to those bonds we share: “When I am up late at night sewing and thinking of all these stories from the war, I think also that from all that pain, we have this friendship.”
We stood there, Xuan and I, hugging, as my daughter Shelby stood across the room, tears running down her face. God has fashioned Xuan and I into the dearest of friends. We both recognize that the war that took so much from both of us did not defeat us. We were able to salvage from the fires all that glittered pure and true amidst the ashes.
Salvage work is not easy work. It takes practice to develop a keen discerning eye. One gets dirty in the process. There are often sleepless nights, like this one, when we are required to remember that which we cannot forget. Yet, if one is willing to put in the time, a person can find a way to repurpose the remains of war. And if you work really hard at it, you can create a work of art from it, a thing of great beauty.
Perhaps even a treasured friendship.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag has been Folded (William Morrow). Xuan Nguyen is working on a collection of her own stories from the war.