Listen to Bride and Cupie Dolls, read by the author (check out the bride and groom triptych at bottom of page), or read text below:
When I got married for the 2nd time, a dozen years after a brief dress rehearsal marriage that ended in divorce, my sister Julie was in charge of the wedding cake. She had piled together several homemade layers, then had our childhood bakery, Cramer’s, unite them all with their signature, diabetese-ly delicious buttercream frosting, with lots of roses and our names piped out in various shades of whatever the replacement was for red dye number 2. And to top it all off, she gave me an adorable, but somewhat disturbing pair of porcelain bride and groom cupie dolls, made by our grandfather’s pottery in the late 1920s. I say disturbing because the body language of the figurines gives the illusion of motion and suggests a rather dramatic story unfolding in their tiny cake top universe.
He is leaning forward, eager in his little black tux, which fits him perfectly because…it is painted on. She, however, is naked except for sparkly, silver slippers on her overly wide feet of clay and strategically placed, diaphanous accessories in various stages of disintegration. These include a flapper style headband and a large bow fixed squarely to her childlike bare bottom. He is clearly the pursuer, probably because he doesn’t have to worry about his pants falling down. She’s looking a little wary, dubious in fact. With face turned away, teeth clenched behind a Mona Lisa slash of lipstick and eyes looking elsewhere under impossibly fine lashes, her expression says, “Oh god, here we go.”
Cupie dolls were created in the early 1900’s to be cherubic, but mischievous babies, so seeing them in this romantic, adult role is both comic and creepy. The fact that they had also sat atop my parents’ wedding cake in 1936, left me to contemplate the differences between that marriage and my own.
Billy Fulper and Aggie Shields had known each other pretty much from birth. Children of two major industries of Flemington, NJ; Foran Iron Foundry and Fulper Pottery, they’d been in the same kindergarten class, courted through high school and college, wed in their mid-twenties, then immediately started a family. Their lives had unfolded against the backdrop of two world wars, the great depression, premature death, catastrophic fire, and suicide. So of course, romance was in the air.
I have in my possession two dented and rusted, metal cash boxes, overflowing with stacks of love letters from my mother to my father. Written in her elegant penmanship, they are full of flowery endearments and the jargon of the day. “Gosh I’m wet”, apparently meant that the sap from her words was dripping with too much sentimentality.
Northampton, Massachusetts, 1934… “My Darling, No letter yet from you and I’ve missed it so! Honestly dear, I’m so blue and discouraged I could just weep! It seems that all day I’ve heard nothing but hard luck stories and the futility of trying to get a job. And I feel that after all my education, I need to get out and support myself. I shouldn’t write to you when I’m low, because it won’t be so good for you – excuse me dearest. I’ll try to do better.”
Whah? Was this the same woman who would later answer my childhood permission requests with “I don’t give a good goddam what the hell you do” or wake me from my deep teenage sleep with the words “Feathers shit on the floor with loosie bowels and you can clean it up!” …loosie bowels??? My mother was not an actress – that was the other side of the family, so who was this hand-to-the-forehead ingenue?
I suppose when you fall in love, you play to a version of yourself that’s half what you think you should be and half what you think will dazzle your lover – the thrill of reinventing yourself in someone else’s admiring gaze. In fact, I maintain that part of what you fall in love with, is actually the reflection of that gaze – the new improved you – sexier, funnier, smarter, more politically earnest. With my first heartbreak, after I’d managed to throw out the bar of black soap I’d stolen from his bathroom because it smelled like him, I remember thinking – “you know, a lot of what I liked about that guy…was me”.
In 1985, fifty years after my parents’ wedding, I married a foreigner, a painter from France, only two years and two love letters after meeting him. He likes to say it was a green card marriage and that we were both on the rebound. Maybe it’s true. He’d had his heart broken by some cowgirl in New Mexico, who dumped him at gunpoint only a few days after he moved his entire life in France to be with her. And me – I suppose I was on the rebound from death. My mother had just died – soon to be followed by my father and then his sister, my aunt. All within 15 months.
I was 33 years old. Not that young, I know. Many have lost much more, much sooner. But I was not a mature 33, prancing around New York City in a unitard on various late-night stages, as half of an all-woman duo called The Sleazebuckets. A brief fixture of Howie Montague’s No Entiendes at Danceteria, we were photographed by Mademoiselle Magazine for an article on the new hip downtown performance scene. As part of our cultural and political lampooning, I was resplendent as Ronald Reagan. In a badly fitting wig, held on with an elastic chin strap, chimpanzee-style silver high tops and a white tailcoat, I good-naturedly tossed empty seltzer bottle bombs, Knute Rockne style, out of my oversized diaper. It was pretty good and if I’d had the balls, I could have had some success as a male impersonator. But back in my hometown, the family elders were dying off.
And then there it was; the I-want-my-mommy siren call for security and convention that my therapist had labeled “a foot in two boats” – one in the leaky artist raft and the other in the smooth canoe of the dutiful daughter. I had to merge the two. I was gonna need a bigger boat. So, I said yes again to marriage, deciding to throw my lot in with someone I sensed would let me be me. Weddings though, at least for my youth-obsessed generation, it seems we merely played at being grown-ups, like kids poking their heads through those cardboard brides and grooms with the faces cut out. Even my parents’ ardent correspondence had revealed stock characters, love letter paper dolls, soon to plump up into two embracing figures on top of a cake.
Every October on our anniversary, we bring out the small photo album and the cake topper. I look at the pictures of us, laughing, swigging Veuve Cliquot on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan after the ceremony. Then I turn and see that wistful trepidation painted onto the face of my tiny, cupie bride and I sigh in solidarity. Because when the inevitable union-threatening discord occurs and you imagine yourself going it alone, the prospect can seem daunting, yet at the same time, rather appealing. Is it a sign that my wedding ring lies broken in a box, never to be repaired (“I’ll get a better one later”) or that he’d lost his during the first year, never to be replaced (“I use my hands for work – I can’t wear stuff on them”)? I look at the cake topper again and reevaluate. Is the bride fearing the loss of her independence? Or is she just a bit skeptical about how on earth another person can hold all that she is and all that she wants to be in his tiny embrace?
Speaking of big things in small spaces, the delivery room, where I’d been in the throes of labor, swims into memory and there is Silvère in his green scrubs, telling me to be calm and count my breathing and I want to rip his fucking face off. Who is this know-it-all, pretend male doula, telling me what to do? The daggers shooting out of my eyes at him are being forged in some inner harpy-shrew-harridan cave of my nether regions. And just as he is about to be annihilated by them, the nurse gently interrupts saying, “Work with your husband, Anne – it will help”. “Oh, go to hell!” I mutter under my breath and then, suitably chastened by both the enormity and the routineness of what is happening, I think, “I have to do what she says!” Looking down at his ringless hand, steady and warm like butter on my wrist, I breathe and I count.
The daughter is in her 30s now. It’s been a long road, often rocky. But when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Agnes says to me, speaking words of wisdom – “Life is a veil of tears – don’t be so goddamn sensitive”, which I take to mean – why not reach across the aisle to the groom’s side and lean on some of the old bromides? “You and me, kid, against the world.” “Two heads are better than one.” “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
So, we pour the champagne into my dead aunt’s monogrammed martini glasses, toast each other, our daughter, her girlfriend, my parents, his parents, and lastly the cupie doll bride and groom and marvel at the longevity of porcelain.