Last night my husband and I attended Western Canada Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof”. It was a perfectly fine production, but the show was well over three hours and Ben was really losing his patience by the middle of act two: “What’s the deal with these names? How is anyone supposed to keep track? What they even on about? It shouldn’t be this long…the songs seem like a lot of filler. When is this going to end?” The characters would talk for a moment and then burst into song causing Ben’s sanity to creep just a little closer to the edge. “Why can’t everybody just say what they mean? Why does it always have to be a song?” “Well…it’s a musical honey, that’s what they do…they sing”. “Well, it’s too much singing” he asserts, crossing his arms grumpily. (To be fair, in our early-rising household, it’s not uncommon to be in bed with a book by 8:30, so to be out of the house at 11:00 is a bit of an anomaly. So, yeah…Ben was not captivated by the show…but then again, I wasn’t either. I mean, I was thinking about the story, but it was more about what I remembered from the film version. I haven’t seen the film in about eighteen years or so, but it was a yearly viewing staple from my childhood. As the play went on, memories and recollections kept rising like the heat and smoke from a thousand candles.
For those not familiar, it is 1905 in Tsarist Russia, and the story focuses on Tevye, a poor milkman who lives in the small village Anatevka. Tevye has five daughters, a no-nonsense wife and humorous (albeit one sided) chats with God, as he struggles to secure his grip on traditional beliefs and rituals in an ever changing, imbalanced era. The fiddler is a metaphor, as Tevye decrees: “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” As it is with most musicals, there is a historical and political message in the undercurrent of the storyline—anti-Semitism. But as a child, what interested me most was the three older daughters. Tradition states that marriages must be arranged by the father; I thought that sounded like a fate worse than death. (But in all fairness, I did once tell my mother that I was saving my babysitting money for my hysterectomy fund—so I already had strong views on marriage and motherhood). But these stories raised huge questions: Imagine not choosing your husband? Imagine not meeting him until your wedding day? What if he was old? What if he was ugly? What if you had nothing in common? What if he—(gulp) wanted to ‘do it’ with you? I hated dirty old Lazar Wolf, trying to buy Tzeitel’s hand in marriage, when Tzeitel clearly loves Motel, the poor tailor (okay Ben, these names are hard to keep track of—though yes, Lazar Wolf is the coolest name ever, and should be considered if ever we start a family band). In the end though, Tevye–the old softy— relents twice, allowing two of his daughters to choose their husbands: “Love…it’s the new style”. The third time though, his daughter Chava elopes with Fyedka, an (gasp!) Orthodox Christian, and Tevye disowns her. ‘Oh snap, Tevye! You won’t give permission or a blessing? How can you be so cold? Don’t you know it’s a new world out there?’ But he’s got bigger fish to fry, as the government are forcing the Jews out of the village. Of course, I didn’t understand that part as a child; to me this play was about love and marriage, and imploring your parents through the power of song to get them to accept your choices.
Ben and I eloped in a New Zealand courthouse, and less than a dozen people knew it was happening. In fact, we weren’t even engaged—we met and fell in love in one night, I moved in two months after and we married six months later. We knew we wanted to marry, and so we decided not to wait: “Let’s really get married then…how about next week?” I pulled a dress from my closet, and purchased a pair of black heels (Ben’s request, so I appeared taller). When we went to purchase rings, the jeweler expressed judgment about our swift timing. “One week? Well that gives me no time at all”, she fumed…though I’m not entirely sure what she needed the time for…we just needed the biggest gold band and the smallest gold band, and we could be on our way.
Sarah, my employer and friend, was to act as my witness. A few days before the courthouse date, she threw a small tea party to celebrate. It was mostly girls from the café she owned, and it was held at her parents’ home, which was a rather stately manor. It was a common spot for weddings, and there was this wonderful wall of old wedding photos of brides and grooms in their Sunday best. The tea was lovely, but I couldn’t shake the surreal feeling that I was getting married, and absolutely nobody that knew me, knew this. There was only one person to tell, and from that person I did not require permission, but I did wish for a blessing. I called my mother, my heart pounding—we first spoke at great length about the weather until my nerve was sufficiently gathered: “Mama? Ben and I are getting married”. There is silence on the other end. “When?” Now it is my turn to pause “…Friday”. And then another silence: “I knew that you would”. “Seriously?” “Yes, just the other day something in me just stopped, and I thought to myself—‘they are going to get married, and they are going to do it on their own”. We both cried, and my father spoke to Ben on the phone, and in this exchange we shattered every traditional aspect of how a boy and girl should meet and marry.
When I was younger and planning a big wedding, I had a fiancé and a diamond ring and spoke endlessly about aesthetics, themes and colour schemes. I was going to be this kind of bride, and that kind of bride, without ever thinking about being a wife; which is like being pregnant and not thinking about this huge responsibly on the other side of nine short months. This whole affair was being built on quicksand and though I knew everything was slowly sinking, I still paraded around with self-congratulatory smugness, as if having a wedding is the most important thing a person has ever done. In the wake of its cancellation, I was shattered–feeling such a fool. I left the country to escape the humiliation–not knowing that all was an elaborate trick of fate to bring me to my true partner who was waiting for me on the other side of the world.
The day our our courthouse wedding, we arrived early, our license in hand, to ensure that we still had a spot on the day’s schedule. The receptionist hollers over her shoulder, with a childish sneer as if it were liver and onions for dinner again: “Awww, we got a wedding here today?” There’s a discernible pause, and then “Okay…I’ll do it”, the registrar rises from his desk, as if he volunteered to take the bullet from a loaded gun. (Not everyone all at once guys). But that didn’t much matter, because not fifteen minutes later, we were married. And the sense of security was wonderful. Our relationship had grown in a garden of knowing that government forces had the means to pluck our flowers, and replant one of us far from the other. We knew that staying together in the same country would always be a trial. We wanted to legally belong to each other and that mattered more than invitations, catering, gowns, and location. I didn’t want be a bride, I wanted to be a wife, and all I needed was a ring and a pen to sign my name declaring exactly that. (And, of course, high heels to make me taller). Ben occasionally asks whether I really wanted a diamond ring and a proper wedding. I tell him, “Frankly, I’d rather go to Paris”. And it’s true. While I think weddings are beautiful, I’m glad that ours was private, that it belonged solely to us. My sentiment about marriage and weddings had become my own fiddler on the roof: a precarious, delicate and beautiful creature playing on unsteady grounds. The player had once come crashing down, and though all was returned to its rightful height, I was now aware about the complexities and uncertainties of marriage. But there was no doubt or fear in my heart, for I wanted to become Ben’s wife as if I were this injured musician playing a quiet, humble song that needed no words to say its piece.