Best Man For His Old Man

June 12, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire

My father, who is 79, got married this past St. Patrick's Day. His bride, also 79, is a woman he's known most of his life. After Trudy's husband, Bob, passed away about a year ago, my father would run into her at church where they each attended regular Masses for their recently departed spouses. In another life, my parents had double-dated with Trudy and Bob, and the family album is filled with snapshots of the four of them laughing and looking forever young back in the 1940s. With so much in common beyond grief, it was only natural that my father and Trudy should come together at this isolated stage of their lives. And therefore it wasn't too surprising when my father called me one night and said he and Trudy were getting married.

What did surprise me was his next statement: "I want you to be the best man."

All those years as a drain on the family payroll; all those years trying to live up to the weighty expectations of the old man; all those years trying to prove myself and suddenly he's on the phone calling me the best man.

Of course, I knew perfectly well that I was being selected for this honor over my younger brother strictly out of seniority. But I basked in the glory nevertheless, and began taking stock of my new responsibilities.

Odd, isn't it, that when a man gets married, he is known as the groom, which, in every other context of life is a fancy title for somebody who wipes the sweat off a horse. And meanwhile, his chief assistant is known as the best man.

Where else in life do you ever hear the term best man? When two guys square off at each other, does the referee say, "May the usher win?" "May the bridesmaid win?" No. Only at a wedding or a prizefight does the best man emerge from the shadows to show what he's made of.

Not that the duties are all that daunting. You take the groom out the night before the wedding and get him either happy or sad, sometimes both; you take custody of the ring until the crucial moment when the priest looks at you suspiciously and says, "The ring?"; you recite a pithy toast at the reception.

How hard can it be?

At a normal wedding, not that hard. But at a wedding where the groom is your father, the best man's responsibilities become much more daunting.

First off, best man or no, your father is still your father, and you are still the kid. That became clear on the morning of the wedding as my father and I sat alone in the sacristy while guests filtered into the main body of the church.

He handed me a small package.

"Here's the ring," he said. "Don't lose it."

"Ah," I replied. "Good you mentioned that. I was about to throw it right out the window, along with my pants."

He gave me one of those Dad looks, wondering if I was really joking or if he'd made a serious mistake in his choice of best man.

"Nervous?" I asked.

"Just anxious to get it over with."

I nodded sagely.

"Weddings are never for the people getting married," I said. "They're for everyone else."

It sounded wise beyond my years. In fact, he'd told me the exact same thing 26 years earlier just before my own wedding. Now, just as then, it made no impression at all on the jittery groom.

The priest appeared then with a standard legal form that a best man must sign before a wedding. I looked it over and realized it essentially meant I would be giving permission for my father to be married. Hmm, I mused, what an opportunity to hit the old man up for a boost in the allowance.

But I signed it and filed the moment away as one of those surreal events that years from now will seem like something out of a dream. Moments later, on cue, we prepared to leave the sacristy for the start of the ceremony. I turned and shook his hand and said, "Good luck." He was all smiles now as we walked toward the altar and I could see my three grown children in their seats. It occurred to me that when you look at your kids, you often see yourself. I didn't realize until that moment that you do the same when you look at your father.

The wedding itself unfolded without incident, except that when the priest did turn to me and say, "The ring?" I simply nodded and smiled back at him, blissfully forgetting one of my key duties.

Then, as priest and groom began clearing their throats and strategically raising their eyebrows at me, I experienced a panicky moment of understanding. I slapped the pockets of my jacket, wondering if, indeed, I had managed to lose the ring in the space of 15 minutes. I was as nervous as the groom, and finally found the ring right where I'd put it.

En route to the reception, my father once again drove home the mere formality of my title. "You do know you have to give a toast?"

I gritted my teeth.

"A toast? Gosh, Dad, no one told me."

Actually, the toast should be easy. Something like, "Here's to you." But at an Irish wedding it must be somehow profound, witty and above all, convoluted. I had practiced at length, holding a glass to a mirror, trying to recall all those legendary Celtic toasts from weddings of yesterday:

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