Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2006, Volume 26, No. 1
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

A Wedding Album
by Louise Norlie
Freelance Writer

Martha's family was the type which, to her mind, only gathered for weddings and funerals. Because they were an aging group, there were far more of one than the other. For Martha, the sorrows generally associated with one of these events incongruously came to be associated with the other.

News from her family first came in writing. A cream-colored invitation was sent in the mail before the phone ever rang, heralding one of the rare where the color scheme was based in the paler shades. Her cousin Tiffany, daughter of Martha's mother's brother, Matthew, was getting married. Martha had not seen any of her family for years. When she was young, and constantly in the hospital, the family would send her get-well cards, and occasionally a box holding a helium balloon, which would arise like something living from the cardboard container, much to her delight.

When she was a little child, Martha was constantly incapacitated. She was disabled, but just the same, a cute little child, the only child of her parents, and was beloved by her family from afar. Now she had become that awkward thing, a handicapped adult who had not outgrown her problems as one outgrows a childhood disease, but had continued to grow into them, and age under their constant influence. At the prospect of seeing her family, we must admit, shamefully, that Martha was nervous. She was not as confident as she ought to have been; she was self-conscious, tense, highly strung, seeing herself opaque among a world of clearness, small in a world of largeness, unrecognizable where everything was known.

"I really want David to meet Martha," said cousin Tiffany on the phone to Martha's mother. It was ominous to Martha how eager her family was to see her. She knew she would certainly be a novel sight to them. She would certainly be someone to present to the new family member. She was the touching, unique member-- the special one. She had never really grown up, had she? She had to be seen to be believed. The photographs exchanged during the years of separation did not suffice to satisfy their curiosity. Her family was certainly one for photographs. When the photos were taken, duplicated, and laid out in the most attractive arrangements, it seemed that life itself had been catalogued; precious memories would not escape; images would live on.

The distance between Martha and her own flesh and blood was a physical one; they lived in remote parts of the country. Martha and her parents lived in a suburban dwelling on one side of the nation, while the rest of the family, en masse, lived in a city on quite the opposite side. The family was extremely proud of their city, but oddly enough never took photographs outside, but always in a studio with a prearranged background, sometimes even of the city skyline, as was the case of the picture enclosed in the invitation envelope. In front of fake skyline background, Martha glimpsed her cousin Tiffany proudly hugging her fiancé, whose head was tilted and whose mouth was open in a smile almost too wide.

The financial outlay to attend the event was sizable, but since it was one of the rare events when the entire family was to assemble, Martha's mother was strongly in favor of attendance. Thus, Martha and her parents flew to the event, Martha safely wrapped and restrained, a little more so than the other airplane passengers.

Martha's Uncle Matt and Aunt Lily had driven to the airport to pick up the travelers. They tried to avert their eyes discreetly and appear maturely capable of handling the situation as Martha's parents helped her with her disability apparatus and other supplies. Wedged tightly in the car, the reunited family traveled to the residence, where cousin Tiffany ran down the stairs of the house, with an album in hand. From the car window, Tiffany gave Martha a peck on the cheek, and handed Martha a photo album showing photos from the bridal shower. Aunt Lily also carried out the wedding gown, covered in a clear plastic bag, and displayed it next to the car.

It was not for lack of hospitality that Martha and her family were not invited into the house, but were transported to a nearby hotel. They were staying at a hotel because Uncle Matt's house was a split level, in a hilly part of town, with over fifteen stairs at the entrance. It was completely inaccessible to Martha.

Martha gazed up at the towering home and recollected how when she was younger and smaller, she had been easily carried up the steep stairs of this house. Her entrance then was as dramatic as her present seclusion in the driveway below made her feel rather covert. When many years ago she was hoisted inside the house by two relatives, Martha had noticed her aunt whispering something into Tiffany's ear. Martha's aunt was instructing Tiffany to play nicely with Martha, be indulgent in proving a measure of constant entertainment. Martha had a fun experience playing board games, and wished to keep in touch with her cousin always. Upon leaving, Martha was broken hearted, and her aunt promised that Tiffany would be her new pen pal, but Tiffany only wrote a few lines on a post card from a summer camp. Still, she watched Tiffany grow up through the wallet sized school photographs that her aunt and uncle sent in the mail. Now Tiffany was indeed all grown up, and was far beyond playing childish games with Martha.

The wedding rehearsal was scheduled for the next afternoon. In the morning, Tiffany and David came to visit Martha and her family in the cramped hotel room. David lightly embraced his new relative with a delicate little clasp whereby her face was smashed into his shoulder. The group headed out to get to know each other at a nearby restaurant; unfortunately, only a fast food franchise was handicapped accessible.

When Tiffany was occupied talking to Martha's parents, David turned to address himself courteously to his new cousin-in-law.

"Tiffany told me all about you, Martha."

"Did she really? What did she say?"

"Oh, nothing much," he replied, uncomfortable at having been put on the spot.

At the wedding rehearsal, everyone had the joy of going through the formal ceremony in informal attire. Everyone seemed afraid of something indefinable, the horror of something "going wrong." All of the family seemed involved in carrying out the proceedings except Martha; if not an usher or bridesmaid, her male and female cousins were at least reading a Biblical passage, perhaps on the creation of man and woman. Martha could only do her best to stay out of the way, and be content to watch.

The church pews were narrow and if it were not for the special, wide handicapped seating area, Martha would have been forced to impede the procession in the main aisle by taking up half the space, or entirely block one of the side aisles. Inconveniently, the seating area was on the groom's traditional side of the church, so Martha and her parents had to be surrounded by the groom's family, complete strangers. They seemed to be puzzled as to why they did not know Martha. After all, her appearance made her hard to miss.

The cameraman, paid to capture every photogenic moment of the occasion, asked apologetically to be allowed permission to set up his tripod in the handicapped seating pew if necessary. This would enable him to capture a variety of shots, from the "head on" view presented by the center aisle to the profile view observable from the handicapped seating. It was fortunate for Martha to be seated in the front of the church so no one could impede her view. Furthermore, who could complain about having a view desirable by a professional cameraman?

When the actual wedding was about to commence on the following day, the assembly waited impatiently.

"When are they coming? They should be here by now!" People practiced focusing their cameras towards the back of the church in preparation for the perfect moment when the bride and attendants would be framed in the sunlight of the church entrance.

Martha reached for her camera and fiddled with it. She was not sure whether it would be appropriate to take a photograph from where she sat as the bride solemnly reached the end of her walk. The photograph might not come out well; the angle from which it was directed was low and awkward.

She accidentally clicked a button, the flash lit the wooden pew, and the camera began to whirr. It was out of film, but she did not panic or wish she had brought a replacement roll. She wanted her memories to survive for themselves, only in her mind.

Everyone stood and turned as the music began, blocking her view of the momentous entrance. But Martha had an excellent view of the ceremony once the bride reached the front of the church. After the ceremony, the cameraman wanted to take some additional shots of the couple on the altar. He directed their poses in petulant tones and a foreign accent.

"Look into de other's eyes. Turn de heads," he motioned. The couple did not move but kept staring straight ahead with their bright smiles. Again, he repeated his request to no avail, until Aunt Lily stridently shouted it out. The couple looked embarrassed and turned their faces towards each other, laughing when their eyes met.

Next were photos of the bride with her bridesmaids. The dresses were coordinated in color and design with great care. Rounded athletic shoulders bulged out of the smooth shiny fabric, and the girls lurched widely as they walked purposefully in their high heels, clicking with insistent, powerful taps. David drifted off to the side, looking down his chest, fumbling with something on his shirt, his hand wincing in little jerks.

"Do you need any help?" Martha asked. Breaking his distracted trance, he looked up. "Yeah. This flower got loose and I can't seem to get it back on."

"Let me try," she said boldly. He kneeled in front of her and she meticulously pinned the corsage, silently pricking her fingers in the process. The camera kept flashing as the bride was framed by rows of smiling bridesmaids, who had spread her gown in a fan shape before her.

"Thanks," he distractedly muttered, peering at his friends at the back of the church.

Martha and her parents left the church once the main crowd had dispersed to their cars. The beeping limousines had probably already reached the reception hall. When the three arrived, to Martha's dismay, the event was scheduled to be held on the second floor, and there appeared to be no elevator. Martha's father went up the wide, sweeping staircase to inquire, and shortly returned in the wake of her aunt. From a distant doorway above them came flashing light and shadow, with corresponding booms of sound.

"Oh, dear! We're so sorry! We assumed there was an elevator when we chose this place, but, when you normally don't think of these things for yourself, you don't really think of them as well as you should, you know what I mean? But I know what we can do," Aunt Lily declared firmly, rushing back up the glamorous staircase. Martha patiently and anxiously waited until her aunt reappeared leading four young men in tuxedos, ushers from the ceremony, who were looking down at their feet as they walked. Her aunt was instructing them and motioning her hands demonstratively.

"What we're going to do is have these strapping young men carry you up," she told Martha, while the strapping young men sized up the respective approaches they would need to transport Martha.

Their progress up the staircase most likely looked smooth and seamless from a distance, but to Martha, it was rocky and almost terrifying, as she was shifted in her seat from side to side, in unpredictably random motions. She likened it in her mind to what it must be like to ride a horse or camel.

When they reached the top, her aunt clapped and hooted, while Martha's parents followed silently. Martha thanked the young men, who led the way into the party, and thanked her aunt, who led her to her assigned table.

There were two attendees already at the table, Martha's great aunt Martha and great uncle Bill. Martha and Bill watched Martha closely as she arrived at the table, and everyone initially exchanged the usual salutations.

A live band had been hired for the occasion, and they provided their own distorted interpretations of all the usual favorites. No one explicitly seemed to be enjoying the music, but the volume alone encouraged a certain intimacy among the attendees, as one had to be inches away from a companion's ear to be audible. Martha found herself speaking unnaturally loud.

"Do you work my dear?" Aunt Martha asked gingerly.

"Yes, I hold a job."

"Can you type?" she asked, demonstrating the act of typing in the air with her fingers.

"Yes, I have no problem with that," Martha replied, picking up her fork and subtly demonstrating her aptness with her fingers. No one really seemed to understand her disability.

"Where do you work?"

"I work for the county government."

"Ah! A government job. That's a good environment for the handicapped."

"Yes, it is different. Not as competitive," she replied. She could never compete in the real world.

"What do you do there?"

"I am a bookkeeper for the county jail," she said especially loudly, with, we must admit, a perverse desire to shock.

"That must be interesting,"

"Well, it is different," she shrugged. Aunt Martha turned her attention to the dancers. The bridesmaids and ushers were paired off. Aunt Lily and Uncle Matt were eager to show their ability to dance had not decreased with their age and were showing off some daring quick steps. Martha's parents swayed sedately. Jolly old Uncle Bill watched them with a distance gaze.

"It's nice to watch young people in love. It's nice to watch them enjoying themselves," Aunt Martha remarked to Martha. Uncle Bill in the meantime turned his attention to his great niece.

"Do you have any beaux, my dear?"


"That's a shame, you are young and have such a pretty face."

"Beaux are not just looking for a pretty face," she replied with a smile, not adding that she was a little older than the bride and all the bridesmaids.

"In my day, things were not like that," he said with a shake of his head.

"I am not too sure about that," she replied, humorously. She wanted to change the subject, and this was easy to do because the bride and groom were smashing the white wedding cake into each other's faces, much to the amusement of all and the stimulation of a wave of mirth and sparkling camera flashes. Tiffany showed mock fury when a gooey chunk rolled down her dress.

"Scarlett O'Hara needn't have worried about eating daintily at this barbeque!" Martha remarked to Uncle Bill.

The celebration continued long into the night, as wedding parties always do. Amid the thumping music, Martha's thoughts seemed to war with her senses, and her ears and mind seemed dulled and nulled. There were toasts, tributes, and many mirthful moments. Eventually the mood became so informal that the bridesmaids took off their high heels and danced barefoot. The moon rose into the exact center of the panoramic window. Martha had watched it imperceptibly and cautiously slide from pane to pane. Uncle Bill's glasses of whisky made him susceptible to fits of napping, but the loud music blocked the sound of his snores.

Tacitly, the attendees started realizing that the end was drawing near. The bride and groom drifted from table to table to visit and thank all their guests. At last they reached Martha's. Cameras went from hand to hand, posing the assembled group in all possible arrangements. Only Martha was never handed a camera because everyone wanted to have her in the picture.

In one shot declared to be perfect, the bride and groom flanked Martha's sides, and Tiffany stretched her arm around her.

Martha was deposited downstairs by the same crew of strapping young men, now of doubtful sobriety. She and her family safely reached the hotel, lit only by the yellowish hallway safety lights. It must have been the drinks she had imbibed which made her restless, because she felt provoked to start packing her bags.

The next day the entire family disbanded, to meet again whenever the chance happenings of love or death would sound a summons.

A month later, a thank you card came from Tiffany for the wedding gift, in the same cream-colored stationary used for the invitation. It must have been a matching set. Enclosed were snapshots of those last poses at the table. There was a preprinted message of thanks, and the following handwritten personalized note: It made our wedding day so very special to have Martha there.

Martha regarded the note with a sigh.

"Do you want to keep this in your scrapbook as a souvenir of your trip?" Martha's mother asked.

"No thanks. It was enough to have experienced it," Martha wryly replied.

Copyright (c) 2006 Louise Norlie

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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