My Life

Warrior Pride

Last week I wrote this whole thing about wedding stories n’ such titled, “When the Fairy Tale Runs Dry“. Well, I’ve got another tale for you…

In September, I went to my college-roommate’s wedding. You know how these particularly special weddings go; they’re always a reunion of sorts where a lot of beer is consumed and hugs are hugged and drunken tears are shed over college memories relived and then suddenly it’s over. This wedding was no different, but it was sooo much more.

Denise and Jay wedding
Photo by Lisa Stearns

I think Denise and I met the very first day we moved into the “Y” at Marquette University in Milwaukee, when we were eighteen years old. The “Y”, short for YMCA, had just been acquired by MU. It was a mid-sized building with a gym on the ground level and had several floors of apartments that I guess had been used for slightly transient people (?). I don’t know. I just know that it was the only dorm on campus with single rooms and I desperately wanted my own room. I know you guys know me to be super outgoing and friendly and stuff, but I’m actually afraid of people, especially strangers; especially certain stranger types from Wisconsin. (I’m from Wisconsin, so I know of which I speak. #RedState).

Marquette University Warrior Pride Tshirt
Trivia: We were the last MU class to be called Warriors before we became the Golden Eagles.

My stepmom is from Mississippi and was a part of this incredible program where Viterbo University sponsored or “sent for” or somehow got students from the South to come up North to be teachers. My stepmom was a pioneer to this program. It was the late 1960s or so. My stepmom told me about how when she arrived at the dorm to move in, her white roommate saw her and the girl moved out. Like immediately. I didn’t want that to happen to me ’cause I don’t like surprises; so I really wanted my own room.

Luckily, even though Denise and I didn’t actually become roommates until we moved off campus Junior year, she was nothing like that girl from Viterbo. Instead, Denise is this lovely, no-nonsense, blond, Irish Catholic from Massachusetts with rosy cheeks and an inviting smile. She has the biggest, most generous heart and funniest giggle-laugh. She’s anti-floss n’ fluff and shuns people and things who are. She also has this slightly wicked accent she always tried to cover up because its Boston-ness stuck out against our Wisconsin nasal. Wicked accent or not, she’s pretty awesome.

“D” and I just might be twin soul mates because it turns out our parents were both based at the Great Falls, Montana Air Force Base, possibly at the same freakin’ time! I was actually born in Great Falls, so, we were destined to be friends just like I’m destined to be Great.

Denise and I have this very cool ying-yang thing going on, and not for the visually obvious reasons. I’m chatty with strangers (“Heeeyyy everybody!”); Denise isn’t (“There she goes again.”). Denise is a crusader, a warrior; I’m not. She will boldly go where no woman has gone before; I wait back for the report and then go ahead on and follow. I’m taller, Denise isn’t. One year for Halloween, we stuck six cut-out feet on her and we made a sign that said, “All my life, I wanted to be six feet tall, and now I am.” And then at the Halloween party we went to, some idiot tore off one of the feet and she was back to 5’3.

Speaking of parties, this is one place where I would lead. Every night that we’d go out, she’d say, “Peppur, we’re not out all night. I have to study.” I’d say, “Okay!” and then we’d get home at 3 am. Because with a party, I am The Warrior . AND I know what Denise needs: Excitement! I’d do recon, locate the keg, spin my chatty, smiley, magic sword and within minutes, we’d be beer-laden and all was right with the world. Comrades would come from fraternities far and wide and we, Peppur and Denise, would hold court! Social shenanigans would ensue, and as any collegiate attendee knows, this work cannot be done in a matter of mere hours. Dawn must arise, Real Chili must be eaten and occasionally, (naked*) beer slides along a beer-drenched floor at a bar that has since closed, must be slid to prove our valor.

Real Chili pic taken from Yelp
Real Chili in action.  Photo courtesy of “Wisconsin L” on Yelp.

We were all for one and one for all. Even if I was leading, Denise was watching from behind to make sure we didn’t get into any shit. To protect us. To shield us. Like that one time this fucker of a guy asked me my name, and when I said “Peppur!” and he said, “That’s too black. I’m going to call you something else.” Denise was right there to tell him to shut up and stabbed him in the neck with her words because all I managed was to stand there, sword clanking to the floor, fallen.

We were pals like that.

And, we didn’t just drink together, people. She’d listen to me when I’d come home from track meets and cry because I got second place instead of first. We’d go to the library and close it down together because getting a “B” in anything was not an option for either of us. On the weekends, she would come home with me to Kenosha and we’d have dinner with my parents and my brothers and do laundry and watch movies on the VCR. We really were pals, like that.

Later, after we got older and Denise had her own dental practice in St Charles, Illinois, she’d have my dad come down for his cleanings and stuff and she would never let him pay. She’d tell me, “That man let me do laundry at his house! His money is no good here.”

Fast forward to today. Denise moved back home to Massachusetts. Her marriage had ended and she simply wanted to be home. She bought her parent’s house from her mom, the one she grew up in, and was ready to make a new, quiet life for herself as a single woman living in a small town on the Cape.

In the Spring of 2017, way beyond those years when we’d go to my home to do laundry,  I finally, for the first time, made it to the warmth of hers. D’s mom and sister stopped by so we could hug and I could cry at the loveliness of it all; it felt so good to be at home.

Over coffee, after her mom and sister had left, D and I stared out her kitchen window.  A quietness fell over us. The kind that happens between friends. The kind that’s filled with shared memories and thoughts on mute. In that quietness, I knew we were both sort of exhaling. We’d both been through some things over the past year, the type of things that leave you retreated from what you believed to be true only to be placed front and center in a newness to be absorbed and welcomed. Alone. Like warriors. After a few moments, she pointed out her kitchen window and showed me where she’d wanted to plant a garden. “I want to be sustainable,” she’d said. Then she took me outside. While her dog ran about, playing hide and seek with the woods that surrounded her huge corner property, we walked the backyard with its expanse of grass and majestic pine trees and she showed me where she wanted to have chickens and goats. “For the kids I want to adopt,” she’d said. And as we stood back, standing where the garden would be, she told me how she wanted to add a wrap-around porch and bring some additional charm to this beautiful, quaint home that was built in 1890. “For my two rocking chairs,” she’d said.

The next day, we drove near the water. D and I walked along the water’s edge. It was past the tourist season on the Cape; the air was cool and we watched the calm waters before us just sort of exist. She told me how she would take her boat out there and get clams and mussels and how she used to fish with her dad. He’d passed away several years before and she shared these memories with me. There. Where’d they’d happened.

On our last night together, we drove the forty-five minutes out and spent the night in Boston. We were two post-collegiate girls out on the town. In our forties. We were actually a little sad, and not because staying out until 3 am and doing beer slides was no longer like, feasible, but because I was headed back home to Prague the next day, and who knew when we’d see each other again. We decided to soothe our sorrows at an Irish bar.

And that’s where this wedding story begins, guys. Because, THAT NIGHT, at THAT Irish bar, we met Denise’s new husband-to-be.

Denise and I were holding court; just the two of us, really. But I like to think Irish-wannabes had come from far and wide to be audience to our shenanigans that were now rousing “Remember When” stories we were rehashing to each other between sips of Jack. One tall gentleman, with a beard of slight scruff and eyes of bright blue happened upon us. I lifted my magic sword and said, “What say you, man? Join us!”

And join us, he did.

How they fell in love, and all that stuff, is their wedding story. To be told by them. But what I CAN tell you is that Jay of Slight Scruff is mean with a power tool, and with a cast-iron skillet, and with fixin’ boats, and makin’ compost; he’s a dad and he can strum a few tunes on the guitar. Denise loves that kind of stuff.

Together, they built their own version of Chip & Joanna’s Magnolia Farms known quaintly as Harborside. Handyman Jay built a chicken coop and a goat barn and four garden beds and you guessed it, a wrap-around porch. This past April, Matt and I (#WeLiveInLA) went for a visit and we got in on the fun farmy stuff too! We harvested eggs from the chickens, pet the goats and sent baby dust to one of which that had just been mated (or, schtupped). I planted some raspberries in the garden and Matt, tooling about with a wheelbarrow wearing city slicker hard-soled shoes, helped Jay plant some barley (for homemade beer, of course) and sunflowers. Over homemade whiskey, we toasted to their newly-announced engagement and they spoke of wanting a simple wedding in the back yard, Harborside.

All was right with the world.

And then, right after Jay finished building the wrap-around porch, a bit of tragedy-not-tragedy-but-tragedy happened. The house caught on fire. Every bit of the 1890’s house, that housed her family for over twenty-five years, was licked by flame or singed by smoke. Destroyed.

denise home fire.jpg

Most people would crumble and just like, die. But not my friend, Denise. Yes, she bawled and had her own moments of buckling as she and Jay and her family took assessment of so many things lost in the fire. But like I said, she’s a warrior. She stuck to the fact that no one did die, including her dog who had been trapped in the home alone when the fire broke out. Guys, AT THE WEDDING, via friends of friends, she found out that a stranger driving by had seen the flames and the dog inside, stopped and let the dog out!

The wedding went on. In the backyard, as planned. The burnt out house was open for browsing and marveling; a backdrop to it all. But really, it was a reminder to what’s actually important in life: Rebuilding.

The home burnt but rebuilding
Matt. Thinking this photo was not a good idea.

Our college girlfriends came together from our corners of the world, to uphold, be witnesses to, and be there for our dear friend. Ready to continue the story and build more memories.

MU girls with Denise
Pep, Denise, Lisa and Jenny (Julie is there in spirit from CO and Annie is there in spirit from heaven.)

Right before she went on, D called me aside. She pulled me into the trailer and she said, “I want you in here with me and my mom and Jay’s girls while I get ready.” I followed the leader. I helped tie the pink satin ribbon she wanted around her waist to match those of the two young girls, to whom she would be a new stepmom. I watched as her mom put on her sparkly necklace which I think was the something borrowed and blue. I watched as Denise applied her own lipstick; a lovely muted, sheer and rosy plum from NARS. Simple, pretty and sophisticated, just like her (and maybe the something new). And that was it. Nothing else was needed. My friend was going boldly into a new life. One I knew she’d dreamed of and waited for even though we’d never really spent those umpteen girly hours talking about such things. Watching her, I knew that all she really wanted was love, respect, a place to peacefully and happily grow those things…and a few chickens and goats.

As I was about to leave, she said, “Hold on, Pep!” She handed me a bouquet of sunflowers that matched hers, “I want you to be in my wedding.” You know how I told you I don’t like surprises? Well, this one was okay.

Walking down the aisle
Yes, I was crying.

Under an awning made from the burnt bathroom doors re-purposed and repainted with love, Jay and Denise gave their vows and got married. And, yes, when the officiant said that part about “Through good times and bad…” everyone knew that the bad had already passed and it was time to let the good times roll. Simply.

lisa on the zip line
More about this later.

*Note: The ‘Lanche was known for Naked Beer Slides. People would throw their beer on the floor. Boys n Girls would strip, run and slide. Although I wanted to have the courage to do this, I never did. Neither did Denise. #GoMarquette.

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