At Elizabeth Arden, my mother is pacing back and forth across the perfumed space, trying to attract someone's attention. On her face is an expression I know well -- the slightly squinched-up eyes, the tight mouth -- the same expression she'd greet me with when, as a teenager, I came home late from a party. Indeed, if she were a cartoon character, steam would be coming out of her ears. The six of us -- Mom, me, my daughter, my sister-in-law and her two daughters -- had a 2 o'clock appointment, leaving us plenty of time to get coiffed for my older sister's wedding tonight. But the stylists at Elizabeth Arden are running late. Women with various European accents keep offering us coffee and magazines and Perrier, but I've been reading back issues of Vogue for almost an hour, and the three little girls are still running around looking like very short hippies. "This is outrageous," Mom tells me.
Even without the holdup, though, Mom would be cranky. For one thing, she didn't sleep well in the hotel last night; for another, both my older sister, the bride, and my younger sister have refused to join us at Elizabeth Arden in the first place, a lapse in judgment that Mom finds unfathomable, and that, in addition, ruins all her girl-bonding plans. My younger sister, at least, has an excuse: She and her husband are visiting old friends. But my older sister simply dug in her heels and refused. "Don't you want your hair to look nice for your own wedding?" Mom kept asking.
Now my mother -- the only one of us, in fact, who has been taken care of, and whose hair, thinner and whiter ever since her bout with cancer four years ago, now billows out from her head like a gray cloud -- marches up to the tall, thin man who seems to be in charge, and tells him that if he doesn't attend to us immediately, she is going to have to do something drastic, like sue. "I made this appointment over a month ago," she says, adding: "My daughter is getting married in less than two hours."
And how long, after all, has Mom already been waiting? It is January 23, 1999. That makes 41 years, 11 months, 21 days and 14 hours, give or take a few hours. The fact of the matter is, we've all been waiting. But even as a child, my sister Binky (whose real name is Barbara) refused to conform to our mother's -- or anyone's -- wishes. While I was playing Here Comes the Bride in one of Mom's cast-off slips, Binky was holed up in her room, wearing cutoff jeans and a T-shirt, reading every book she could get her hands on, even those books that Mom said were way too old for her, with small print that would ruin her eyes.
Oh, she was smart. And argumentative! She would argue about anything: what fork to use, what blouse to wear, how to make Peking duck, whether Hubert Humphrey had a chance, literary allusions in the movies of Woody Allen. Argument, it seemed, was encoded in her genes: Dad said she was destined to become a lawyer like him, or even, perhaps, go into politics, become a senator or the first female president. Naturally, she was queen of the kids, the one who, by rights, always had the last word -- not to mention the first word and most of the words in between. When, a couple of years after college, she decided to go to law school, the only person who was even a little bit surprised was Binky herself.
She had Dad's green eyes, alabaster skin and impatience with those whose minds were less agile than her own, and from my perch just below hers, it always seemed to me, too, that she had a kind of special destiny, a sheen of excellence, of superiority, that you could practically touch. She had it all: brains, looks, a naturally optimistic outlook, generosity, loyalty, friends who would do anything for her. The one thing she didn't have, at least as she entered her thirties, was a boyfriend -- or at least not the kind of steady squeeze you bring home to be inspected by your parents. If she was upset when I, the younger sister, announced my own engagement at the age of 28, I had no indication of it, but rather, the reverse. From her office in San Francisco, where she lived for more than 10 years before moving back east, to New York, she commiserated with me as I kvetched about everything from our mother's insistence that I try on every wedding dress on the East Coast, to the agonizing question of what my bridesmaids were going to wear. And when, just a few months after my wedding, I became pregnant with my first child, oversize outfits started arriving at my door, with little notes attached in her square handwriting: "Thought you might need this," or "Heard you're gaining weight." Later, she and my little sister, Amalie, flew to Los Angeles, where my husband and I were then living, to give me a baby shower. I have photographs of Binky stretched out on my bed in a pool of sunshine, my infant son, Sam, sleeping beside her in the crook of her arm.
My brother, David, married a few months after I did; two years later, Amalie married her long-term sweetheart. Then children started coming in earnest: first Sam, and then my brother's daughter Sarah, and so forth and so on, until there were nine in all, nine grandchildren. Binky was their favorite aunt, the one who always came through with the best presents, gave them piggyback and airplane rides, taught them how to say "hello" in Swahili. Was it hard for her, all this profusion of family life, when she had none of her own? Perhaps there was a longing about her, a sense of yearning but, amazingly, never resentment. When I called her from my hospital room at Georgetown to tell her that my twins had been born healthy and full term, she burst into tears, of happiness mingled, she told me later, with relief.
She retained a steadfast policy of telling our parents as little as possible about her private affairs, and generally keeping her discontents, whatever they may have been, to herself. But we worried, for in the crudest way, she had become a stereotype -- or so it sometimes seemed to us -- a cliche version of herself: the successful career woman, rapidly heading into middle age, who had long since come to rely on her own formidable intelligence, and who, as a result, wouldn't make nice to some schmo just because he was paying for her glass of chardonnay.
"Don't you know any nice young men for your sister?" Mom said. Young men? Binky was 33, then 35, then 39 (an age that she once described to me as being "poison," adding that "men simply assume that you're desperate"), and though it seemed, at times, that she'd gone out with every narcissistic joker within 500 miles of New York, nice young men, or even nice not-so-young men, seemed to be in distinctly short supply.
"Promise me that you'll never let your sister be alone on the holidays," Mom breathed into the phone, her voice strained with unshed tears, a few weeks after she'd stopped chemotherapy. "I mean it. I'm not going to be here much longer, and before I die I want you to promise me. Will you promise me?"
What was wrong with Binky, anyway? I mean, it wasn't like she looked like a toad: not with that figure, that clear, light skin, those sparkling eyes, not to mention her legs, which I'd seen men stare at. Didn't she worry about becoming what we used to call an old maid? After all, she had all the trappings, right down to the cat -- a psychotic gray stray named Barney. And yet she changed nothing. Here was a woman who rejected one man after a single blind date because she didn't like his shoes. Another one, she said, breathed funny. A third had hands that were too soft. No wonder she was up there on the 11th floor, rattling around in her beautifully appointed West Side apartment, eating Chinese takeout in the kitchen, while her overwrought cat clawed the living room sofa to shreds.
And now she has gone and surprised us all, this Binky of ours whom none of us can bring ourselves to call by her real name, even though she has threatened each of us with all kinds of nasty things if we ever call her by her childhood nickname in public. Who would have thought, even for a moment, that she would have gone for an old-fashioned wedding, the full princess route, complete with flower girls and a chuppa and silver bowls filled with white roses? Who would have guessed that she'd obsess over the menu, fret over the dress (tea length or full length, off-white or white-white?), lose sleep over the details of the seating plan? Who would have thought, for that matter, that she was capable, finally, of falling head over heels?
Who was this Matt, who had suddenly, courtesy of a setup, plopped into her life a few months after her 41st birthday? We didn't know. She wouldn't tell us a thing about him, except that he was smart. Okay. Smart is good. Was he nice? She conceded that he was. Then Amalie met him. Then I met him. We learned that he was even better than nice: He was about her age, a mathematician-turned-investment-banker, with salt-and-pepper hair, a keen sense of the absurd, and no interest whatsoever in pursuing perfect abs or driving an SUV. He played the piano like nobody's business. He was funny. He was cute. He could still chant a few lines from his bar mitzvah portion. He'd never been married, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and he adored my sister.
Over the summer, Binky took him to a wedding in Washington, and he met our parents.
"He seems like a very nice man," Mom said on the phone. "And your sister seems happy."
"He's Jewish," Dad said.
Matt had passed the test. Then Binky did something extraordinary. She took him to California, for her law firm's annual hoo-haw, followed by a two-week vacation.
"I don't want to talk about it," Mom said on the phone, echoing what was in all our minds. (Don't jinx it!) We didn't hear anything while she was on vacation and then she returned from vacation and went back to work and no phone call came and Mom fretted and worried and would call up and say: "So, have you spoken to your sister recently?"
It's the night before my sister's wedding. Though Binky absolutely refused to let Mom give them the wedding, she caved in and granted Mom permission to throw a rehearsal dinner.
Despite the recent snowfall that has blanketed much of the East Coast, we are all here this Friday night, in this elegant East Side restaurant, dressed in our prettiest party clothes and wearing family jewelry: Nana's jade earrings, great-grandmother Etta's diamond studs. There are the usual clever and dumb toasts, some in prose and others in rhyme, and a lot of goofy jokes, and then, at the very end of the evening, Mom gets up to read the poem that she has composed for the occasion. She did the same for each of her other three children -- first for me, then for David and finally for Amalie, but it's been more than eight years since the last family wedding, and she's out of practice. It's different this time, after all: This time, it's her firstborn getting married, a grown woman, long since flown the nest. Young people are absent -- the usual flock of brightly chirping friends of the bride and groom, with their shining eyes and newly minted degrees, are nowhere in sight. Binky's college friends -- the people I looked up to, when I was younger, as embodying the height of cool and sophistication and daring -- are bald or gray, thick-waisted or just plain fat, many of them financially secure beyond their dreams. My brother and Amalie look the same, or almost so -- or at least they do to me. Dad is entirely silver-haired, and his face is lined: He'll be 70 this summer. As for Mom, she's thick-bodied, somewhat heavy of limb and puffy around her neck and jaw line, the result, in part, of the drugs she still takes to contain her cancer. Every eye is on her as she stands at the mike to read the poem she has written.
Even now, at 40, it's hard for me to see my sister as she is, all by herself, rather than in comparison to me, the second of our parents' four children, and the middle sister. When we were children, she was always out ahead of me, 2 1/2 years older and a universe removed. If she was smart and tough, I was made of distinctly more malleable stuff, a so-so student, prone to depression, and easily wounded. We were nothing alike, my older sister and I, but that didn't stop me from trying (and failing) to be more like her. She seemed fated for success: a first-rate college, a better law school, a top-notch job, and on and on, while I made second-best, and stayed there, secretly dreaming of achieving things that seemed ludicrously beyond my reach. I wanted to be a writer. What a joke! But when others in my family were counseling me not to get my hopes up and to prepare to be disappointed, Binky was decidedly more encouraging. She talked me through a dozen career crises, read my work when no one else would.
Sometimes it seemed to me that each of us had been allowed half of life's satisfactions: It was as if I'd been granted the family life, complete with husband and children (and Big Bird tapes and minivan), while she'd been granted professional success, with all its excitement and status -- its deal making and financial rewards and closets full of stylish clothes. She didn't agree with me, though. In fact, she thought my theory was stupid -- pointing out that life isn't some sort of zero-sum game, and that, at any rate, the race had yet to be finished. Even so, I envied her -- I envied her fantastic Victorian house halfway up a steep San Francisco hill, and then her New York apartment, her glamorous friends, her participation in the hurly-burly of the world. Who was I? I was still the second-rate, second-best second sister, the one who had now morphed from a would-be writer to a would-be writer with stretch marks. I was the one who was supposed to be having dinner in some swanky place in SoHo, wearing a chic black dress. But I rarely did anything more exciting than go to the Safeway. Only once did she put me in my place. "You know, Jen," she said one night on the phone, "I'd give it all up in an instant for the chance to change diapers."
She's in the dressing room of the old house on the East Side where the wedding is about to take place, putting the final touches on her ensemble: the gold necklace with the single round diamond that Mom gave her, a dab of perfume, lipstick. Amalie is fussing over a button; in the hallway, Matt is pacing.
She looks like an angel. Correction: she looks like Binky, but happier, softer, lighter in spirit than I've ever seen her. Her graying hair, untouched by the experts at Elizabeth Arden, is swept back from her high forehead. Her wedding gown falls past her ankles to the floor.
Upstairs the guests are seated and the flower girls -- my daughter, Rose, and her cousins Sarah and Ali -- are exploding with importance. By the time I get upstairs, the room is full. I take my place next to my husband and children, behind my parents and my aunt. In the corner, a string quartet is playing. Around me, the people who have known and loved Binky all her life sit in a hush of expectation. It's not so much that we're all relieved, the way you are when an airplane lands after a turbulent flight; we're simply pleased. Because for one, Matt has long since moved out of his own apartment and into Binky's larger one. So it's not as if the relationship were still in its more tentative stages. What sinks in moments before she walks down the aisle is that my sister, true to her own nature, held out for the real thing, for her soul mate -- it just took her a little while to locate him. It's as if this whole event were a celebration not just of a marriage, but also of Binky's insistence that she will do things in her own way and in her own time.
Finally, the string quartet goes into wedding march mode, and she is walking down the aisle on our father's arm. She beams; the guests turn to watch her, and an instant later she has joined Matt under the chuppa. The rabbi intones the beautiful Hebrew prayers, then nods to Matt. As is the tradition, he smashes a wineglass. You can hear it popping into a thousand pieces. As he turns to kiss the bride, everyone bursts into applause.
At my own wedding, it was early summer: In my parents' back yard in McLean, the trees were heavy with proud bright green, the flowers were in bloom, the sky was a wash of blue. All the neighbors were there, as were half a dozen or so of my father's clients, and my mother's gaggle of girlfriends -- not to mention my grandmothers, dressed in their wedding best, my aunts and uncles, and assorted relatives to whom I'm still not sure how I'm related. My husband's law school classmates, all of them just graduated, flirted with my college friends. My brother danced with Nana and then with Grandma, even though Grandma, our father's mother, was already badly crippled by the ravages of old age. My younger sister danced with the man who was to become her husband and the father of their children. My mother-in-law, a widow, danced a single dance with my aunt Amalie's dapper husband, Ed. Dad gave a father-of-the-bride toast. The band played "Hava Nagila." On the dance floor, my young husband held me as gingerly as if we were teenagers on a first date. Binky, in pink silk, looked on, smiling.
Now it is night out, a velvety cold January darkness, and inside the brilliantly lit rooms there is absence among the joy. Grandma died more than two years ago (but how pleased she would have been, and how much fun she would have had!); Nana, her mind all but gone, is nodding off in the never-ending present in which she lives her end-of-life in an Alzheimer's facility in Chevy Chase (but God how she loved a good party!); our aunt Amalie's beloved Ed died, of cancer, in 1990, during a winter filled with dazzling white snow (and how she longs for him still!). But Mom, miraculously, is here, in a pretty red dress; she and Dad dance together, as they've danced together for almost 45 years, he clumsy and she, despite illness, graceful and intuitive on her feet.
I am happier for my sister than I was for myself, and I make a silent prayer that my own children will be as decent and kind to one another as Binky has always been to me.
My husband and I stay at my sister's wedding until there are only a few couples left on the dance floor, and the bride and groom, waving goodbye, head downstairs. Later, there will be a honeymoon; later still, Matt will come to Dad's 70th birthday party, and my 40th, and Seder dinners, so naturally a part of Binky that it is as if he's always been there. But for now, the night is late, and Binky and Matt are bride and groom. We watch at the second-story window until we see my sister and her husband, still dressed in tux and wedding gown, emerge on the street. They climb into a taxi and head across the park for home.
Jennifer Moses is the author of Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom, published by Simon and Schuster.