The Rabbi In The Basement

Carol Anderson

An older lesbian reflects on same-sex marriage in Michigan, and rushing to get married before the attorney general appealed the case.

The glow of the moon was still visible in the early morning light as we headed out the door and drove through town.  I could feel my heart beating faster as we approached the County Clerk’s office and parked the car.  A line was already starting to form and we caught a glimpse of a television crew as we scurried across Main Street and joined the others.  It was exactly 6 a.m. We had heard the news through a text the night before.

“Federal judge legalizes same sex marriage in Michigan!!!!”

We soon learned that four County Clerks across the state agreed to be open the next day, a Saturday, to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. It was a certainty that the conservative Attorney General would immediately appeal for an emergency stay that could come at any point.  We had perhaps only hours in which we could legally marry in our home state of Michigan.

While my girlfriends in college easily found love in the ‘60’s and glided effortlessly into the role of housewife modeled in popular sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, it took me 54 years to find my great love.  She is six feet tall, with short brown hair, exquisite long arms and a face that reveals the fine features of her mother, once a beauty queen.

Soft brown eyes are set on a narrow face above high cheekbones.  She has broad shoulders, and a slender frame that belies her enormous strength. She can cut down a tree with a chain saw and move a marble table across the room without wincing, all the while speaking in a Southern drawl so disarming that it renders me defenseless in any argument.

Today I would marry her.

What to wear? It was 28 degrees with winds up to 10 mph.  We would be standing outside in line for three hours before the doors opened at 9 a.m.

It was not the wedding I had envisioned for myself as a young girl in the 60’s—the white A-line dress I would wear, the bridal bouquet of cascading lilies, the candlelight ceremony and the elegant reception. At this point warmth would take precedence over fashion. Certainly nothing could have prepared me to consider that I would one day appear at my wedding ceremony in a blue periwinkle parka, straight leg jeans with matching charcoal sweater and hiking boots.

With scarves wrapped twice around our necks, we looked like statues ready to be shrink-wrapped for winter storage rather than blushing brides about to pledge our fidelity to one another.

Standing in line, love stories poured out through sips of hot coffee as everyone huddled together to stay warm.  By 7:30 a.m. a line had formed across the front of the building and around the corner.

More than a hundred couples were joined by more media. Big vans with TV cameras captured the outdoor scene, while reporters paced up and down the sidewalk in search of interesting stories.

A journalist from the Detroit News interviewed the couple on our left who had been together for more than 30 years while another TV correspondent interviewed the women on our right who had a child together yet the non-biological parent was not allowed to adopt her partner’s son.

Photographers from across the state took pictures up and down the queue, as though we were Hollywood stars standing outside the entrance to the Oscars. Cars drove by and honked their horns in celebration, as cheerful strangers leaned out their windows, waving and shouting their well wishes.  Simple gestures like that were triumphant signals of belonging in a culture that for centuries had declared love between same sex couples, not only undesirable but illegal.

At  9:00 a.m. sharp, an official from the County Clerk’s office unlocked the doors as we were carried through the entrance by the weight of those behind us leaning to get in.  A soft-spoken woman with an armful of white roses squeezed through the crowd and randomly handed them out.

Moving along in the direction of our destination, we resembled a pile of Skittles on an assembly line tumbling eventually into separate, orderly packages. The end of our human channel opened up into a glass enclosure and a chest-high counter behind which four women received the throngs, patiently explaining and assisting with the paperwork that would lead to the receipt of a marriage license.

They joined in the celebratory mood, congratulating each couple with a genuine smile and a big high five as they handed them their cherished piece of paper.

Knowing that the license itself was not enough to make the marriages legal, several clergy members had assembled in the basement to perform “weddings-on-demand” so the paperwork could be filed immediately following the ceremony. Celebrants were scattered around the room, which was already crowded with couples, family members and friends.  A boisterous and barely-contained joyous hysteria swirled through the air and back up the stairs as a few volunteers tried to create an orderly flow.

Suddenly one of the helpers pointed to us and hollered, “YOU’RE NEXT” and gestured toward the short man on the left who wore a cream colored robe and a multicolored vestment.  We snaked our way toward him while two women behind us offered to hold our coats.

“Do you mind being married by a Rabbi?” he asked quietly.

As a former Southern Baptist, it had never occurred to me that I might one day be married by a Jewish man of the cloth any more than I imagined that on that same day I would marry a woman.  Somehow it seemed perfect.

“We would love to,” we said in unison.

The ceremony lasted less than ten minutes. The passage to this freedom took hundreds of years.

Unbeknownst to us, one of the many photographers had snapped our picture in the lobby, capturing this historic moment for the world to see. There we were in our finest wedding attire—on the front page of the electronic version of the New York Times—Archer standing tall behind me in her bright red L.L. Bean jacket, her left arm crossing in front of me holding me close in my periwinkle blue parka, the back of my head pressed into her shoulder and my hands clasped around the baby’s breath and the rose.

We are looking toward the sign waiting for our number to be called, eyes fixed upward, smiles revealing the unbridled joy of that day rippling off the electronic screen. A copy of the photo remains on our refrigerator—a daily reminder that it is love that makes a wedding special, not the clothes you’re wearing.