My third and best husband and I just returned from my first husband’s fifth wedding.
On the banks of the Edisto River, in South Carolina, Jack Williams married Judy Smith, in a light rain under live oaks and swaying Spanish moss, with over 200 musicians, friends, family and fans.
And one ex-wife: me. The others — Ann, Marcia and Coles — couldn’t make it.
Guests ranged in age from infancy to incontinency and were mostly barefoot — attired in shorts and T-shirts, swimsuits, cover-ups and towels. One guest knotted a beach towel at a jaunty angle around her hips and proclaimed herself “dressed” for the wedding. Adam, Jack’s son with Ann (Number One), served as best man, dressed like his dad, in shorts and sandals. Judy’s two grandsons, Connor and Cameron, took their job very seriously, collecting the rings after they had been passed through many loving hands of the assembled guests.
As soon as the musician/minister Wayne Manning pronounced Jack and Judy man and wife, they turned their backs to the crowd and plunged into the blackwater river. The minister jumped in behind them, then Judy’s two grown sons and daughter. Splashing and laughing, the couple “floated into their life together” (their words).
Sink or swim, it was typical of the romanticism and optimism that allow Jack, 62, to be undaunted by his fifth try at wedlock.
The River Gathering of friends and families, old and new, had been more or less an annual event since 1998. Music occurs because many of those friends are musicians, nationally known or locally grown. They may be below the commercial radar screen but are at the top of the game: hippies, aging and neo, flaunting their folkie tunes in Dylan-esque monotones and Joan Baez-ish melodies. Although Jack and Coles (Number Four) had invited us in those early years, we weren’t convinced it was our scene. I mean, why would Bo Holland want to hang out with people and memories that belonged to another marriage of mine? He didn’t!
In the winter of 1978, the most but not the only seductive thing about Jack Williams was his creativity and talent – classical piano, rock guitar, original tunes. I had just left a great writing gig at Newsday to live on the beach on Hilton Head, S.C. and follow less serious pursuits – calligraphy, working in an art gallery and writing restaurant reviews and occasional profiles for the bi-weekly paper. When The Island Packet assigned me to interview Jack, a twice-wed wandering troubadour, son of a Southern Baptist Army colonel with deep roots in rural Carolina, little did I know we’d be married four months later.
Even if my father never quite approved of marriage to a bearded musician, my grandmother was charmed by Jack’s clever poetry about the three B’s – Brahms, Bach and Beethoven – and his knowledge of art and history. His lack of concern for such practical things as checking accounts and health insurance concerned my family but fueled my ongoing attempt to disassociate myself from a hopelessly traditional, conservative upbringing.
Jack had a piano in our small condo on Hilton Head which, on weeknights, he’d play late into the night while I slept, ready to jump up for my conventional day job. Come Friday, his band, Fools in Love, would pull away from the island, headed for gigs in other parts of South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Colorado. Occasionally, I’d go with him but, ultimately, it became clear I wasn’t cut out to live out of a Dodge van, and I didn’t want to be alone every weekend for the rest of my life.
At about this time, Jack realized he wasn’t really ready for a commitment – especially on weekends when he was surrounded by groupies and younger women with a different moral compass. His going-away gift to me when he left, three years later, was a beloved red IBM Selectric typewriter and a better educated love for and appreciation of music. He introduced me to Jesse Winchester, The Band, Schubert and to many fine musicians I still follow today – including him.
Over the past 25 years, he’d come to Atlanta off-and-on to play at one spot or another and, married or not, I’d make a point to be an appreciative member of the often-small audience. When Bo and I married in 1988, he was game but not giddy about going to those gigs. Slowly, though, he developed admiration not only for Jack’s guitar-playing but his good nature, too.
The Sunday before the most recent nuptials, Jack was playing in town. For months I had emailed, see you at Eddie’s Attic, but, sorry, we can’t come to the wedding. That night, though, he and Judy, 54, kept encouraging us until finally, Bo said, “Why aren’t we going? We need to be there.” What a sport!
Our own wedding announcement read, “Eat, Drink and Re-Marry” so, in that spirit, we were off and running.
We’d been having a particularly musical summer anyway. Anita Baker, Clint Black and Paul Simon were live at a nearby amphitheater. We enjoyed “Long Tall” Marcia Ball at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, flew to Philly to hear Van Morrison, tuned in to Radiohead at the office. So why not drive to South Carolina for a Saturday night of love and loves-lost songs? And, oh yes, a wedding, too.
We were greeted with sincere warmth – and some curiosity. The hug Jack and Bo shared went beyond polite, lingering with real affection. Jack’s oldest friend, Sam Hendrix and his girls – then teenagers, now wives and mothers – were a sight to behold and we exchanged cards and email addresses with others we connected with on many levels. Adam was 13 the last time I had seen him but it won’t be another 25 years before the next sighting. There were old drummers and writer friends of Jack’s I was glad to see and vice versa.
The buffet was a long picnic table of predictable fare – chips and dips, ham, barbecue and lots of baked beans done a variety of ways. We took four dozen store-bought petite fours with green and pink J’s squeezed on them, and someone made the pecan cake Jack’s late mother, Louise, was famous for. Following the feast, the musicians John William Davis, Dayna Kurtz, Chuck Brodsky and, of course Jack, too, took their turns at the microphones moving us all to cheers and tears with their playing, singing and songwriting skills. Grown men actually cried.
Driving home at 8 the next morning, Bo said, “We won’t miss that event again.”
Lord, at first I thought he meant Jack’s next wedding, but there won’t be one of those. We’re as optimistic about that as he is. The River Gathering, however, will definitely be an annual summer destination for us.
As long as third wives and their favorite husbands are welcome.