Julie’s post on courting brings up an interesting question that I have, thankfully, only struggled with once: Should you ask a father’s “permission” prior to proposing marriage to his daughter?
There are all sorts of reasons that one might be embarrassed about this ritual, e.g. the implication of ownership over the child, patriarchal control of female freedom (why doesn’t she ask my father if she can marry me? Why not ask her mother?), etc. etc. More than this there is the whole issue of what you should do if he says “no.” Perhaps it is simply better not to ask, after all — as my mother taught me — it is generally easier to get forgiveness than permission.
True to form, I fudged the issue with She Who Must Be Obeyed’s father. Our courtship was a bit logistically complicated. At the time, I was working in Williamsburg, Virginia and SWMBO after several years of college and post-college independence was once more living with her parents in the DC suburbs, attending graduate school at George Washington University. Hence, I more or less lived at my in-laws-to-be’s home on the weekends, making the three hour drive up from Williamsburg on Friday night and spending the weekend sleeping on the couch in the basement until I returned to Williamsburg on Sunday night. Once it became clear that SWMBO and I were going to get married, I was in a bit of a quandary as to how to deal with her father. Should I make a formal request? “Sir, I would like to ask for the hand of your daughter in honorable matrimony.” Very Victorian sounding. On the other hand a thoroughly ’90s silence seemed wrong as well.
In the end, I figured that we ought to have some sort of a conversation, even though I was not quite clear on the content. The problem here was finding a natural moment of privacy in which to have the Talk. Early one Saturday morning in the midst of these problems, I got up early and went running by Arlington Cemetery, across the river, along the Mall, and back to the home of SWMBO’s parents. I returned drenched in sweat and filled with the chemical courage of an endorphins induced high. As I made my way up the stairs to the shower, I noticed SWMBO’s father sitting up alone in his bed. He is a very tall, skinny man. He was dressed in pajamas which were somewhat too small. His propped up leg exposed a bony and pasty calf as he sat doing a crossword puzzle. There we stood. Him in pajamas and me in my sweat drenched running shorts. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Good morning.”
SWMBO’s Father: “Good morning. You’ve been running?”
Me: “Yes. You’re doing a crossword puzzle?”
SWMBO’s Father: “Yes.”
Me (taking a deep breath): “So, I think that I am going to marry your daughter.”
SWMBO’s Father: “Yes. SWMBO’s mother and I had much figured that out already.”
Me (Thinking “Yikes! They’ve noticed that I have been living in their basement on the weekends for the past few months after all!”): “So, err, how do you feel about? Do you or SWMBO’s mother have any problems with me.”
SWMBO’s Father: “No. Not at all. Welcome to the family.”
And that was it. It was a bit awkward. I didn’t look especially suitor like, and he was not at his most patriarchal moment. Nevertheless we got the job done. I can’t help but thinking, however, that the moment would have been better and easier if there was some sort of accepted script. Our society has done a great deal in the last century or so to bludgeon down formal social rituals in the name of freedom and spontaneity. No doubt many of the rituals were bad and hurtful. Still, I can’t help but thinking that in our eagerness to break the shackles of dead tradition we have underestimated the ability of rituals to provide order and meaning to momentous (and not so momentous) occasions. The requirement to navigate each moment using social tools created ex nhilio can be a difficult and — as my experience with SWMBO’s Father’s father illustrates — not so pretty.