My mother paid me an unusual compliment shortly after my honeymoon. “You’re the first bride in our family who wasn’t drunk at the wedding,” she said, referring to my large extended Polish family and the dozens of Detroit and Hamtramck ceremonies we had attended through the years.
Well, that drinking comment about other brides may have been a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that our Polish weddings were often raucous affairs marked by fistfights in the parking lot, wild children playing crack-the-whip on the dance floor, brides drinking from long-neck beer bottles — not champagne glasses — and mercenary activities such as “the dollar dance.”
There were also “fake weddings” at my grandmother’s bar on Michigan Avenue not far from the old Tiger Stadium. The faux weddings were designed to raise money for needy families in the neighborhood and always featured the ugliest man as the bride and a fellow factory worker as the groom. If you look closely at some of those old photos, you can see the “bride’s” sleeveless t-shirt, suspenders, pants and beer gut through the sheer wedding gown.
Nearly every wedding invitation I receive today specifies an “adult-only reception.” They are often expensive destination weddings where the brides wear custom gowns and carry delicate violets flown in from Barcelona for the big day. Guests have to check a box on their RSVP card that lets the caterer know whether they prefer the salmon, prime rib or vegan option for dinner. It makes me long for the old days.
Then, you didn’t get a single dinner option. In fact, there was something in my family known as the “three-meat rule.” A wedding wasn’t considered to be classy unless guests could pile three meat choices on their plate. Luckily, mostaccioli counted as a meat entree, which helped to cut down on the catering cost.
Wedding food was served at long wooden tables and there was no assigned seating. Gruff servers wearing hairnets and white aprons passed plate after heaping plate of food, including city chicken, beef and pork chops smothered in onions. Pierogis and stuffed cabbage were rarely offered because they were considered “everyday fare.” Mashed potatoes, kapusta (sauerkraut), green beans and salads were the side dishes. Wedding guests went home with Jordan almonds tied up in tiny net bags as a wedding favor, which was considered to be a high-end touch at the time.
Because no one could wait for the formal cake cutting, where some of the cake ended up smashed in the face of the bride and groom, servers would quickly follow up the main meal with dozens of pies – strawberry with cream filling, apple and blueberry. Grownups would drink Screwdrivers and Seven-and-Seven highballs, or beer, usually Pabst Blue Ribbon. There were no champagne toasts or speeches. It was eat and dance until the band, including the mandatory accordionist, packed up for the night.
The best weddings were all-day affairs, with the wedding usually held in the morning at a Polish Catholic church, such as St. Florian or St. Cunegunda, followed by a breakfast. The wedding party then would head to Rouge Park, not far from the sprawling Ford Rouge Assembly Plant, where outdoor photos would be taken, weather permitting. Everyone would nap and then party all night.
It was one of the few occasions where my blue-collar family would dress up and there was an unspoken competition among women for the best outfit. Many sewed their own formal wear. My grandmother was a Detroit bartender by day and a seamstress at night. She made all of our weddings clothes, including a controversial outfit my mother ordered her to make in the 1950s.
It was a black cocktail dress made of yards of tulle with a sequined top. No one wore black to weddings back then. My mother wore the dress with a rhinestone tiara and, yes, it was all calculated to take the attention off the bride. It did. The move reminded me of the Bette Davis film “Jezebel,” when the Southern belle walks into the debutante ball wearing a red Parisian gown instead of the traditional, demure white frock and is shunned by the partygoers. My mother wasn’t shunned, but a buzz went around the hall and started up again every time my parents danced a polka. For the record, my mother wore an ivory gown to my own wedding, on the borderline of common decency to some of the crowd, creating yet another stir.
Brides always wore white — not ivory — and had a box of safety pins handy for the dollar dance. This was a Polish immigrant custom designed to further shake down attendees. (It should be noted that this was not in lieu of a monetary gift.) Men stood in line and paid a dollar or more to dance with the bride. The money was pinned to her gown and the idea was to have her so covered with money that the gown appeared to be green from a distance. The money usually went toward a fund to buy the first house for the couple. One of my cousins did the dollar dance to the Twist, a popular dance in the early ‘60s, and lost a few bucks off her gown in the process.
Kids were all over the dance floor (and sometimes forced to partner with grandma) or hanging out in the parking lot of the reception hall, which was often the VFW Sgt. Stanley F. Romanowski Post #6896 in Detroit. Some of my cousins proudly called themselves “greasers” (as opposed to “frats”) and were members of a notorious Detroit motorcycle club, the Highwaymen. Occasionally, angry ex-boyfriends of the bride would show up at the reception and start trouble, although the rumble was always outside. I don’t recall the police ever being called and tire chains and knives were usually put away quickly with no serious injuries. I loved hanging out in the parking lot, waiting for the action to start.
I also spent a lot of time in the stall of the women’s room at wedding receptions when I was about eight. I could eavesdrop on the bride and the wedding party from my secret location. That’s where you could hear bridesmaids swearing and pick up all the good gossip, such as the bride complaining about how tight her girdle was (I later learned that this particular bride was three months pregnant when she walked down the aisle).
You could also emerge from your hiding spot and watch the biker-brides apply white lipstick before heading back out to the dance floor. White was a popular shade in the late 1950s and early ’60s, even if it made the bride look like a photo negative. The color matched their dyed platinum hair, which was ratted up in a bouffant style.
At the end of the night, the bride would ride away on the back of a motorcycle with her new husband. Pieces of the wedding cake were wrapped in white paper napkins with the names of the bride and groom printed on them in silver script and handed out to departing guests. You were supposed to put the cake under your pillow and dream of your future husband and how you would be carried away from your big day on the back of a shiny black Harley-Davidson.