Here Come the Brides

Eleanora Piombino is not sure she likes what she sees. Staring at the pearly white heels with typical pointy toes, she adjusts the atypical diagonal straps across the top of her left foot. Now for the test drive: She stands and struts down the imagined church aisle. Abruptly she stops and turns to Linda Enger with her verdict, "No, ow!"

Linda interprets this exclamation as a request for a larger size. She searches the stacks of shoe boxes piled not even in shelves, but in cardboard boxes that have been cut open on one side to approximate shelves. A DSW Shoe Warehouse employee asks if she needs help.

"We need help bad, you don't even know," Linda says with a hint of a laugh. She and Elli are on a mission: to purchase the perfect shoes for a wedding -- their wedding.

After a quarter of a century together, the lesbian couple are getting married. They've been making plans since April, enduring the usual wedding stresses: purchasing dresses, printing invitations, calling the caterer, ordering the flowers (pale pink roses). But they've also been making unusual preparations: obtaining a street function permit from the city to close a small residential street, hiring security, and contacting newspapers and TV stations. Elli and Linda know their ceremony is political, as well as personal.

They're planning a church wedding, of sorts. About a year ago, the United Methodist Church ruled that "homosexual unions" are not to be conducted in its churches, nor officiated by its clergy. But Bering Memorial United Methodist Church is in the heart of Montrose, a traditionally gay neighborhood, and its senior minister actively objects to the ruling, as does much of the congregation. To get around the ruling, Elli and Linda asked the Reverend Troy Plummer, a gay Orthodox Catholic priest who is employed by Bering, to conduct the ceremony. And since they can't have the ceremony inside Bering, they opted for the next best thing: to have it in the street in front of it.

About a dozen clergy from different denominations, including Methodists, will stand on the steps of the church in witness and support of the ceremony. The Methodist clergy, while technically following the letter of church law, face risks for violating its spirit. And the risks of this high-profile wedding aren't confined to the clergy: Linda worries that the friendly hellos from neighbors could turn into cold stares, avoidance or vandalism. Elli is afraid she might lose her job.

But at this moment, among the rows of discounted shoes, Linda, 46, and Elli, 55, aren't worried about the controversy. Right now, they've migrated to the women's sandals section, where Elli has spied platforms. And now, Linda is on one knee, helping Elli with the tan velvet platforms named Horoscope in the mystifying way that shoes and cars acquire names for no obvious reason. Linda pulls snug the straps on the size 8 1/2's. They're a perfect fit.

In May 1974, 21-year-old Linda started work as a music department cashier at the brand-new Woolco department store in Milford, Connecticut. It was her second day on the job; the store wasn't open yet, and Linda was walking by the automotive supplies when she stopped and stared.

Sitting on the floor, a young woman was pricing spark plugs one at a time. Linda's heart played an undeniable rhythm -- bah-dum-dum-bah-dum.

"I was head over heels," Linda recalls. "She had blue-black hair, beautiful green eyes and an olive complexion. It was boom -- it just hit me. I never thought I'd just see someone and feel like that."

"Hi!" Linda offered. "What are you doing?"

Elli, who had just priced 2,500 spark plugs, snapped, "What the fuck does it look like I'm doing?"

Feeling bad about her uncharacteristic behavior, Elli treated Linda to lunch that afternoon. Elli was 30 and in the midst of a second divorce, with four girls, two from each of her marriages.

Linda didn't know what to do -- an older woman! four kids! -- but from then on, she seized any excuse to talk to Elli. She bought four tires from Elli although her '61 Dodge Seneca was sitting on blocks, never to run again. She bought a car stereo.

Elli had no idea why she wanted to spend time with a 21-year-old. She'd tell her best friend, Barbara, that Linda looked at her weird, looked her straight in the eye until Elli felt flustered and had to turn away. So she introduced Barbara to Linda, instructing Barbara beforehand to pay close attention to the look Linda gave her.

"I said, 'Did you see it?' "

Barbara said no, in that slow, drawn-out way that implies that the question was a silly one.

"Well, why do I think she's looking at me weird?"

Barbara gave her characteristic answer to everything: "If you don't know, then I don't know."

Linda started showing up at crochet nights, Wednesday gatherings at Elli's house. She learned how to crochet a basic chain, but never got much further, fiddling with the chain until it tangled into a huge knot.

She attended the Tupperware parties that Elli frequented, even though she hated the whole idea of Tupperware parties.

Then she tried another tactic. She ignored Elli.

And that pissed Elli off. It pissed her off until she couldn't stand it anymore, until one day at work Elli, standing guard at her cash register in Automotive, called Linda in Music and asked her to join her for a coffee break. Elli asked what Linda's problem was; she thought they were friends. So they agreed to be friends again.

But Linda couldn't stand being just friends and left the retail world to drive a school bus. Still, she'd visit Elli, looking depressed and spirit-sunken.

Elli prodded Linda to talk about her problems with her. Maybe Elli could give her advice. So Linda came over to Elli's house one day, and Elli discovered that Linda's problem was her.

And they sealed the problem with an awkward kiss.

Like any good Roman Catholic girl, Elli had grown up knowing she was supposed to get married and do all those uxorial things: have children, cook and clean, live happily ever after. So she did, only she wasn't so happy. Both of her weddings were justice-of-the-peace, sign-the-papers-here nonevents. She married men, she says, out of a sense of duty. Elli never understood why women fussed over their men, why they would weep after an argument or get jealous and territorial.

Because all she felt toward her soon-to-be ex-husband was a sense of duty. Sure, she liked Butch's teddy-bear playfulness, but she didn't get suspicious and upset if he came home half an hour late. And she sure didn't get a tingling sensation of love. Linda was the one who made her tingle. Elli thought she was going crazy or, at the very least, was terribly confused.

Butch knew what was going on even before Elli could clearly comprehend it. He'd tease her about how she wanted to run off with her lesbian friend. And Elli thought he meant her best friend, Barbara. When she told Barbara, Barbara said, "I don't think he means me."

"Well, if it's not you, then who does he mean?"

"If you don't know, then I don't know," came the refrain.

On some level, Elli knew but tried to convince herself otherwise. She was afraid she could lose the children in divorce court. But during the divorce, she and Butch remained friends. He wanted to do what was best for the kids, and he knew Elli was a damn good mother.

She kept the children, and eventually Linda moved in with them. Elli and Linda's inchoate relationship was tentative during the first few months; they didn't think it would last. The pair took a fatalistic approach to groceries, purchasing only enough to last a few days.

Elli's parents were dead, and so weren't around to disapprove of their daughter's lifestyle. But Linda's family, a proud clan that dated back to the founding of Milford, was shocked.

Reflecting on it now, Nancy D'Aulizio, Linda's fraternal twin, says she can see the clues she missed growing up. Nancy and Linda were not a bit alike, except for the identical clothes their mother forced on them. Linda shunned the girly and frilly that Nancy delighted in. But the telltale sign was Linda's "lack of desire to date or to go to the prom," Nancy says. "There were a few young men that she tried to date. But I didn't understand why she didn't feel the same way about men as I did. She tried to reach out to the men, but it just wasn't rightŠ.She did go to her prom with a guy who was a good friend." (Linda's prom date later told her that he was gay, too.)

Linda's dad, Patrick, would drop by the Woolco now and then to take Linda and Elli to lunch. But Linda's mother, also named Nancy, was horrified by Linda's admission. Both the family doctor and church pastor told her that Linda suffered from a hormone imbalance and needed treatment. As far as Nancy Enger was concerned, Eleanora Piombino was taking advantage of her daughter. Nancy would have nothing to do with Elli.

(Even after Linda and Elli had been together for 15 years, Nancy would not accept their lifestyle. An incurable Hallmark queen with a card for every conceivable occasion, she continued to address cards only to "Miss Linda Enger." Linda finally broached the subject in a three-and-a-half-page letter, warning that future cards would be returned if they did not take her relationship into account. After Nancy tested her daughter -- a card was sent to Miss Linda; it was returned -- she addressed a card to "Linda and friends." Inside, she had written, "You'd be alright if you took your medicine." It was the only acknowledgment of the relationship she ever gave, and speaking of the card now, Linda has to excuse herself from the table.)

To escape family scrutiny, Linda, Elli and the kids moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and began their semi-nomadic life. In their 25 years together, Linda and Elli have lived in Connecticut, all over Virginia, and in Baltimore and Atlanta. In that time Linda has welded trash cans, managed operations and worked in information systems for BFI, and is now "in career transition," her euphemism for unemployment. Elli has cut hair (even though she is allergic to human hair), worked on a naval base, been a credit manager and organized shipments at Target, where she now prices merchandise.

The couple didn't know what to tell the kids, so they didn't tell them anything. At home, they led exemplary "straight" lives. There was no intimacy in front of the children. Besides, they didn't have time to consider themselves as a couple. They were a family first, which meant putting food on the table for the girls.

It meant the family went camping, not only because it was fun, but also because it was cheap. Now sitting at the kitchen table in their west Houston home, Linda stacks Ziplock bags filled with family snapshots onto the table. There's a three-by-five of the girls and Elli piled in a hammock; another, of them floating in inner tubes in some muddy river, a cheerful mess of damp hair and big smiles.

At home, Elli was Mom -- the lecturer, cook and cleanup crew. Linda wasn't Dad, but she filled in Elli's gaps: sewing, ironing and teaching the kids how to drive. Elli would buy her children two-piece bathing suits, then Linda would warn them not leave the house in just that. Elli pretended to like their boyfriends, but Linda was loud and clear with her opinions. "Sometimes Linda and I would fight like sisters -- who was going to do the dishes, who was going to do the vacuuming," recalls youngest daughter Gloria Herberson, now 29. "Mom did all the cooking, Mom did all the cleaning, and every once in a while she'd say Linda and I were pigs and needed to do something."

In spite of Elli and Linda's efforts to hide their relationship, Gloria realized at a young age that her mother was a lesbian. Now married and the mother of two girls, Gloria says she had a normal, happy childhood with sleepovers and parties like any other girl. "It's never been hard for me. When they dropped me off at a party, someone would ask, 'Who's that guy driving the truck? He's really good-looking,' and it was Linda; her hair was just cut really short. Nobody asks when you're ten or 11. When I got into my teens, I just told my friends the truth. They never had any problems. If they did, they weren't my friends."

Her three older sisters, though, were confused and not as understanding, she says. They weren't aware of the true nature of Linda and Elli's relationship until the couple split for three months in 1980. (It was one of their several separations that led to dating other people. With her hands parallel before her, palm facing palm, Linda demonstrates how their relationship has fluctuated. Her hands move forward, as if one were the real flesh and the other only a mirror image, veering apart, then closing in, then apart again. "I think any couple that's stayed together as long as we have has questioned if they're the ones that should be together," Linda says.)

Taking advantage of the separation, Elli's sisters intervened, telling the girls the truth. Without Linda around, the sisters said, maybe Elli would revert to "normal" ways, but Elli insisted that she was gay. One day while she was at work, the aunts took the children away, dividing the girls between them.

"My aunts didn't accept it," Gloria says. "They felt they needed to butt their noses in." Gloria was ten at the time; her sisters were in their teens. Elli and Linda reconciled, and after a year Gloria returned to them, but her sisters chose to stay with the aunts. "Maybe if [Elli and Linda] talked about it with them before our aunts got ahold of them, they would have been more open to it," Gloria says. "But again, you're going back to the '70s, and how do you really react to something like that?"

Looking back now, Elli says she should have been honest with the girls. "The message from our silence was there was something wrong with our relationship," she says.

And Elli knows what it's like to grow up thinking something is wrong. Back in her day, if you were 20 and unwed, that meant that either no one wanted you or there was something wrong. "I didn't want that for the kids. I wanted them to decide for themselves." All four of them -- Victoria, Patricia Rose, Eleanora Nancy and Gloria -- chose to get married. And all but Victoria decided to have kids, giving Elli and Linda eight grandchildren.

By the time Elli and Linda moved to Atlanta in 1990, Gloria had grown up and left. For the first time, Elli and Linda were open about their relationship: They held hands in public, sat on the same side of the booth at restaurants. Being able to show their affection liberated them, as well as brought them closer.

They also found church again. Elli and Linda had felt they didn't need to attend church to have God in their lives. But at Christmastime in 1994, Linda missed hearing Handel's Messiah and persuaded Elli to accompany her to Saint Mark United Methodist Church. The ceremony was beautiful, Elli recalls, beautiful enough to rival the Roman Catholic ceremonies of her childhood.

And Saint Mark was welcoming as well. During Atlanta's gay pride parade, church members handed out water and lemonade to the passing marchers while the Baptist church across the street surrounded its property with hired security guards.

Elli cried when BFI transferred Linda to Houston. When the couple moved in 1996, they signed a contract for a four-bedroom, brown-bricked two-story house in "East San Antonio," as their friends call their far-west-Houston suburb. The neighborhood is on the edge of Houston; only a freeway exit away, Katy thrives in its state of supersuburbia. When the deal was done, the developer's sales representative beamed, "You're the first grandmothers we have here."

"That's not the first of what we are," Elli quipped.

They missed their old church, and flipping through the Houston Voice, Linda saw an ad for Bering Memorial. She didn't know that a "reconciling" church goes out of its way to roll out the welcome mat for gays and lesbians. But by the looks of the ad's art -- a cross, and an olive branch over a triangle -- she knew that Bering was the church for them.

They became volunteers at Bering, helping to form a couples group, attending retreats, and building and pulling the church's gay pride float with Linda's monster of a truck: a black GMC one-ton, dual-engine diesel, the kind with six tires (four in the back). It has steps on each side of the bed causing the body to curve out wide over each set of back wheels, so that from behind the truck looks as if it has hips. It was plenty hefty enough to tow "All God's Children," last year's float complete with a phalanx of jovial, waving parishioners.

Elli and Linda hosted holiday church gatherings at their house in almost-Katy, at least a 45-minute drive from Bering. The home is nothing fancy, nothing stunning, except for the 60-inch TV that occupies one wall of the den, a Christmas gift for themselves last year to watch baseball (the Braves), basketball (the Comets) and movies (action and comedies). For one Bering gathering, 85 people packed the house; Elli cooked. ("I'm Italian," she says. "If something happens, I feed you.")

Linda became a lay leader, assisting in ministries and chairing an inclusiveness task force committee. The couple also committed to a 34-week Bible study class that taught them God's blessing applies to everyone, gay, straight, bi or transgendered. Discussing Leviticus 20:15, which instructs that a man shall not lie with a man, Elli and Linda decided it applied to stories like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, where men raped other men. These were acts of violence, not sexual love.

With this interpretation, Elli and Linda felt assured that God did not find their love sinful. But a wedding for themselves was a radical idea. Even after they had been together more than 20 years, they thought weddings didn't apply to them.

Not that they didn't dream of one.

"We said, 'HmmmmŠ Nah,' " Elli explains.

"Because we thought it wasn't worth it, that we didn't deserve it," Linda clarifies.

"It took us 20 years just to get matching rings," Elli adds.

In February of this year, Bering's senior pastor, the Reverend Marilyn Meeker-Williams, declared that she would not conduct any more marriage ceremonies until she could conduct them all. But the congregation had been thoroughly debating the topic long before the pastor's announcement.

At a Christmas party, Elli said she thought that stopping straight marriages was unfair. Two wrongs don't make a right, she reasoned. But it isn't wrong, answered a fellow churchgoer, Marguerite Turner. Marguerite pointed out that if ministers could bless a house or dog, why couldn't they bless Elli and Linda's relationship? They deserved a wedding. Linda and Elli hadn't thought of it that way, but now they did.

They wanted Meeker-Williams to officiate at their ceremony, but doing so would put her job at risk. Elli and Linda decided on the street-wedding alternative.

"We want to find a way to extend God's grace while upholding the discipline, even though we don't agree," says Linda. "We want to do what we can to change the system from within the system."

They admit it would be nice if the church organization recognized their union, if their ceremony became a catalyst to change the United Methodist Church's stance.

"I think UMC is committed to ignorance right now," Elli says.

"We're going to educate them," Linda chimes in.

"Well, we're going to try."

At the Sunday-morning service before their wedding, Elli and Linda distribute hugs on their way to seats in a pew near the front of the sanctuary. Eight stained-glass windows encourage a peaceful ambience in the lavender-walled room. To the right, a quiltlike white flag with an AIDS ribbon hangs from a metal stand. On the left, another depicts a dove outstretched before a pink triangle. Fresh sunflower arrangements smile from the pulpit as live organ music emanates from some hidden place. The congregation consists mostly of men, but there's a decent number of women and several children. During the hymns, Linda sings in a bold soprano, the hymn book open in both hands, rocking back and forth gently on her feet.

"That place is filled with grace," she says.

It's the big night -- Friday, August 27 -- and 15 minutes before the 7:30 ceremony, Elli and Linda are posing for pictures inside Bering. Linda had been spreading the rumor that she'd arrive in a tux and wing tips, but here she is in a light teal, ankle-length dress, with metallic-gray platform heels, at that. Elli's dress is an eggshell off-white, similar in style, a variation on the same theme.

Elli is chewing gum nervously. Her throat is dry, and she's sure her voice will disappear in front of a crowd, even if it's an expectant crowd of her closest friends. But as a surprise, she wants to read Linda a poem that a co-worker wrote as a gift for the couple.

Sitting on a bench is the rest of the wedding party: Linda's twin, Nancy, and her daughter Nicole, who is Elli's bridesmaid. Just as Linda was Nancy's bridesmaid, Nancy is Linda's. Nancy says she is representing their other four siblings. Elli's remaining brother and sister are too ill to fly from Connecticut, and none of her daughters could make it.

Peeking out the church door, Elli spies on the chattering guests who have filled the 150 rented chairs. Another 30 to 40 people stand behind them. At the blocked-off intersection of Harold and Mulberry are a harp, two guitars and a PA system with microphones. On the southeast corner, two TV crews from local stations and several newspaper reporters and photographers fidget with their equipment. Linda and Elli had been concerned about protesters, but none have appeared. Only two young men on bikes have stopped to watch.

As the harp reverberates with an ethereal version of "My Heart Will Go On," the Reverend Meeker-Williams leads a row of 16 vestment-clad clergy, who file beneath the church's colonial pillars to stand on the steps. They are Presbyterian, Orthodox Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian, Unity, Lutheran and Methodist. (One Methodist pastor flew in from San Jose, California, her ticket donated by a lesbian couple at her church.) When the wedding march begins, a procession carrying a candle, the quiltlike flags and the Bible descends from the church steps to the street. Linda and Elli, arm in arm, follow slowly, holding on to each other tightly.

After Linda solemnly professes her love for Elli, it's Elli's turn to read the poem. Instead, she chokes on her gum and says in a playful singsong, "We're getting married, in front of everybody." With tears in her eyes, Linda exchanges vows and rings with her "life partner."

Blessing the union, the Reverend Plummer wraps a colorful stole around their clasped hands. As the ceremony ends, he solemnly entreats for the inclusion of gays, a people in exile standing outside their church: "Is there sanctuary for us? A place of rest that we can call our home?"

Enough activism. "We forgot the kiss!" Plummer cries. Amid cheers and applause, Elli and Linda share a simple kiss and, with the guests following, proceed into the church for a service of hymns and communion, of uplifting voices.

Inside the glass-walled private reception hall are three photo collages capturing the couple in the '70s, '80s and '90s: snapshots of Elli reluctantly ironing, of Linda sticking her tongue out, of the pair in Atlanta, where they're returning for their honeymoon. The stole made for the ceremony is also on display, soon to be donated to a minister who is traveling with a collection of stoles from clergy who were dismissed from their jobs because they were gay or because they performed wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The room is packed, with an excuse-me, pardon-me at every step. Outside, quaint black iron lamps line the path around the dance floor, their orblike white bulbs glowing in emulation of tonight's nearly full moon.

Linda and Elli clink their glasses, each inscribed "Bride," and dance, Linda's arms around Elli's waist, to Shania Twain's "You're Still the One."

Later, inside the glass hall, dotted with lights, the couple cuts the four-tier wedding cake, or tries to.

"Anyone got a chain saw?" Linda shouts. "I need power tools!"

"That's for later tonight," someone yells back.

Linda and Elli feign shock, then laugh, as any newlyweds would.


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