Marriage on Skis

by Sonya Friedman

Cross-country skiing became a central part of my winters and of my life. I even married my husband on cross-country skis.

I’d been trying to get Herman Engel to marry me for several years. We were living together; I was very close to his three children – his teenage daughter, Kathy, was living with us. But Herman – influenced by his former, painful, failed marriage – worried that matrimony meant the end of trying, the end of giving one’s all. He was happy in our present life. But, finally realizing how important marriage was to me, he thought: Why give her grief? We’d been together 5+ years.

Herman had a humorous way of wiggling his eyebrows when he was for something. Finally, assenting to our marriage, he wiggled them.

Living in NYC, we couldn’t always ski out of our Vermont cabin. So we often went to Pound Ridge, N.Y. There, in February of 1971, Herman arranged for us to visit a Justice of the Peace with two witnesses, none of whom we’d ever seen before. We arrived in our ski knickers, high socks, boots, and with skis and poles. The Justice held out a Bible for us to swear upon; we spurned it. Then he murmured – almost indistinguishably – a string of words ending with: “with this ring I do thee wed.” We didn’t have a ring. One of the witnesses – a huge man –  handed me his ring, which was so big it could have been my bracelet. I returned it to him, nodding thanks. I said, I do; Herman said, I do.  The Justice pronounced us man and wife and told Herman he could kiss the bride. Instead, Herman – now the wise guy –  solemnly shook my hand.  The Justice gave us a marriage certificate, and a brochure with a poem – “Hiawatha.”

In the car, on the way to the ski trails, I examined the poem. It said that as unto the bow the cord is, so unto man is woman. Though she bends him, she obeys him. Though she draws him, yet she follows. I yelled, “What is this crap?” Herman was laughing, hard. “Well,”  he said, “YOU were the one who wanted to get married.”

We then had a big fight about which skiing trail to take.

When we got back to our Greenwich Village apartment, we started preparing dinner for our son Tim and his girlfriend, and for Grace Paley – we’d invited them to dinner before we knew we were getting married that day. We alerted Tim and he brought over a Stevie Wonder record, “Drink, drink that toast – drink that wedding toast.” Delightful. Grace arrived and, upon receiving the news, phoned her partner Bob Nichols who was rather a recluse. “Bob,” she said, “they just got married!” “I’ll be right over,” he said.

They lived a block from us.

Within minutes, the doorbell rang, and Bob started literally running up the 82 stairs to our 5thfloor walk-up, shouting, “We’re next! We’re next!” It was HE who wanted to get married, and Grace who had demurred. They were married a few months later.

Later on my wedding evening, my mother phoned from Florida. “Where were you all day?” she asked. “I’ve been calling you.” “I was out getting married,” I answered. “Thank God, Mrs. Engel!” she said. (I was 39 years old, and she had become desperate.) “No,” I said, “I’m not Engel, I’m keeping Friedman.”

“That’s ridiculous!” she said. “Friedman is now only your TRADE NAME.”

Then Kathy returned after a weekend with her mother and confronted us.  Scowling, she said, “I hear you got married. Why wasn’t I a bridesmaid?” She looked around at our comfortable apartment and her cozy room. “Well, it’s alright with me, as long as nothing changes around here!”

Herman and I continued our happy life together. After a year, I asked him, “Well, are you glad you married me?” He wiggled his eyebrows vigorously.

As a writer/translator, for decades I wrote subtitles for foreign films (by Fellini, De Sica, Godard, others).  Then, I introduced “supertitles” to the world of opera, and worked for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Seattle Opera and many other companies.  For the past 50+ years, I have vacationed in Vermont, summer and winter.