MAXWELL:  Best wishes to my mother, the bride

10/20/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


My mother, Jeanette, and Wilbert Sippio, both in their late 70s, began new lives last Saturday.

They were married.

Their wedding, held in my mother’s church, was an affair to remember. More than 75 people attended, relatives, friends and more than a handful of curious strangers who had heard about “the two old folks gettin’ married,” as a young woman in the parking lot said.

Parts of the ceremony had to be changed because my mother, whose left leg was amputated about two years ago, wears a prothesis, and because the groom, also an amputee, has an artificial leg.

My brother Charlie and I escorted our mother down the aisle to the altar. Charlie held one arm and the flowers; I, the other arm and walker. Nervous and trapped in a new dress, the fiercely independent bride walked heavily, annoyed that she had to lean on her “boys” for balance. As the three of us inched forward, ignoring the rhythmical urging of Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, quiet anticipation fell over the guests, who were standing.

Staring at faces, I saw admiration and awe, and I was amused to see harmless envy in the eyes of some unmarried women my mother’s age.

Halfway down the aisle, she regained a bit of composure, placing less of her weight on me. Alarmed, Charlie felt the shift and looked to me for a cue. After I smiled, he was reassured and we let the bride carry much of her own weight. At the altar, where the equally nervous groom waited, Charlie let go of our mother’s arm and returned to his seat. After “giving the bride away,” I handed her the walker and took my place on a nearby pew.

I heard only snatches of the vows because I was struck by how fragile and how small my mother seemed as she leaned on the walker. Mr. Sippio, as everyone calls him, stood next to her. As he tried to compose himself, I also became aware of how thin and boyish he seemed. And although both had been married before, they were like children embarking on the adventure of their lives.

After all of the years of hardship and pain both have experienced, what a gift they are to each other, I thought. What a perfect time for them to find real happiness.

My mother was unhappy during her brief time with my father, a hard worker and hard drinker who often became abusive. She routinely kicked him out of the house but always took him back after he begged long enough. He finally deserted us for good when I was 11 years old, leaving my mother penniless, with a stack of bills, a vermin-infested migrant shack, five strapping children and one on the way.

She supported us as a field hand in South Florida’s vegetable fields part of the year and as a motel maid during the tourist season. We never had anything fancy, always staying one pot of Great Northerns and neck bones and a frying pan of hot hoecakes ahead of hunger.

She made us attend school and complete our homework each day even when we had after-school jobs or played a sport. Today, my siblings and I have our mother to thank for our work ethic and stubborn pride.

When her leg was amputated, we did not think that she would survive. If the pain does not kill her, I thought, the loss of independence most certainly will. But she survived, quickly recuperating _ cooking, sweeping and mopping, catching the bus by herself, going to barbecues, traveling to family events as far away as New York and Michigan.

And, of course, meeting a companion at a convalescent facility who would become her husband.

When the minister told Mr. Sippio that he could kiss the bride, he had difficulty lifting the veil. Undaunted, he kissed her through the fabric, held his arms aloft and gave the guests twin peace signs. The place broke into laughter and hand-clapping. After that moment, the mood remained festive and intimate. During the reception, the ambiance mellowed as the familiar aromas of hot soul food filled the air, and guests piled their plates to overflowing.

My emotions were bittersweet. For the first time as an adult, I was not the most important man in my mother’s life. No longer was she simply Jeanette Maxwell. She had become Mrs. Sippio _ another man’s wife. I was sad.

But my sadness became joy as I realized that no longer would my mother be alone in that tiny apartment, at the mercy of strangers. Now, she would have a loving companion and a new home, a spacious and comfortable place in a neighborhood free of violent drug dealers, hookers and young hoodlums.

No longer would I wake up in a state of panic in the middle of the night, wondering if she is safe. Mr. Sippio, a retired, self-employed cement finisher, will take good care of her.

On Sunday morning before driving back to St. Petersburg, I visited the newlyweds, who were sipping coffee and grinning from ear-to-ear. My mother was a new woman. She glowed, looking younger than ever. Mr. Sippio, a naturally affectionate man, wore his usual calm and wise expression.

Turning to say goodbye, I glanced at the space between the couch and the recliner, where their prostheses stood side-by-side. My mother and Mr. Sippio looked, first, at their artificial legs and, then, at me. Suddenly, we were overcome with laughter.

I left Fort Lauderdale knowing that Wilbert and Jeanette Sippio will be happy for the rest of their lives.