She Wouldn't Crawl on Her Belly for a Monk

"William, do you take this woman, Lita..."

Ah, the Reverend Jones. It's 6:30, Saturday evening, August 21, 1982. I'm standing in front of 35 friends here in the old Authors' Lounge of the Oriental Hotel, in Bangkok. I'm gripping Lita's hand as though it were a lifeline from a life raft. For some reason I've cracked. Broken into tears. Had to use my brand-new white silk handkerchief to blow my nose.

In one way I can't believe I'm doing this. Why settle down? In the last ten years, since 1971, Lita and I have been freelancing together around Southeast Asia, Russia, China, the Middle East, everywhere. But mostly in this neck of the woods, Lita snapping the pictures, me scribbling the notes. We were known in certain quarters as the enfants terribles. Then, six months ago, we both got a scare in Phnom Penh. We came down with some kind of hemorrhagic fever. Suddenly we weren't so invincible. As we lay in that ghostly city, sweating and aching, I started to think about how much I loved this woman. Tying the knot just seemed right. Yes, she was a bit older than I was, seven years or so, but who cares? We clicked.

"...to be your lawfully wedded wife..."

Of course the crunch of all crunches came five hours before the ceremony. My fault entirely. We were going to be married by this Anglican priest. But as the moment came closer, I started to feel, strongly, that we needed to acknowledge this Buddhist culture we'd come to love, too.

"Sweetheart," I said, "I think we should ask some monks to come."

"You're suggesting this five hours before we're getting married?"

I was adamant. I felt I had to get it right.

"Fine," Lita said, "if you can arrange it."

So I bought a bunch of lotus-flower offerings and went to Wat Bowon Niwet, a temple I knew upriver. Half an hour later I walked out across the moat with promises that four or five monks could make it to the six o'clock ceremony.

By now it was about four. We had to break it to the pastor. "I don't know if I can do this," he told us. "Mixing my holy water with theirs." In the end, we agreed to rent an extra room for the Buddhist part. So it was separate. Pity. Two great ethical streams could have come together in love without getting persnickety.

Problem two. Lita, a Roman Catholic, refused to do what the Buddhist ceremony required: crawl on your stomach to give gifts to the monks while they chant prayers invoking blessings from Hindu gods like Indra, Shiva, Khali.

"I'm not crawling for anyone," she said.

Plus, there was the unspoken fact that she was wearing that $3000 Thai silk wedding dress. But she agreed to do the part where you kneel on gold and satin kneelers, and the monks place string garlands on your head and press three white dots onto your forehead and tie strings around your wrists and pour celestial water over them.

Finally, around five, a very Thai solution: the aristocratic lady organizing the wedding banquet tactfully suggested that she could act as stand-in for Lita. A surrogate wife for half an hour...

"...for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health..."

Around a quarter to six, the preacher's here, the Thai government registrars have set up a desk in a little room next door (to marry us in the eyes of the state), and beyond that, five monks wait on a dais before a giant gold Buddha. It's going to be a long night.

The string quartet tunes up to play "She Walks in Beauty," because they don't know the "Wedding March." The 35 guests mill about, mostly journalists, including my radio boss, Agnes Wee Boonchai Wattana, who first introduced me to Lita.

I've taken my place up by the preacher, the orchestra starts playing "She Walks in Beauty," Lita's on the stairs. She begins her descent. I'm getting teary when the manager of the hotel comes rushing in. "Mr. Manson. You have a call. She says she's your mother."

The quartet falls silent, Lita stops on the stairs. I take the phone. "Mom? Yeah. Wish you could be here too. What? Mom, Lita and I have been living together for ten years. Mom, I'm 39."

My best man, Peter Heenan, grabs the phone. "Mrs. Manson, he has to go. They have three ceremonies to get through and 35 parched people, and the orchestra's only paid up for two hours. I'll make sure he sends pictures."

So what did I feel at that golden moment when we were actually saying our vows? I can't remember a thing. I remember only the struggle with the tears that started when I saw my bride float down that stairway. We did the Christian service, the Thai civil service, and then I took a second "wife" in the Buddhist ceremony. By then, our guests had had enough ceremonies to last a lifetime. Us too. No wonder we're still married.

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