When “Caroline’s Wedding” opens, Grace Azile is leaving a Brooklyn courtroom, having just received her certificate of U.S. citizenship. When she calls her mother (Ma) to tell her the news, Ma advises her to hurry and get her passport, as that is what is truly American. Grace has to temporarily trade in the certificate at the post office to get a passport. She feels anxious without it, since when her mother was pregnant with her sister Caroline, she was arrested in a sweatshop raid and spent three days in an immigration jail.
Grace reaches home to find her mother preparing a pot of bone soup. Ma holds the traditional Haitian belief that bone soup has the magical power to separate lovers, so she has served it every night since Caroline announced her engagement. Ma disapproves of Eric because he is Bahamian and not Haitian.
Caroline was born without a left forearm. Ma thinks the cause was a drug that was injected into her by a prison doctor after the sweatshop immigration raid and that Caroline was lucky to have been born at all. Unlike Grace, Caroline was born in the United States.
Ma calls Grace into her bedroom. She is upset that Eric’s courtship of Caroline is different from how she was courted by her daughters’ father, which took place in Haiti and was formal. Grace and Caroline’s father (Papa) is now dead.
One night, Caroline and Grace play a traditional Haitian free association game around the word, “lost.” The game was taught to them by Ma, who learned it as a girl. Ma appears and asks them to go with her to a mass for a dead Haitian refugee woman. Grace goes, but Caroline does not. The Catholic Church they attend holds services tailored to the Haitian community. The priest reads out the names of refugees drowned at sea that week. Many are known to members of the congregation. He says a prayer for the dead woman, who gave birth to a baby on board the boat. The child died, and the mother threw the baby overboard and then jumped into the sea after it, drowning herself. Grace thinks of the Haitian belief that there are spots in the sea where Africans who jumped off the slave ships rest, where those who die at sea can choose to join their long-lost relations. The priest asks the congregation to remember those they have loved and lost. As screams erupt in the congregation, Ma suddenly gets up and leaves.
Caroline and Eric plan a civil ceremony. Ma wants Eric to bring his family to their house to court her favor and to have his father ask her blessing, according to the old Haitian custom. Caroline tells Grace that she dreamt of Papa the previous night. It is ten years since he died. After Papa’s death, Ma told her daughters to wear red panties, in the belief that this would ward off his spirit so that he would not mistake the daughters for his wife and try to lie with them at night. For some time after he died, Caroline and Grace had the same dream: they try in vain to catch up with him as he walks through a deserted field. They disobeyed Ma and did not wear the red panties, as they wanted Papa’s spirit to visit them.
Grace tells Caroline that the son of their Cuban neighbor, Mrs. Ruiz, was recently shot by the pilot of an airplane after trying to hijack the plane to go from Havana to Miami.
Grace recalls that when she and Caroline were younger,...
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they used to wish that one day the rest of Caroline’s arm would burst out of Ma’s stomach and float back to her. Caroline likes to have her stub stroked, but no one does, out of fear of giving offense. Caroline says that if she were to cut the vein that throbs below the surface of her stub, she could bleed to death.
Grace dreams that she sees her father at a masked ball but cannot get close to him. By his side is Caroline. Grace screams in protest that they are leaving her out. When alive, he remembered everything about their life in Haiti and its traditions and beliefs.
Preparations are under way for Caroline’s wedding, which is a month away. Though Ma does not want to attend, she pretends that this is the “real wedding” she wants for her daughter, so that Caroline does not resent her. However, she is not going to cook a wedding-night dinner, as is the custom. Grace decides to throw a wedding shower for Caroline. Ma disapproves because to her a shower seems like begging.
Ma, Caroline, and Grace go to Eric’s house for dinner. Ma is as unenthusiastic about Eric’s cooking as she is about him, and Grace thinks he should have hired a Haitian cook. To save Ma’s feelings, Caroline goes home with her and Grace even though she would rather stay the night with Eric. Ma warns Caroline that people are known by their stories and that she should value herself and guard against being the subject of gossip. After Ma falls asleep, Caroline calls a cab and returns to Eric’s place. Grace dreams of Papa: this time, she is on a cliff and he is leaning out of a helicopter trying to grab her hand to rescue her.
Grace was born when her parents were poor and living in a shantytown in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They called her their “misery baby,” and Ma thought she might die. Desperate to find a way to leave Haiti, Papa got a visa by taking vows in a false marriage with a widow who was leaving Haiti for the United States. A few years later, Papa divorced the woman and sent for Ma and Grace. While he was alive, this was a secret that Grace and Caroline were not supposed to know.
Caroline’s wedding shower takes place. After the guests leave, Ma gives Caroline her present, a silk teddy. Privately, Grace tells Ma that she did not think such things were to her taste, but Ma replies that she cannot live in the United States for twenty-five years and not be affected by it. Ma fears that Caroline is marrying Eric because she thinks he is the only man who would marry her, but Grace suggests that he may love Caroline. Ma remarks that people’s hearts are made of stone. Grace suspects that this is a result of her hurt feelings when Papa married the widow. Ma brings out a bag of Papa’s letters that he wrote to her from the United States while she was still in Haiti. The letters address practical matters but never mention love.
The night before her wedding, Caroline tries to make Ma understand why she and Eric are getting married in a small civil ceremony: they do not wish to spend all their money on a big wedding. Eric has a friend who is a judge, and he will perform the ceremony in his office. Ma says that such a “mechanical” affair is typically American.
Caroline puts on her wedding dress for Ma and Grace to see. She is also wearing a new false arm. She has been having phantom pain in her arm such as amputees experience, and her doctor told her that the false arm may make it go away. When Ma points out that Caroline is not an amputee, she says she feels like one because of the pressure of the wedding. Ma says, “In that case, we all have phantom pain.”
Caroline wakes on her wedding day looking ill, with a pain in her arm which makes her not want to get married. Ma says she was the same on the morning of her own wedding. Ma boils a traditional concoction with leaves, gives Caroline a bath, and rubs the leaves over Caroline’s body. Ma tells Caroline that she is looking forward to visiting her in her new house.
Caroline, her family, and Eric arrive at Judge Perez’s office for the ceremony. Grace cannot help but feel that Caroline is divorcing her family for a new allegiance. After the ceremony, Caroline feels better. At lunch, Grace toasts Caroline, saying that she will never be gone from the family and reflecting that this is something Ma might have said. Caroline and Grace bid each other a tearful farewell.
That night, Ma receives a bunch of red roses from Caroline. She keeps sniffing them and calls her daughter “Sweet, sweet Caroline.” Grace dreams that she is sitting with her father beside a stream of rose-colored blood. As they look at the stars, Papa tells Grace that wherever she is, she can see them. He tries to play a question-and-answer game with Grace, asking her what landscapes they would paint if they were painters and what she would name a daughter. Grace does not know how to answer. He tells her that she has forgotten how to play the game. She wakes, for the first time frightened of the father who appears in her dreams. She asks her mother what she thought of the wedding. Ma tells Grace that when Papa left her in Haiti to move with the widow to the United States, she made a charm to keep his love but knew his feelings for her had changed. Then she shows Grace Papa’s romantic, respectful proposal letter. She adds that Caroline’s wedding was nice.
Grace’s passport arrives. For the first time, she feels secure in the United States. She reflects that her whole family has paid dearly for this piece of paper. She visits Papa’s grave to show him the passport.
While making bone soup, Ma reports to Grace that she has told Caroline that she will keep her bed for whenever she wants to use it, a turnaround from her previous stance that she would get rid of the bed the day Caroline got married. Grace drops a bone into the soup, and the splash leaves a red mark on her hand. Grace asks Ma the questions Papa asked her in her dream. Ma says that as the older woman, the first question belongs to her. She asks Grace one of the questions from traditional Haitian question-and-answer games, one that Papa often asked Grace: why, when you lose something, is it in the last place you look? Grace knows the answer: because once you remember, you stop looking.