“What are you doing September 7?”
Did he hear me catch my breath in July when he invited me to be his plus one for a wedding two months later? The relationship still today feels new; back then it was in its infancy and I couldn’t be sure we’d be interested in each other a week hence let alone in two months. But the day came and with it new shoes, a new-to-me skirt, and a handbag borrowed from my daughter. I like weddings, I told myself; it’s marriage that’s a problem.
So I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop I felt when we were sitting on the patio of the park lodge, looking at the tulle, lights, and bows and waiting for the wedding party and I realized—I hadn’t been to a wedding since I’d been divorced.
The very first wedding I attended was my cousin’s in her parents’ backyard garden where the patent leather shoes and little gloves my mother sent me in made me the most formally dressed guest. I was five. The bride wore flowers in her tumble of long dark hair, a loose, flowing dress and in my memory her feet were bare. The groom, all angles and limbs, was causal and comfortable. One of the most loving and supportive couples I know, they have been married more than forty years.
A series of classic, Iowa country weddings followed, those of our neighbors’ many daughters—the country church decked out in flowers, the groom and his men looking rather like beetles in their rented tuxes, the pouf of a wedding dress and the giggling girls full of youthful energy. The menu at the Lion’s Hall or the Elk’s Lodge would be sandwiches, relish trays, cheese squares and cake. There would be pink lemonade punch and a cash bar. The bride would dance a dollar dance—a dance where the best man would stand and wait to take money from any gentleman who wanted to dance with the bride. If the wedding party was particularly sassy, the groom might also be pressed into a dollar dance of his own, the best man and maid of honor competing to see whose dancer could raise more cash. The money would be stuffed into the groom’s pocket for extra spending on the honeymoon.
My first year of college, my brother’s wedding was an elegant diversion—twenty-six guests including bride, groom and celebrant, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In spite of a last minute lost wedding band that sent the two of us around the corner to Tiffany’s to buy a new one, the evening was a celebration that launched another marriage I admire—two talented children and two vibrant, nurtured careers to be marked by their thirty year anniversary in January.
The first chocolate cake I ever saw at a wedding was a second marriage for both bride and groom when I was in graduate school. The bride, a friend of my mother’s, had selected a cake that was wrapped in chocolate fondant with a white-chocolate bow. The inside of the cake was as delicious as the outside was beautiful.
And then in 1990 my friends started to get married—my college roommate was the first—and what followed was a spate of weddings, sometimes six or eight in a year, at the same time as a lasting relationship came into my life. Sitting in wait for the bride and groom to arrive at a garden wedding outside of Philadelphia, I counted on my fingers the number of weddings we had attended in the years we’d been together. When I got to twelve I turned to my boyfriend and asked, “you know we’ve been to a dozen weddings?” He looked at me and grinned, “Maybe ours should be the next one we attend.”
It was an exciting summer, talking marriage. A trip to my hometown netted an ideal location. We made no formal announcement nor did I consider us to be engaged, but the idea was definitely in the pipeline and it felt right.
It felt right.
The proposal came—that all-important question asked and answered—in November. We set a date for the following April.
My wedding is my favorite wedding of all time, and I’ve been to some great ones. The groom and I attended to every detail, paid for the lion’s share ourselves, made sure it was elegant and joyful, wrote a ceremony and vows that were meaningful, chose music and performers accordingly, found the perfect (chocolate) cake recipe, had dark chocolate bunnies made as favors (our wedding was the day before Easter), chose our own flowers and prepared them, figured out where everyone would stay, wrote and printed the invitations, and on and on and on. It was not perfect, but there were no unbearable hitches, nothing that would end up on a funny video show, and my only true surprise was that I was both bride and hostess. Another time, I made a note to myself in the far reaches of my brain, I’d ask someone else to maintain the flow from ceremony to meal to cake.
Another time … I never in my life thought there would be another time. I still don’t. But there must be a part of a woman’s brain that’s wired for weddings. Leading up to my wedding I found a whole storehouse of information about weddings, what I liked, what I didn’t, what was traditional, what we could do without. And even now, even when the very idea of any wedding makes me shake my head vigorously, no, no never again, there’s a part of my brain that starts to imagine: second wedding, huh? What would I wear? What would be fun and joyful? What would be meaningful? That’s one answer I know: What creates a meaningful wedding is the connection between bride and groom, and when the ceremony and celebration emerge from that place, it’s a good wedding. When it doesn’t it’s because the wedding follows a cookie cutter template or the mother of the bride or some other relative prevails over choices that spring from the love that sparked the wedding in the first place.
And that’s where my wedding, ceremony and celebration came from, pure love. When I was still married, my wedding day was one of my stories, something I told about as a significant life moment like the birth of my two children, my graduations, the purchase of my first car. When people spoke, as people do, about such events in their own lives, I had my story. I could chime in.
But not that September Saturday, when I was my boyfriend’s plus one for the wedding of people I did not know. I could not. The woman sitting next to me at the reception more than once evoked her own wedding. When it was my turn, I told her about my brother’s wedding, my friend’s wedding, how many times I’d been a bridesmaid. I talked weddings, how many I’d been to, the extremes, but I never once referenced my own. It felt like something I couldn’t talk about any more, not with a stranger, not on a date, not at a moment when we were supposed to be celebrating all of the possibilities and joys of a brand new union.
I’ve been thinking about it since—have I lost my story? The marriage shifted dramatically, ending in divorce, but does that change the wedding story, revoke it somehow? I walk my brain back through and remember one of the wisest things my former husband ever said: You don’t know what you don’t know. When we got married, we did so thoughtfully, with joy and pure intention and love. That moment—that story—hasn’t changed. The marriage that followed netted many amazing twists and turns and two of the finest people I know. And with that understanding I have come to realize that the only thing that has changed is that my wedding was a chapter in my story, but it is still very much a part of my narrative, one that I can celebrate, cherish, and in time, should the occasion arise, share.
Robin’s regular blog is “Overneath It All” found at overneathitall.com