I don’t have memories of ever being at a traditional American wedding as a child. No memories of being at a wedding steeped in family rituals and tiered white wedding cakes.
I remember being very small and being a flower girl in a Serbian Orthodox wedding for an aunt. The priest didn’t speak much English during the ceremony. A few years later the same aunt married again, a lovely French man.
That wedding was in a townhouse in Chicago with a ragtag group of guests from all over the world. I was a flower girl again with a hoop skirt on and baby’s breath in my hair. The memory I have of the food and conversations can still take my breath away. There were people of all colors, and I saw a man put mascara on a woman for the first time, and then he put some on himself. It was exciting and different.
Everyone, in his or her eclectic way, was beautiful that day to me.
As I get older, and I have been to many, many weddings, I think back to that townhome wedding and the guests standing and smiling on while holding wine glasses. I think of the groom, who was a French chef, twirling sugar under a heat lamp to grace the cream puffs with flowers on his own wedding cake. I think about how far from “tradition” that day was and how much love was packed in their little home.
The bride’s second marriage lasted.
My dad, (the brother of the aunt above) always told me no one should ever get married before they were 25. He said you really don’t know who you are until you are 25. He was 19 when he married my mom. She already had me. They didn’t have a wedding.
My husband, Jim, is a physician and he says our brains change and grow until we are around 25 and we shouldn’t make any major decisions until after that time. He calls it “adolescent brain,” and it can make you do stupid things and act irrationally.
He asked me to marry him when we were only 22. I even said yes, despite knowing that my brain could be making a bad decision. He had set up such an elaborate proposal that we made the local newspaper. He had an entire day to contemplate whether or not he loved me enough to have a life with me while painting a billboard size wall in the middle of town with the proposal.
Jim and I wanted a traditional wedding. Neither of us had much tradition growing up, and we wanted to start our married life the way we probably wished our own childhoods had been. Our wedding was going to be our responsibility from planning to paying for it.
Looking back on it, I’m certain that I just wanted to have that day you see in movies or framed on your friend’s parent’s mantle. You have one day in your life that you can put on a giant white dress and walk down an aisle to the person you love. In a perfect world, it takes only one time.
In my attempts to have a wedding steeped in traditions and rituals, it never even occurred to me to take someone with me dress shopping. It seems funny, in retrospect, that I went alone and picked out my dress. I wanted so badly to have a normal wedding and the beginning of a normal life, but in reality I didn’t even have someone to ask to go with me to begin my own traditions.
The ritual of having the women that are closest to you there when you are choosing a dress wasn’t feasible for me. They were either too far away or dead, and so I went alone. It was ok because it was me and how I had done things always. It was my normal.
When Jim and I sat with the pastor where we were to be married, we were told we couldn’t have the traditional wedding march. You know the song, “Here Comes The Bride.” We were so far away from that stage of planning the wedding that I just accepted it and eventually chose other music. Jim had a harder time understanding the church’s reasoning behind not allowing the song, which had to do with the fact that it was written for a scene in a play that ended in murder.
It seemed that the tradition of playing that particular song was falling out of favor. What we thought of as a wedding ritual, it turns out, was just pop culture in 1858 when Princess Victoria played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at her wedding. People followed suit. Thus a tradition was formed.
Traditions change. Wedding rituals change. What I was going to learn was situations change and people have to change as well.
I thought I had planned for any sad tears on our wedding day by informing the photographer in advance that my mother was deceased. When the photographer forgot that I told him and called me to find my mom for the “mother and daughter” photos, tears were shed and accepted knowing that it was probably going to happen anyway. I even made it through my father refusing to come to my wedding, let alone walk me down the aisle because the local newspaper mistakenly failed to list my stepmother in the engagement announcement months before. I learned that we are each responsible for our decisions, including understanding and forgiveness, and that I can only control my actions.
I was also going to have to remember to have a sense of humor.
Despite the fact that our florist went to prison and I never regained our deposit for his genius work, that he never did, and despite the fact that 50 disposable cameras were given mistakenly to children to take pictures of people under the bathroom stalls.
Despite my every effort to have what I never thought I would have, a NORMAL traditional wedding, my sweet grandfather let my grandmother spray “hair” on the back of his head, so when he walked down the aisle no one would know he had a bald spot there. It was black “spray hair” on a gray man. I even laughed through that and told him he would look handsome either way and that I loved them for caring enough to not only come to our wedding but to walk me down the aisle.
Despite all of that, I was going to walk down the aisle to a “replacement” wedding march, in a giant white dress, and have portraits to put on my mantle one day.
Our beautiful dream wedding was about to begin and I waited while the last guests were being seated. I walked quickly with my 7 bridesmaids through a hall under the church to gain entrance to the back of the chapel. I suddenly saw the pastor almost running towards us, announcing loudly, that he needed to talk to the bride.
The girls parted, and I stood there looking at him.
I took an expected deep breath.
When you are me, you learn that things probably aren’t going to go right and your best laid plans will may just end in some kind of Greek tragedy. Because of this, you learn, even before your brain has stopped growing and before you really know who you are, to step up and take your licks.
There I was in this moment, with the pastor looking so very, very stressed out. I knew how this expected conversation would end, and as he pulled me aside from my friends he told me that the groom asked him to talk to me.
My groom, Jim had asked the pastor to talk to me.
Here was my expected tragedy, at the very pinnacle of what I thought was a break from all of the bad that ever happened to me. Why did I let myself think I could end up happy, with a husband who loved me, and a home with a wedding photo on the mantle?
The pastor gently told me that during the rehearsal the night before, when we ran through the vows he never mentioned the part about “kissing the bride.” He said my fiancé, Jim, wanted to be sure that the kiss was indeed part of the ceremony.
Jim went and found the pastor before the ceremony and wanted to be sure that kissing the bride was still part of the church’s tradition.
When the pastor had assured Jim that kissing the bride was still part of the ceremony, Jim had insisted that the pastor go and find me and tell me so there would be no confusion during the ceremony.
At that very moment, I felt that I didn’t need to carry on with my small zip code of bridal attendants and meet Jim in front of the church.
I could have walked straight down the aisle to “Shake Dat A$$” and jumped up and wrapped my legs around him and given him a big inappropriate kiss.
I didn’t though.
I had restraint.
First I calmed my girlfriend’s nerves that they weren’t going to have to let my single self sleep on their couch for-ev-er.
Then I got busy with the act of matrimony.
Then Jim kissed the bride.
To everyone else it was just another ritual in the marriage tradition, but to me it was the most tender act of affection and commitment. I knew what was behind that kiss. I knew what that kiss and that man were made of.
I try to tell this story to newly engaged couples who are navigating what to do in terms of a wedding ceremony. Some people need the “tradition,” whatever that is at this moment in time, and some people just need to feel like they are married and that how they got there isn’t so important.
For some people, the ritual itself defines the relationship.
For me, it wasn’t the dress or the last-minute replacement floral centerpieces; it was Jim and me making our way through the process of this event. We were 24 and, yes, we probably didn’t know who we were quite yet, and I know we have both grown since, but thinking about that lovely day and telling the story makes me happy. One day when our boys are older, I will tell them about their romantic father and how much I love him, and that story will become part or our shared family history.
For us, that first kiss as a married couple, was the ritual that ended up mattering and not so much the ceremony. It just took the ceremony to get us to the kiss.
Did you go traditional or march to the beat of your own drum when you were married? What traditions do you like we still practice today and which do you wish would go the way of the “Wedding March?”
PS No one cared what my grandfathers bald spot looked like. They were too busy looking at his fancy dance moves. I get most of my coolness from him, (and a little of my sparkling personality) and if it weren’t for our wedding I would never had this photograph to remind me how much I loved him and miss him now.
This post is the first in a series of guest blog posts for the documentary The Ritual. The film is expected to be released in 2014 and you can visit the website and read more about the film and filmmakers here: The Ritual