From Going Out, the memoir: Getting Them Married
This is from the memoir. Marriage isn't made or un-made in courts, but elsewhere....
I add my breath to your breath
that our days may be long on earth.
--Laguna Pueblo prayer
Unlike cars, we have all learned that marriages are only interesting when they break down.
Broken down marriages are the stuff of movies and books, TV talk shows and Hollywood celebrities. A good marriage is boring, everybody knows that.
But I get to look at the faces of each couple every time I perform a wedding and I believe that there has never been anyone who wanted anything other than that most boring of things, a good marriage. Their faces give it all away. There is just a moment—it’s hard to describe—when naked hope seems to make their faces glow silvery and luminous.
It is a private moment and I am a privileged witness. But getting that shining glimpse of palpable hope almost always makes up for all the taxing parts of getting a couple actually wed.
That said, weddings are one of the most onerous parts of parish ministry.
First you have to go through all that pre-marital stuff with the moony-eyed couple in the pastor’s office. I like to keep it simple. I ask them to tell me their love story which, with the reciprocal narcissism of the deeply-in- love, they are always more than happy to do.
They sit haunch-by-haunch on the couch in my office, well-groomed and dressed—they’re meeting with the pastor, so I guess they figure they ought to wear their Sunday-best. Each of them takes turns narrating the story of how they met, how they courted, what speed bumps they hit, how he—or more rarely, she—proposed.
Often there is a ring story. I love the ring stories. Grooms can be very inventive in the ways they present their diamonds. One of them proposed in a hansom cab in Central Park, though it didn’t go quite according to his carefully-detailed plan. Just as they were about to get into the hansom cab, the groom realized they had left the camera in the hotel room. He insisted they go back and get it. The bride was freezing. Why can’t we just take the damn ride and forget about the camera, she wanted to know.
No, we need it. No, we don’t. Yes, we do. So they went back to the hotel, then back once again to the hansom cab and by now the bride was not only freezing, but pissed off, too. It might not have been the best moment to propose, the groom said, but he did it anyway. And he had the cab driver take a picture of them, the bride happy, contrite, teary-eyed and glad they had gone back to get the camera.
Another groom gave his girlfriend a gift certificate for a manicure a few days before he planned on surprising her with the ring. She was offended—what did he think was so bad about her nails just the way they were? He thought she needed to wear nail polish? She passed it along to a friend who actually enjoyed getting manicures.
Another groom proposed at the very top of Sacre-Coeur in Paris. Another hid the ring inside a Plexi-glass cube with filled with Post-it notes on which he had written out his proposal.
So anyway, all the while the couple is telling me their love stories and their ring stories, they are sitting close enough to lean in to each other, to rub each other’s knees, little gestures that don’t seem to them too inappropriate to do in front of a person of the cloth who, no doubt, wouldn’t understand the first thing about sexual desire.
When older people get married they usually want less of the pageantry and folderol of a storybook wedding. But younger people often want the all garish accessories of the day: the sappy unity candle (it doesn't always light); the white paper carpet (somebody always trips); the Purcell “Trumpet Voluntary” or, worse, “The Pachelbel Canon” poorly-played; a bevy of bridesmaids wearing colors found only in bridal shops and gelato stands; groomsmen anxious for the open bar.
In the cases of these pageant-weddings, there comes a time when, late in the game, one or the other of them has had it up to here with wedding details. The spiral notebook they have been using to track their progress is looking dog-eared. There is a problem with one or more of the relatives. Or the reception site, or the transportation arrangements. Or all of the above.
It happened with my own wedding: The pastor who was to assist at the ceremony got caught groping a thirteen-year-old boy and was removed from his job. The friend who had agreed to cater the reception severed a nerve in her hand a week before the big day. My in-laws were in a train wreck coming up from New York City for the wedding weekend. My mother became mysteriously ill and had to skip the rehearsal dinner.
It sleeted the day of the wedding. The reception was in a gallery hung with oil paintings of dismembered heads and other body parts rendered in a style to make Gericault proud. Not only that, but it had been a posthumously-mounted show—in memory of the painter who had committed suicide the year before. If omens mean anything it should not be surprising that we divorced.
But I am generally sympathetic to all the little wedding details that can go awry. Because I know that, one way or another, I’ll get them married.
Of course, that can’t happen before the nightmare known as the wedding rehearsal. This is another form of torture that older couples often skip. I can safely generalize that pastors are grateful to them beyond measure.
Because some awful things occur at wedding rehearsals. First, they would not be complete without the wedding-rehearsal-know-it-all. And unfortunately for my gender, it usually is a woman. Unfortunately, it is often the mother of the bride. Knowing that I am a woman and that I have daughters worries me: when wedding rehearsal day comes will I be able to avoid the dreadful trap of micro-managing the session? After all, I am a genuine wedding-rehearsal-know-it-all. Seasoned and savvy.
The wedding-rehearsal-know-it-all know knows all the right ways to do things and they will challenge anyone who challenges them. So there is usually some frosty discussion about the ‘groom’s side’ and the ‘bride’s side’ as if the church sanctuary were a gigantic bed. Seating the mothers always seems to elicit some conflict. How the bridal party gets down the aisle is reliably a headache.
“Step-together. Step-together,” the wedding-rehearsal-know-it-all will say.
“No, that looks stupid,” somebody else says.
Yes, I’m thinking. Yes, it really does.
“Go slow,” the wedding-rehearsal-know-it-all says. “And smile!”
Then there is the question of blocking. Should the father raise the veil or should the bride? When does the maid of honor take the flowers? Should the bride’s train be bustled up for when she lights the unity candle and then let down before the recessional?
Who the hell cares? I’m thinking. Why the hell does she have a train on her dress in the first place? This is not the ante-bellum South.
Wedding rehearsals take a lot longer than they ought to, but probably not as long as they might take because fortunately there is always somebody itching to get it over with so they can go out and get a drink. Somebody besides me, that is.
Then finally the wedding day arrives and with it unexpected glitches or surprises. The limousines get lost on the way to the church. The bride has a coughing fit. A little voice crows from the congregation, “Mommy, I have to pee!” The unity candle fails to light. At the outdoor wedding a slug crawls up the pastor’s ankle.
The unexpected is predictable.
But then the moment comes when the couple take each other’s hands and turn their backs to the congregation and turn their shining faces toward me. I only hope my face can reflect some of that shine out onto the congregation. Because in spite of all the tedium, irritation and hassle of weddings, there is nothing quite like seeing the faces of the bride and groom as they stand together and say their vows.
It’s one of the bravest things anybody can do—get up and pledgeto love another person, come what may.
I know it’s true that some of them won’t love each other, come what may. I’ve been divorced. I know how it feels like to have love to fail to do what, in love, was promised.
Yet right then, in that holy moment of love firmly pledged, hope is so real you could almost cut it like a wedding cake. And that hope goes a long way in making all the headaches of weddings worthwhile. Because when there isn’t too much pageantry and there is a palpable sense of commitment, a wedding service is one of the strongest affirmations of life.
It might happen this way:
The bride and the groom have already been together for sixteen years. They have, unflappably, planned a fabulous hotel reception in Cooperstown, rented the chapel in the Farmer’s Museum and arranged for transportation for all the guests between the two places.
But they could not have foreseen the weather. Outside of the church a fierce November storm rages. The thin church walls can’t keep out the wind, so the candles flicker. The orange glare of the portable heaters can’t warm the space, so the guests shiver. A wintry mix sluices the windows. Yet none of that even comes close to dampening the spirit of the event. The bride and the groom face each other in the Farmer’s Museum church to make their vows. The groom reads a Psalm:
I remember the days of old,
I think about all your deeds,
I meditate on the work of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Then they take each other’s hands. The portable heaters rattle. The storm beats the clapboards. But their voices rise over the noise and they promise to go the rest of the journey together, come rain or come shine.
*** *** ***
Or maybe the wedding will go like this:
She had been a runaway bride before—not just once, but several times. This wedding was supposed to be a private ceremony since ‘a little nervous’ didn’t even begin to describe how she felt about getting married. But she works in an independent bookstore with a bunch of middle-aged women determined to see her go through with this wedding. She’s got a gem of a man this time and they want to make sure to be there to support the couple. So they insist on attending. They sit close together in their black outfits and artsy jewelry, a coven of comrades.
The bride is wearing a stylish short white dress. She stands at the back of the church. She has a friend on either side of her and each of them is firmly holding one of her elbows. When the music starts and the maid of honor has already arrived at the front of the church, they help her make the mighty journey down the aisle. The handsome groom’s eyes glaze with tears. The bride’s knees are visibly shaking.
Then, when they make their vows to one another, all the women from the independent bookstore sniffle as one. The groom tries—and fails--to stifle a sob.
*** *** ***
Or it may also happen this way:
Summit, Whiteface Mountain
The summit of Whiteface, one of the Adirondack high peaks, is accessible via a steeply-graded, sharply winding road and then an old elevator shooting upward through the bowels of the mountain for the last couple of hundred feet. Most of the guests arrive that way.
But the bride and groom spent the early part of the day hiking it, changing into their wedding clothes just before finishing the climb to the summit. They chose the location—and their means of getting there—because they had already faced hard challenges together and wanted to signal their readiness to face those sure to come.
Now they stand together on a granite outcropping, waiting while guests spill from the elevator and make their way across the rocky summit. In the distance other lakes and other mountains gleam in the sunshine. We can see for miles up here.
Other hikers watch as the wedding party gathers. Some wish the bride and groom good luck and then go on their way. Still others are captivated by this man and this woman with their wind-whipped wedding wear and hopeful faces. Spontaneously they stand there as witnesses to the wedding, too. Some even join in singing the hymn the couple has picked:
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices,
Who, from our mother’s arms,
has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
*** *** ***
Here is another way of wedding:
The living room is crowded with their two large families. Children gambol about the sofas and folding chairs. In the kitchen somebody is fussing with the cold poached salmon. Somebody else is setting out bottles of chilled champagne. Everything is running a little late, so the flutist and the guitarist are on their second round of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” one of the groom’s special choices.
At last the service begins and a roomful of serious faces turn to look at the couple. No one had really expected anything like this to happen. No one makes a sound during the exchange of vows. No one stirs as they listen to the reading the couple has picked, a poem by John Cavenaugh. They have only been together as a couple for a few years, but they have already done much of what the poem describes:
I want to walk with you above the pines, Scale mountains, leap rivers, speak to the sun and the moon. And make wagers with the stars. I want to roll laughing down lonely canyons…
And hear the music of coyotes resound across a moonless sky.
Then the groom turns to the musicians and nods. He has another special musical choice—this one for his bride. They begin to play “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” as his new wife gazes up at her tall and lanky husband. They kiss, we clap and a little boy jumps up from his chair and wraps his arms joyfully around the groom’s long legs.
“Is it okay if I call you Grandpa now?” he crows.
W.H. Auden wrote, “The choice to love is open till we die.”
The groom is 77, the bride is 69.
At another wedding the bride is gaunt from chemotherapy and bald beneath her wig. She hadn’t planned to be dying. She hadn’t planned to be married, either, though her partner had long wanted to marry her. Finally it became a question of the health insurance. His was better. So now, with death already beginning to part them, the groom slips a diamond ring along her bony finger.
Don’t go, his face says.
Thank you for this ride, hers responds.
Then, another wedding, two years later:
On a sunshiny day a small wedding party gathers on a raft in the middle of a bright blue pond: the dead bride’s husband, her mother, her son, a young woman radiant with the glow of pregnancy, and the young woman’s parents. They are planning to name the baby after the groom’s late mother, Miranda. It really is a story of life after death. So there can be no mournful tears today.
And I remember Shakespeare’s quote, “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
*** *** ***
But some weddings, ones that look for all of the world just like weddings, don’t even count, according to some people:
The groom’s voice is choked with tears as he makes his vows. The other groom wears that shaky smile of a man trying not to cry. There aren’t many people in the church, not their children or their parents or their siblings. There are only a few friends and some members of the congregation.
This wedding will not be recognized by the laws of this state nor authorized by my denomination. The fight for all of that will continue and will someday be won. Yet right now that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, though I could be subject to removal from the rosters of the national church for performing this blessing, I trust that neither my Bishop, nor her assistants, would support such proceedings. And this congregation, though not all in agreement on issues of sexuality, is happy that this church is the site of this marriage today. What matters is that, though the grooms’ families are not supportive and there will be few in attendance, one of the women of the church—a smart and generous-hearted older woman—is preparing a reception for them. We will go to her house. There will be delicious food. There will be presents. And of course, there will be a wedding cake.