My parents in 1953, my husband and me on our wedding day, 1988
This summer I attended back to back early July weddings, two weekends in a row, 6,000 miles apart. One was in California, one in England. I had forgotten what an emotional wallop this kind of event can be. No, not this KIND of event, THIS actual event. A wedding. In spite of the fact that, statistically, fewer people are getting married, (although that might be, come to think of it, just fewer straight people) in spite of the fact that it is so easy to take a cynical stand on the whole thing, what with the out of control wedding industry which has made the most simple wedding more complicated and more expensive, in spite of the fact that the whole white dress, bridesmaids, father giving away or at least walking down the aisle with the daughter thing is almost hilariously archaic, in spite of the fact that I am, for the record, in NO HURRY to see either of my daughters betrothed, it STILL packs such a punch.
photo credit Claire Penn
I am trying to figure out exactly why. Is it the timeless visuals, the fresh flowers, the women in long dresses, the men in suits, (in England many of the men wore old-fashioned cut away morning suits which I find costume-y and completely charming) the country church or garden where you can’t see any indications of not only the twenty-first century but sometimes even the twentieth? The fact that from the pictures, often intentionally, you can’t place the decade at all? Is it the whole Fiddler On The Roof sunrise-sunset thing? (Here, I am obviously talking about weddings where the couples are relatively young and it is a first marriage. Weddings between older couples offer up a whole different menu of emotions.) In the world of today people don’t START their lives together the day they get married. There definitely were times and circumstances when that was certainly more the case. My parents were both barely twenty three when they got married in 1953, and that wasn’t considered particularly young. Back then it was much more common to think of your wedding as the first day of your adult life, because in many cases it was. I married my 36 year old husband at the age of 32, we had been living together for five years. It was the start of a new chapter, but it wasn’t the beginning of the book.
One of these weddings, the one that took place in California, was the wedding of my oldest daughter’s first preschool friend. She was marrying her boyfriend of two years. There were three other couples there from the preschool she attended, we were all part of my unofficial first parent group, our little girls having found each other and shown early preference for each other’s company. In Holly’s case, this was a passionate friendship, she knew almost immediately that this girl was her best friend, and she occupied that role for three years. The girls gradually lost touch after we moved away and the truth was, once we came back a decade later, they had fond but only vague memories of those early years and of each other. The other friendships in this original preschool social group also eventually wained, but the families, especially the moms, kept in touch, bonded by those years of intense togetherness and this shared past. The mother of this bride is still one of my closest friends.
The other wedding was of my English cousin’s daughter and had a completely different vibe. The bride had been in a relationship with her groom for thirteen years, they already shared a house and two children, they were both established in their own businesses, they were already, in almost every important way, joined. It felt less like a rite of passage than a huge celebration. And yet….when they said their vows at the country church, their small children right nearby, it was just as emotional a declaration as the other wedding, the one where the couple were a bit younger, had been together for a far shorter time, and were kind of just starting out.
So I guess it’s all about the rite of passage. When I attended a few weddings as a child and teen, I never understood why people attending them would cry. Weren’t people supposed to be happy?
The California wedding was Jewish, and in that ceremony the Rabbi took a moment to acknowledge, by name, all the people from both sides of the couple who were gone, beloved family members who had passed away. Even if I don’t know the people who are being named, as I really didn’t in this case, this moment always gets me. And, at the English wedding, which didn’t include this ritual, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the people, especially on my side, my father’s side, who were no longer here. My cousin’s father, my Uncle John, who died three years ago but whose absence, or, depending on your belief system, presence, was so keenly felt, particularly by his widow, my Aunt, who was missing him so much that day. But he was already in the front of my mind—here, amongst so many of his descendants, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great grandchildren-to-come, I couldn’t stop thinking of him. And, strangely, or maybe not so strangely, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own parents, who are still living, if you want to call their here-but-not-here existence LIVING.
At a recent coffee with a friend, she described her mom, who is in the moderate/late stages of Alzheimer’s, as being in purgatory, as between life and death, having not passed on, but no longer a part of life anymore. I know exactly what she means and I couldn’t help but think about my parents, and where they exactly fit in this whole circle of life thing.
Maybe that is why weddings hit me harder these days. They remind me that time is passing, that days, weeks, entire seasons are whooshing by, that these young people (who in some cases I remember as toddlers)are growing up, having children of their own, that I am growing old, that my parent’s generation is disappearing so fast, that there are all these layers of love, familial love, friend love, romantic love to sustain us, but that everyone is in this whirlpool which seems lately to be spinning faster and faster. That we are all circling the drain, as the expression goes, but recently it’s begun to feel like it’s speeding up. None of these thoughts are new, but weddings bring them into sharp focus, harder to suppress. And just in case I wanted to be in denial, I couldn’t help but notice that we were all walking through a graveyard as we filed in and out of the church.
Maybe that’s why people cry at weddings? No, I don’t think that’s it. I think they are tears of pure emotion, tears that maybe you can’t even label. The optimism of two people coming together, as partners, ready to take on life together, a formal proclamation of their affection and commitment to each other is just so moving. And even if their youthful “YES!” to life together brings up our own weddings or divorces or failed romances or recent or to-be-expected-soon deaths of people we love, they are mostly happy tears. At least it feels better to think of them that way.
So, this summer it’s just, for me, two weddings. No funeral, not this summer, at least not so far. But in the next few years, perhaps even months, they will be coming fast and furious, funerals are happening amongst some of my friends as much or more frequently than weddings. We go to each other’s parent’s funerals as well as each other’s children’s weddings. I remember when my Dad was around seventy that he quipped that going to funerals or memorials constituted a good part of his social life. And the past few memorials I have been to have taken a page from weddings, have chosen to be a “celebration” of the person’s life. So we now have been given permission to maybe laugh at a funeral, to actually enjoy ourselves, which is, all in all, probably a good thing.
Today in yoga the teacher asked us to please, just for the hour that the class lasted, let go of our “unwritten future stories,” as well as our past ones, the ones we tell ourselves and others to make sense of what has come before. To just be, for that moment, nowhere else but here. I tried my best. But later it came to me that that is perhaps one of the reasons weddings seem so big, they are so heavy with past and future stories. At the California wedding, when the father of the bride walked his daughter down the aisle, their faces told two distinct stories. The Dad was doing his best not to cry, thinking, most likely, of the past and how he was now, at least symbolically, saying good-bye to his little girl. The bride, meanwhile, was beaming, her excitement at the idea of being married, of moving forward on this journey, could barely be contained. Perhaps one was in the future and one was in the past, although things are rarely that simple. But that’s kind of what weddings are about, the past meeting up with the future. Best Men tell embarrassing high school stories about the groom, and mothers or uncles or even friends make reference to the expected children to come. And maybe all of this is just a bit stressful for everyone.
At the English wedding, a ceremony that had the formality of an exquisite country church decorated in July flowers contrasted with the very casual atmosphere during the ceremony itself, there was a break when the wedding party moved deeper into the church, away from where they were saying their vows, to sign the register. The groom’s former bandmates played live, really cool music. And the two oldest little four year old cousins, the daughter of the bride and groom and the daughter of the bride’s older sister and her husband, broke into a spontaneous dance, their happiness and excitement palpable in the church. It wasn’t just charming, it was instructive. At that moment, these two little girls were celebrating. I am not sure they even knew exactly what they were celebrating, but they sure knew it was a party. They certainly weren’t thinking of what it meant to be married, of what it took for the bride and groom to get to this place where they wanted to make this commitment, they weren’t thinking about what light and dark days lay ahead for the couple, or for any of us.
At that exquisite moment, they weren’t thinking of any of that. Responding in a pure way to the music, these two little girls were just in their own, very present dream….dancing.