It was the wedding I’d always dreamed of ― at a posh estate with pristine views of autumn color along the Hudson River … a grand ballroom with spectacular chandeliers … indoor trees with tiny white lights … four-foot centerpiece topiaries of blue hydrangeas, flown in off-season from South Carolina.
As the jazz band played, well-dressed guests arrived bearing checks ringing in at enough to buy a fully-loaded Lexus. Unbeknownst to the gift givers ― who truly believed their generous endowments would help the young couple start their marriage on the right foot ― the money actually went to finance the bride’s cosmetic surgery.
By the grace of God and the fertility fairies, I was spared my place in the wedding party. The $600 silk spaghetti-strap slip dresses worn by the bridesmaids were in no way meant for a chubby pregnant gal. What an appetizing dish I’d have been … but only because most of the men there were Jewish, and I’d have been a dead ringer for a Hebrew National salami.
And the flowing chiffon scarf? Being born without much of a neck, it would have looked like it was holding my head on.
Still, the affair was so over-the-top, I couldn’t help but think my own wedding suffered in comparison. My husband’s mother was battling cancer when we got engaged, and it was so important to us that she be there on our special day. We didn’t have wealthy parents or a year to save. Besides, we were in our thirties, and it just seemed ludicrous to set aside thousands of dollars for a party, instead of a down payment on a house. So we had $2,000 to pull off this affair – honeymoon and all. And we soon realized that most couples spend more on their cocktail napkins.
I’ll never forget that first issue of Brides magazine― earmarking the most exquisite gowns, only to learn that the price tags were double, triple, even quadruple our entire budget. Five hundred dollars would barely cover a veil, better yet a dress with a bead on it. Unable to afford a princess gown or a tiara (on the one day of your life it’s kosher to wear one), I slumped onto the dressing room floor at The Wedding Bell, crying “I’m the K-mart bride!”
I finally settled on a cocktail-length dress of ivory lace that made me feel like a walking doily, then set to work hunting down a reception venue that wouldn’t charge a room fee. We settled on a charming restaurant in an old granary, on the edge of a beautiful park. Unable to finance a sit-down meal, we decided to serve heavy hors d’oeuvres, and I was sure my guests would flee my reception to go grab a steak at Gilbert’s.
This was supposed to be the most special day of my life, and I never imagined we wouldn’t be able to afford a wedding photographer or a band … that I’d be carrying wildflowers, instead of roses … that there would be no sit down dinner … no elegant floral arrangements … no twinkly lights or calligraphy place cards … no being lifted in chairs to Hava Nagila … no first dance.
I’d been to weddings with open-bars and jazz bands … ice sculptures, caviar and clams on the half shell. And those were just the pre-party cocktail hours, before being ushered into ballrooms where the actual receptions took place. Who on earth was going to fly in for Swedish meatballs and a cheese cube?
Lamenting to my best friend’s mother on a visit to New Jersey, I was finally jerked out of self-pity. This wonderful woman had known me for a dozen years.
“Parri,” she said, in a way that my motherless self needed to hear, “You’re finally getting everything you always wanted. And all you’re focusing on is the party.”
She was right, I knew. I’d been dateless and whining about it for 31 years. That’s three decades of Valentine’s Days without so much as a Chunky Bar. And now the only thing standing between delirious happiness and me were chicken marengo and a gown that would likely make me look like a stunt double for the Stay Puft marshmallow man.
When I got back to Michigan, I began pouring my heart into the part of the wedding that I did have control over ― writing a meaningful ceremony. With our budget, there were two ways to go: tacky or arty. We chose the latter. We asked our friends to give us only one gift – their time. All we wanted was help executing this wedding on a dime. Fortunately, we were active in community theater. We knew actors and singers, costume and set designers, musicians and photographers.
Our friend Scott was a former pastor, who graciously agreed to perform the ceremony, since the local rabbi wouldn’t preside over a mixed marriage. Our friend, Lynne, always a ribbon winner at the county fair, made a wedding cake that could grace the cover of Martha Stewart Living.
Rachelle made my veil, weaving in fresh baby’s breath, and sewing a matching satchel. Bob shot the video. Mike, a newspaper photographer, took pictures. Danelle made elegant tulle bows for the pews of the chapel. And Kevin and Lori – the best tenor and soprano in town – sang the meaningful pieces of music we’d chosen, as Connie accompanied on piano.
Sometimes I look back wistfully, wishing I could have had more than 50 guests, served dinner and had a dress that looked less like a tablecloth. But Jim and I just celebrated 20 years together, and I realize that the ceremony … when we promised to try to understand each other, rather than judge … to help each other be all that we hoped to be … that was our wedding. It was those words – not prime rib with four asparagus spears and an edible flower – that have sustained us on this rollercoaster called marriage.
Two decades ago, as I wrote our ceremony, I expounded on how marriages have seasons and that it’s inevitable that winter will come … but that you have to have faith that, even after the hardest winter, spring eventually will come again. But those were only words, a script. Today, that sentiment rings true in a way it never could have for my younger self.
You see, on my wedding day, I received a wonderful life partner who slices and dices vegetables, so there’s always something healthy in the fridge (I loathe chopping salad). I got a man who loves to cook, who mows in the heat and shovels in the cold … who knows his way around a vacuum and a toilet brush … who changed diapers and gave baby baths and took care of me after my bunion and knee surgeries.
Together we’ve gotten out of debt, fixed up houses, planted gardens and battled many a literal and figurative weed and grub. We’ve been through infertility, pregnancy, childrearing, child illness and stayed the course to raise a mensch. We’ve lost jobs, landed jobs, risked everything on a dream business, lost it all and started again. Many, many winters have come. But spring has, indeed, always come again. In fact, we await it as I write.
It’s ironic, really. If you can afford a big fancy wedding, people come wielding big checks. But if you can’t afford a reception that warrants the word “affair,” many of the presents you receive come from the heart and are of little material value.
I didn’t get a la-dee-dah party. No one created a cocktail in my honor. There were no Swarovski crystals catching twinkle lights as my husband spun me around the dance floor in his tuxedo. We didn’t honeymoon on the Amalfi Coast. And push come to shove, I’m afraid I’ll have to finance my own plastic surgery.
But I did get a partner in crime who believes in my dreams, holds my hand on evening strolls, and keeps me standing in a storm.
In the end, our party was bargain basement.
But the life we’ve built together is priceless.
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