I hadn’t been to a wedding in almost a decade. I’m at the stage in life where friends are getting divorced, not married. So many of the e-mails exchanged with my inner circle in the last five years have been about marriage woes. We’re all trying to understand how to recognize when a marriage is over, a relationship has exhausted itself, when to stay, when to leave.
This makes it challenging to conjure the right frame of mind for a wedding. It is hard to celebrate the Beginning when we are contemplating the End.
So I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the wedding, as it stirred all sorts of mixed emotions in me. The bride had left behind a tenured teaching position and a home she’d bought on her own to move to a depressed city in the Rust Belt, the groom’s hometown. While the bride had been going to college, earning a master’s degree, becoming tenured, and buying and renovating her own place, the groom had been working as a programmer, living at home with his parents, playing in a band on weekends.
When the bride became unexpectedly pregnant, he did leave home, move in with her, and see her through the pregnancy. I give him credit for stepping forward and doing what I think was the right thing. But the deal was this: they would move back together to his hometown after the baby was born. When I heard they were moving into his parents house with their newborn son, I cringed.
He bought her an engagement ring six months later, and somehow this public display of his commitment to her made me feel better about all she’d given up to be with him. While she still has not found a permanent job in his city, they have managed to buy a house. Their son is now a toddler, and seeing photos of the three of them together and their home made me happy. The week before the wedding, I found myself excited about it, looking forward to the big day.
Until, of course, I entered the old Catholic church where the ceremony was being held. I felt the weight of every stone in the building on my chest. It was hot, not air-conditioned, and the air was heavy and stuffy and ancient as the patriarchy.
The ceremony and mass were too long, and the priest had all the wisdom and charisma of a wooden church pew. I was sitting among a knot of disenfranchised Catholics on the left side of the church, and it was unbelievably difficult not to smirk or make snide comments as he bumbled through a lame and meaningless sermon on how everything changes when you get married.
Um, had he not noticed that the couple in question had been living together for years now? And when he came to the part where they had to assent to accepting children willingly from God, I wanted to say, “They’ve been there, done that.”
It was disturbing to me how thoroughly Father Celibacy ignored the circumstances of the couple before him, who they were, what they had already shared, sacrificed, and accomplished. Their son was present at the ceremony but not part of it, not mentioned once. With all the church’s talk of family values, they refused to acknowledge the family that had formed long before the vows were publicly spoken.
Then it was time for communion and we were all reminded that non-Catholics could come forward and receive a blessing since they were Not Worthy to Kneel With Everyone Else and Seek God’s Presence.
Oh, thanks but no thanks, I’d just prefer to not publicly be pinned with a scarlet letter. There was whole group of us taking a pass on this experience. We sat in our pews like a coven and watched as the Chosen Ones marched past us to the altar.
As we stood outside the church after the ceremony, commenting on the heat, my confidant said quietly, “Yes, it was oppressive in there, in every sense of the word.”
Everything lightened up at the reception. The bride, looking like a princess, beamed. The groom gazed at her with tenderness. Their adorable and astonishingly well-behaved young son, circulated among the guests and always found a hand to hold, someone to accompany him outdoors to look for bugs or pick flowers or take a ride on a swing.
The wedding reunited me with all my siblings for the first time in a decade. It was good to be together again, to catch up, to acknowledge all we share and all that sets us apart and be glad for all of it. I photographed the bride with her siblings, who are also scattered across the country and seldom all together at once. I watched my children interact with aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of which they barely remembered.
And those were the sweet moments for me, the time where all the challenges I’ve faced and witnessed in marriage and all the questions I’ve had about it as an institution momentarily faded away. There was love, joy, and unity in that room, connections made and sustained over a lifetime because men and women were willing to bind themselves together, publicly make a commitment and privately make sacrifices for one another and create a family.
Yes, sometimes people and marriages fail, love ends, life moves on, but families are forever, and that’s something to celebrate.