The wedding

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.

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The price of beauty

The setting: Friday of Labor Day weekend, in a car with my husband,  hundreds of miles from home, on our way to a family wedding.

I turn to my husband, “We have KV’s present, right?”

He says, “You didn’t grab it?”

For a second, I think he is joking, and then I notice the tension in his jaw that makes it clear he isn’t.

Oh shit.

“You didn’t load it into the car?”

“I only carried down the big stuff. I thought you’d get the rest.”

“So we don’t have my red bag either?!”

“No.”

“Or the present for M?”

“There was a present for M too?”

“YES!” I say, my voice rising. “I can’t believe you didn’t grab that stuff!”

“I can’t believe you didn’t check…”

“Well, YOU always pack the trunk. When I came downstairs, you’d not only packed it, you’d covered everything up and shut it. I assumed you’d carried everything down.”

“Oh sure, it’s MY fault. It’s always my fault,” he says under his breath.

This could turn into a really ugly argument. I don’t take the bait.

Silently, I’m steaming.

I’m married to an engineer and he has a system for everything. The worst thing any of us can do is mess with his systems.  If you try to pack the car for a trip or put even one piece of something in the trunk, he’ll pull it out because you’ve put it in the wrong place.

Over the years the modus operandi has been for me to put everything that is going on the trip into a staging area, and then Mr. Engineer will decide what is carried down when and how it is arranged in the trunk. How many times have I carried things down and heard him say, “Why are bringing that down now? You should bring the big things down first!”

I’d long ago stopped trying to help. Best way to deal with him is to let him do things his perfect efficient foolproof OCD way. Usually that works.

Except this time, we had System Failure.

I had dutifully corralled everything on the rug in our bedroom, and he had only brought the suitcase down.

Shit.

I felt tears well up in my eyes, and I quickly turned my head to look out the window. I hate to cry, but I had labored in my studio for days making a personal gift for the bride. I’d gone to multiple art supply stores to find The Perfect Frame.

I could not wait to give it to her, not only because I was sure she’d love and appreciate it, but because I wanted other members of the family to see it too.  Now, I’d have to mail it, and I’d never get to see her reaction or share the gift-giving moment.

SO frustrating.

And then there was the red bag. It contained all my toiletries. Everything I needed to spend a weekend aways from home and prepare for a special occasion.

Now leaving toiletries behind wouldn’t normally be a big a deal, except that the weekend was going to be equal parts family wedding and reunion. My siblings are scattered across the U.S., and we seldom manage to get together. I had not seen my sisters in almost 10 years.

I’ve gained a lot of weight in the last two years, and I was sure my skinny sisters were going to be shocked when they see me. My makeup bag contained everything I needed to put my best face forward, muster some confidence, and survive all the photos with dignity.

I couldn’t believe all the products I’d carefully loaded into My Bag of Tricks were left behind, hundreds of miles away.

That night, after we reached our destination, we headed out to Target, and I replaced most of the contents of my absent toiletry bag.

Toothbrush and toothpaste. Shampoo, conditioner, comb, styling gel. Deodorant. Razor, shaving cream, lotion. Cleanser and face cream. Foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer. Eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, eyelash curler, mascara. Lip gloss. Nail polish. Foot file. Q-tips, makeup sponge, blush brush, eye makeup remover, magnifying mirror.

They were all put on the checkout belt and scanned and totaled: $223.

$223?  For real? For health and beauty items from Target? Good grief. I can’t believe it. Neither can Mr. Engineer.

As I swipe my credit card he quickly does some mental calculations and says, “It would have been cheaper to have driven home and gotten your bag.”

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Maybe it all started in 7th grade…

My daughter is beautiful. She gives very little thought to her appearance. She’s not high maintenance or vain, she’s just…smart and beautiful.

She has the classic California look. Long silky blonde hair, big blue eyes, high cheekbones, a petite and balanced figure. She doesn’t fear dressing rooms nor does she spend hours in front of the mirror. She doesn’t give her appearance excessive thought or attention. She moves through life with the confidence and healthy attitude that I never had at her age.

And still don’t have.

Maybe it was having three older sisters who constantly critiqued themselves and everyone else’s appearance. Maybe it was the teasing I endured as a kid. Or maybe it was just garden variety adolescent self-consciousness.

Whatever it was, whatever it is, I’ve never lost it. I’ve only learned to live with it.

I was a late bloomer and the absence of breasts and hips filled me with angst and envy as I entered my teens. I was thin and awkward looking. My stomach was round when it should have been flat. I had a big nose. My butt was disproportionate to the rest of my body. I had frizzy hair. I had arms like ET.

I was a female Ichabod Crane! There was no hope for me!

Or so I thought.

There were people in middle school who were happy to confirm my worst fears. On my first day of seventh grade, I remember a Southern boy whispering a bit too loudly to his friend, “She ain’t go no bosoms.” There were the girls that mocked my hippie braids and ponchoes and made me feel all wrong, the high school guy who said the absolute wrong thing when he affectionately referred to my breasts as pre-adolescent nubs.

In eighth grade, blackheads and a few pimples invaded my peaches and cream skin and freaked me out. I stopped looking people in the eye when I was talking to them, afraid that if they looked at me straight on, they might notice how ugly I was and turn to stone.

Or notice my blackheads. Whatever.

It was all bad. And as you’ve already guessed, all blown completely out of proportion.

Never mind that there were boys that liked me. Never mind that adults constantly commented on the beauty of my naturally curly hair. Never mind that in reality, I was probably average in the looks department. I felt like an ugly girl.

But in some ways, this worked to my advantage. Because I was SURE no one would ever be attracted to me based on my looks, I focused on developing my sense of humor and my smarts.

So what if I wasn’t pretty! I was funny and I had something to say.

Well, MANY things to say.

I still do.

So I’m here, not writing the carefully crafted prose that earns me a living by day, but the quick, from-the-heart imperfect stories I want to tell.

There are things to be said and shared, and this is my place and my first post. I’ll be writing more about body image and love and self-love and parenting and middle age in the days, weeks, months ahead.

Thanks for stopping by and do come again.

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