Why do weddings make me cry?

My daughter is getting married next May, and sometimes just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. So happens spring will also bring publication of my novel—the culmination of years of writing, some publication, lots of rejection, and always, always the tenacity to keep at it, a bag of emotion all its own. Then there’s the sorry state of our country, not to mention the seasonal melancholy etched into every falling autumn leaf.

But this is mostly about weddings and the emotional undercurrent they give rise to. I was weeks from turning thirty-five when I got married, an age at which the thought of being ‘given away’ in a walk down some carpeted aisle didn’t quite cut it. My husband-to-be and I found a venue styled to look like a turn-of-the-century French ballroom. Very hip. Very Greenwich Village. Very us. We did all the legwork, thankful to have very accommodating parents with simple requests. In the mixed metaphor that was, and continues to be, our lives, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi. The wedding may have been larger than I would have liked, but my family was large. I say ‘was’ because the generation that would comprise my parents’ siblings, cousins, friends, etc., is mostly gone. My husband’s parents, whose circle of family and friends was much smaller by comparison, could care less about what would seem to be a proportional imbalance. They were just glad that their son was getting married, and to a nice Jewish girl, who would in two years’ time give them their first granddaughter to dote on.

And dote they did. And on a spring night barely six months from now, that first granddaughter will find herself under a makeshift Chuppah at a Malibu ranch. We’re counting on her only remaining grandparent to be at the wedding. She’s 91, sharp and healthy, even if a little frail. She lives in northern California, the wedding will be in southern California. My future son-in-law’s grandparents plan to fly in from New York.

Like my wedding, my daughter’s is looking to be larger than she would like, and we’ve all done our best to pare the guest list. This is never an easy task, and one that feels even more emotionally complicated in a time when friends are more like family than the relatives I feel distanced from.

You can’t go home again. But you can feel the ache of what that thing called home, for all the convoluted emotions it encompasses, gives rise to. “You will have only one story,” says Sarah Payne, the fictitious writer/mentor to Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s tender and touching novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. “You’ll write your one story many ways.” I don’t know that I have only one story, but I do know that the complexity of mother-daughter relationships keeps surfacing (hopefully in different ways) in my fiction and essays. Then there’s the more general exploration of familial ties: what happens when that thing we think of as family disperses almost to the point of dissolving?

I tear up during the ceremony at any wedding I attend. Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do.

For better or for worse, a wedding is an affirmation of love. It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love.

It’s another link in a chain of rituals that bind us.

It’s a reminder that the circle of life is held together by new links forged from broken ones.

It tells us that our children are grown now, moving on.

All those months, the planning and attention to details—the venue, the food, the entertainment, the guest list, the dress (a tradition with a history all its own)—

—to be funneled into a celebration, one day only, that embodies the future and the past.

Suddenly it’s here. We lift our glasses to the bride and groom. We smile. We laugh. We cry. We dance.

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November 18th 2016

Thirty-two years ago today I got married. I was three weeks away from turning 35. My husband likes to joke that I had the date chosen when I proposed a few months earlier but that’s not quite the case. Here’s the way it played out:

We met in 1982, and I confess to having had that ‘this is the one’ feeling from the start. Old loves always keep a place in your heart—just play the song(s) you listened to when you were a teenager in love, or in your twenties and in love, and you know what I mean. But this love had something about it that spelled Let’s Stay Together.

So, a few months shy of the two-year marker in relationship I kind of suggest maybe it’s time we do something. He says, “you mean like get married?” I nod. Then I go into the bathroom and throw up. No joke. That would have been June. No hurry to set a date but I did want to get married in 1984. Do something life-affirming in a year forever marked as an ominous one. November (wedding) in New York had a nice ring to it.

A month and half ago my daughter proposeengagement-bells-fbs to her boyfriend, who puts the heartfelt and humorous touch to it all on Facebook.

Fortunately, instead of experiencing her mother’s OMG I-did-it anxiety, she gets a very special pair of shoes. He gets himself a wedding band from Tiffany. The engagement ring was a given, and I get the pleasure of delivering it when we’re all together for Thanksgiving. There’s a spirit to stones, and this one started out as a pendant my mother wore, then gave to me at a time when I was suffering. Now it gets to sparkle on my daughter’s hand in a time of joy. My mother is long gone, but I can feel her kvelling.

‘Sparkle’ is not a word that readily comes to mind these day. ‘Struggle’ would be more like it. To hear those two words juxtaposed against each other puts me in a poetic mindset.

When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me . . .

Actually it’s Pema Chodron I look to but we’re talking metaphor here. And if I can’t let it be, the least I can do is be with my struggles.

I struggle with even looking at news headlines. All those polls I’ve neurotically counted on during past election cycles! How could they get it so wrong this time around? Who needs explanations in hindsight? Why bother listening to the chatter of projections re: what to expect from the new administration? It’s the wise Buddhists who remind us there is only the moment, here and now. Things change, times change, often in the most unexpected ways. So why the delusion of thinking there’s reassurance in knowing what’s ahead?

I struggle with a sense of purpose gone awry when political/global anxieties fuel personal ones. So I hole myself up in the room I call my treehouse, watching Justin Timberlake in concert. Can’t say I’m a big fan, but he makes me smile, and he is a standout from those early boy groups my daughter and her friends were enthralled with, and this wonderful big TV has me going for the sight and sound spectacle it was meant for. Can I do this for the next four years?jt-on-tv

I struggle with groundlessness When Things Fall Apart, and look to the spirit of Pema Chodron’s guiding words re: being Comfortable with Uncertainty.

I struggle with what failure means, both on the personal front and the systemic one.

My reputation for being optimistic is not serving me well, even as I’m reminded this is no time to hide my head in the sand. Poetry is apparently going viral in the wake of deep disillusionment/shock/anger. Joshua Rothman tells readers How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy. Michael Moore gives us a Morning After To-Do List, Rebecca Solnit writes about How to Survive a Disaster, the Huffington Post offers up 18 Compassionate Poems to Help you Weather Uncertain Times, and the story that grips me most?

Death Valley Is Alive

I go back to Andrienne Rich, What Is Found There: “The impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root.” adrienne-rich

When do I stop moaning and groaning? Watching Samantha Bee helps a lot. Even Bill Maher, whom I avoided in the aftermath of the election, elicits a cynical smile. Then there’s SNL rising to the occasion, Kate McKinnon at the piano with a resonant Hallelujah to remind us of all that we lost last week, and Dave Chapelle to remind us of how much we’ve missed him.

Besides, don’t I have a wedding to plan? The wedding date is yet to be set, the venue not yet finalized but my daughter thinks the first dance with her husband might be to Hallelujah. Of course, I best her.

Go for Dance Me to the End of Love.

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Snowball Wedding

My parents’ wedding album is, by any standards, a treasure. Leather-bound eggshell white, photo sleeves edged in stitched piping, it pretty much took a shelf of its own in a small foyer closet mostly for sheets and towels. Pulling it down was something I could never take lightly: it was an investment in time, going through the photographs, beginning to end, enamored in a way by the prince and princess who would become my mother and father. She was gorgeous, elegant, smiling. He was handsome, dapper, clearly in love.bride and groom

Takes a certain kind of bride to want a snowball wedding—her bridesmaids all in white, like her. It was November 1948, she was barely twenty-one. From the first pages of the album, a satin doll posed at a vanity in my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment, to the ceremony and celebration in what seems a grand ballroom, there’s an intoxicating splendor to it all. Not to mention the cheap thrill of recognizing even a small number of relatives and friends in a younger incarnation. We’re talking solid working class, whatever resources it took to do it up with style.

My own wedding album is of a more makeshift variety, put together by yours truly. No bridesmaids, thougThe ring pleaseh the ceremony was traditional by Jewish standards. It was November 1984, I was a few weeks shy of thirty-five. I’d been seeing the man I would marry for about a year and a half. I liked the sound of doing something life-affirming in an otherwise auspicious year. Here’s how the marriage proposal went:

Setting: an Upper East Side studio with a panoramic view looking north (and in which everything, from the colors to the lighting to the custom-designed furniture, speaks to the interior-design brilliance of its occupant).

She says, I think it’s time for us to do something . . .

He says, You mean like get married.

She nods. Yes.

He says, Okay. After which her nerves get the best of her and she goes into the bathroom to throw up.

La Belle Epoque
Within months we’d chosen a venue in downtown NYC , a club/ballroom designed to evoke La Belle Epoque. No wedding planner, just the two of us making all the arrangements—catering, music, flowers, invitations. I had no interest in a formal wedding gown. And even if years on my own made me feel a little awkward about the notion of being ‘given away,’ I took it in stride—pleasurably so—when my mother and father walked me to the Chuppah. It was a granWedding day smilesd day, on every level.

 

Yes, coming of age in the ‘Sixties can do a little something re: a woman’s consciousness when it comes to career/marriage/family. I’d pretty much lost contact with high school friends, and of those I was closest with, only two married in their early twenties. I made my bridesmaid’s dress for one wedding—a jumpsuit—ice blue satin, fitted bodice with soft, flowing pants, which, for all practical purposes, looked like a gown. The bride did not like the idea of pants. These were pure palazzo, so wide I could loosely stitch the inseam of each pant leg together and no one would ever know.

Weddings of post-college friends are what I remember most, few and far between as they were.

By the time this year comes to an end, my daughter, in contrast, will have attended four weddings. Last weekend it was Aspen, a camp friend’s wedding. She was a bridesmaid. A few weeks earlier it was New York, a high school friend’s wedding. October and November bring her back East again. Clearly the wear and tear (traveling long distances for short weekends), coupled with pressure (money spent on air fare, dresses, shoes, bachelorette parties, wedding presents), is no match for the need/desire to be at a best friend’s wedding. Besides which, isn’t there something binding about rituals and rites of passage? And doesn’t friendship itself have a new face in a world where BFFs are only as far from each other as their smartphones?

 

 

Summer of Love

I’m now at that age where it seems like everyone is starting to get married. My fridge is full of invitations and save the dates. My desktop is full of links to registries. And it’s just beginning . . .

All of which has me thinking about all the time, money, and effort that go into planning a wedding. Aside from the weddings I don’t remember going to as a kid, one of my first real experiences in the factory of wedding making was as a PA on what I prefer to refer to as an unnamed wedding show. I think we filmed at four or five weddings in a span of five or six weeks (it’s been awhile) — one of which I missed out on to attend a wedding as an actual guest. It was nice to be able to enjoy the wedding for what it was and get dressed up and feel pretty and eat and drink my face off — as opposed to standing on my feet for countless hours, tired, making little money and being totally turned off by the consumerist aspect of a wedding going on around me. I won’t deny that it made me a hater for a while; it also definitely put things into perspective with regard to my own priorities when I think about getting married one day (a day far in the future, if my father has anything to say about it, and since he’ll probably be paying for, maybe he gets a tiny bit of input). I’ll wedding shoeswear the blue Carrie Bradshaw Manolos and eat a cake made by my talented friend. And this will all take place in Bora Bora, so please send money if you can’t make it!

At just about every wedding I’ve been to, one parent in a toast, makes a joke about the money spent on the wedding. And at every wedding, you can tell where the money went — what the couple’s main focus was, be it food, or venue, or band vs. DJ. You marvel a bit at the spectacle. You let your bride or groom friends complain about different planning aspects — do we include a tissue paper separating the inserts in the invitation? Is it tacky to include a meal choice with the RSVP? How many bites do we have at cocktail hour? You listen and try to give an opinion but whether you’re informed or not, it’s not your day and you can’t read your friends’ minds about what they actually want.

As a guest you worry about what to wear, what to give as a present and in some cases, how to get to the wedding and whether or not it’s something you can afford to do. You make all these big travel plans months in advance and then the weekend arrives. You worry about over-packing, but what if you can’t decide what shoes to bring? You obviously need two choices “just in case.” What about what to wear? If you decide last minute that what you packed isn’t right, you justify a need to go shopping for something new (as long as your wedding destination is in an area where you can do that).

Then you attend the event. An event that your friend or family member has spent months and months planning as close to perfection as possible (no one ever wants rain, but you roll with the punches knowing that it’s going to be an amazing occasion no matter what). They do whatever it is they do before the ceremony, primping, taking pictures, probably freaking out a little. In this day and age, the ceremony is the shortest part of the wedding, but in actuality the most important. It’s why you’re there. For a half hour to an hour or so (depending on the religion or non-religion of the ceremony), you’re reminded of what you’re actually celebrating — a lifetime of love and companionship. Your friend or family member has deemed you important enough to be celebrating arguably one of the most important days of their lives with them. For that short amount of time, you’re reminded why you’re there. It’s not about the lamb chops at cocktail hour or the open bar or busting your moves on the dance floor. It’s about love. And in a blink of an eye the ceremony is over. In another blink, the party is over. All the planning that went into the wedding on both sides of it is finished. You take as many photos and videos as you can to remember it, maybe even a flower centerpiece or two, no one’s looking!

As this year goes by, with the weddings I attend as a guest and as a bridesmaid, I’m embracing the celebration of love. I’m truly honored that my friends have chosen to include me in their special days as a guest or a member of the wedding party. I know the stresses they feel when they get caught up in the planning and the money aspects of their weddings, and I have my moments, too, in my own travel planning and all the money that goes into it on the guest side. But I look back on the weddings that I missed out on for those exact reasons — the planning around jobs, the money I would have spent — and it’s something that I truly regret, missing out and not being there. I remind myself that it’s all worth it in the name of love. That one day or night that I witness my friends commit to a life with the man or woman that he or she loves and then subsequently celebrate, really, truly is priceless and a reason to party on.

 

 

Here and now

back to the futureIn the best of all possible worlds I’d be in a state of presence 24/7,  that in-the-moment place where time really has no measure, here and now one and the same. Not that those six turtles sunning themselves on a log don’t stop me dead in my tracks when I’m walking around the lake, (almost) a slave to that spinning turntable of thoughts. Or that the unmistakable sound of a heron taking flight doesn’t make me turn around.  Just to watch it soar.  Is it possible that, only now, ten minutes into my walk, I’m first hearing the birds,  one song so different from another?  The leaves on the trees are dappled with sunlight today, the air, after days of rain, makes me lift my nose like a dog. I don’t want to miss a thing.

And, yet, no sooner am I past the turtles and the heron than the volume on the turntable pumps itself up, a force all its own taking me out of the moment. On my mind is a family wedding, with its anxious mix of melancholy and joy. Melancholy for what’s gone—those aunts/uncles/cousins/grandparents, my mother and father—whose presence at any family gathering was a reminder that rituals (for better or for worse) were a kind of glue that held us together. Joy for what’s to come, a bride and groom in love, all the promise of a fresh beginning.

In the next best possible of all worlds, I’d leave anxiety out of the mix, the qualifier riddled with what we keep to ourselves—the echoes of gatherings just like this in the past, family dramas cast into the shadows of glittering gowns and crisply pressed suits. We drink to forget, eat to remember.  Schmooze to keep the dark spirits at bay, dance to be lifted by the lighter ones.

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Just like this . . . but not exactly.  This wedding is an Orthodox Jewish one, a three-part affair.  First the reception, where the bride sits on a ‘throne’ surrounded by women—until the moment the groom is brought to her, at which time a veil is placed over her face. The bride and groom know each other’s faces well by now, but this touch of symbolism is to put physical attraction in its place, raise the bar on the deeper bond marriage is supposed to signify.  It’s enough to bring tears to anyone, including the bride herself.

chuppah2Next, the ceremony outdoors, under a Chuppah (canopy), fortunately a beautiful May day. Then back to the reception room for dinner.  A makeshift wall separates the men and women, making two parties of one celebration.  Drinking and nibbling, we wait for the bride and groom, who have had their first brief encounter, alone in a room, as husband and wife.  When they arrive, the women greeting the bride, the men greeting the groom, a cousin of mine says it outright: “Wouldn’t you want to dance with your husband at your wedding?” A cousin of the bride brings a different kind of wisdom to the plate:  “Barely five months from being engaged to being married, and not to someone she knew for much longer. Couldn’t they have waited?”  This is no idle gossip.  These are words rooted in experience and observation and love.  Another wedding, similar circumstances and the dialogue would not differ by much.  I easily hear echoes of my aunt (the bride’s grandmother) and my mother.

IMG_1555 Everybody’s got an opinion, a frame of reference, views that change over the years (or not).  Even if it’s hard to fathom, as in this case, how a twenty-three-year-old brought up in a modern world has chosen to embrace a very Orthodox way of living so rooted in the past, we celebrate.  More to the point: Is there any ritual that better embodies past/present/future than a wedding?

What’s gone is gone. And, yet, all I have to do is look into the eyes of a favorite cousin of my mother’s, frailer with age but as beautiful as ever, to know that every moment we live encompasses every moment that came before.

IMG_1520Her husband has Alzheimer’s.  He greets me with a big smile of recognition and a hug.  He dances with my brother and the groom.  I stand at the threshold that separates the men from the women, no sin in looking. I snap a photo or two. A different kind of joy.

And those girls, so many of them, dolled up in their pretty pretty dresses! Hard not to be reminded of myself, a flower girl at the wedding of the very cousin of my mother’s sitting next to me.

 

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The weekend following the wedding finds me in Newport, RI, celebrating the 60th birthdays of two of my husband’s childhood friends.  I’ve been to Newport twice before, the first time for a romantic winter weekend in 1982 with the man who would become my husband. Years later, a trip with my daughter and a good friend, both in high school at the time.  Walking the cobblestone streets now with friends has me somewhere between a dream and déjà vu:  we visit familiar sites, eat lobster roll at a shack on the beach, drink the best martini (hibiscus) at a place called Yesterday’s. I kid you not.

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You can’t go to Newport without visiting Cliff Walk, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch overlooking the ocean, some of it closed off because of hurricane damage. The mansions gated and set back from the cliffs may be a reminder of opulence but the ocean belongs to everyone, the view even more beautiful with age.

Home now, unpacking, easing back into reality (whatever that is), settling down for some Sunday night TV. There are any number of movies we can watch via DVR but the one that fits the mood best happens to be on network TV.  So much to love about Back to the Future—its spirit, Michael J. Fox so young and handsome and Jack-be-nimble as it gets, Christopher Lloyd in the role he was made for.  Not to mention the overriding message: one moment—make a left turn instead of a right, say no instead of yes to a date—and everything turns out so differently.