Whose wedding is it anyway?

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

We actually thought they would be excited for us. I don't know what we were thinking.

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It was 1982 and my boyfriend (too juvenile), partner (too sterile), fiancée (too traditional), lover (too much information), significant other (that will have to do) and I had been seeing each other for two years and living together for maybe two months. We decided it was time to - what? - get serious? We called our parents to share the good news. First, my parents.

"So, you're getting married? Is that what you're saying?"

"Not married, exactly. I mean, not technically. Well, not legally married. We want to have a commitment ceremony."

It was pretty straightforward for my husband's mother, too. Either we were getting married or we weren't. Which was it?

We were confused. Our parents only seemed to care about the legal part. Didn't they see that we were making a commitment? In our hearts? And that the legal part was really just a formality?

It's summer and wedding bells are ringing everywhere. Co-workers, friends, friends of friends, people sitting next to me on the plane - wedding talk is unavoidable. Between the wedding chatter and the occasion of my own 25th wedding anniversary I find myself reflecting on my own high-stress event that brought generational differences and family tensions rushing to the surface.

For instance, how did the "commitment ceremony" that my significant other and I envisioned 25 years ago transform into two events, one with the justice of the peace to make it legal and one with friends and family to make it memorable? How did our plan of a ceremony in a friend's pasture with a potluck dinner and barn dance morph into a wedding with 200 guests at a lovely Seattle garden complete with smoked salmon, champagne and a jazz quartet?

Twenty-five years ago, in my youthful egocentrism, I thought our wedding was all about us. I thought that our wedding, once we had conceded to that word, should be about what we, the couple, believed, what we valued, what we wanted. Now, of course, it is clear that nothing is ever that simple - silly me. Eloping is the option for those who truly want to avoid the mess and tumble negotiating a wedding requires. But we didn't want to elope. On the contrary, we wanted a party.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details and there seemed no detail, large or small, on which my parents and I could agree.

Large (to me): I was keeping my own last name ("But how will people know you are married?" my mother protested. "Why is it any of their business?" I quipped).

Large (to my dad): That our legal marriage with the judge and our ceremony be on the same day so we actually have an anniversary date. He was right about that. Thanks, Dad.

Large (to my mom): That the wedding invitation be from them, as the parents of the bride. My significant other and I insisted on sending our own handmade invitations that failed to mention we had parents.

In short, virtually anything traditionally associated with a wedding was, to me, something to be rejected. Church, hometown, receiving line, attendants, aunts serving the cake - I didn't want any part of it. What escaped me in my youthful zeal is that some traditions make sense and that some are just good manners. The arguments over whether to serve tabouli or pasta salad, whether I would shave my underarms or my husband would iron his clothes seem relatively inconsequential from this vantage point.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure there are relatives on both sides of our family who never even got a "hello and thanks for coming" from the bride or groom. Ah, so that's the purpose of a receiving line. And my poor mother ran herself ragged assuring all the details were attended to, which might explain why relatives are assigned various duties ahead of time. And, while I'm at it, I suppose that the invitation coming from the parents of the bride lets people know that the couple has their blessing and, by the way, they are footing the bill.

We sorted things out, more or less, and at the end of the day some 25 years ago in a glorious Seattle garden, 50-year-old Republicans stood drinking champagne with 20-year-old hippies in flowing kaftans. My generation got to recite our Denise Levertov poetry and my parent's generation didn't have to use an outhouse at our friend's pasture. One thing's for sure: I'll keep this story close at hand in the event that I ever need a reminder of the benefits of compromise.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of work, family and life in Juneau.

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