On March 19th, 1994, I married this cute boy. It is one of the great blessing of my life that we’re still together.
While there are a handful of posts about Brian on this blog, I’ve never written about our marriage. Partly out of superstition: the surest way to hit writer’s block is to talk about how well your writing is going.
Also out of respect for privacy, as one of the key elements of marriage is that it involves someone besides you (it seems obvious, but believe me, that alone can take years to fully grasp).
Marriage is profound, complex, fluid. To twist Milton’s words a bit, marriage is its own place, “and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Not an easy subject, and I have no advice to give except that if you are me, marry Brian.
I’m going to indulge myself with memory lane today, though, because it is our 20th anniversary. Today I’ll share what I learned while planning our wedding. Obviously, there can be as many different kinds of weddings as there are marriages, and my advice may not apply if you do not want to bring your original family into the new family you are creating. I don’t mean to apply that there is any one right way to plan a wedding; this is just what worked for me.
We got married in the dark ages, before Pinterest and the internet in general. So it wasn’t easy to plan a Chicago wedding while in grad school in Arizona. I was not a girl who had dreamed about “her big day” or white dresses or diamond rings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (hello, my unnamed sister, I’m winking at you). The happiest women I knew while growing up were all nuns, so I was highly suspicious of marriage. I thought, maybe, someday, when I’m 30 perhaps, if there’s some exception-to-the-rule guy out there.
I wasn’t prepared to meet that guy at age 19, fall for him at 20, and be engaged to him at 22. But Nora Ephron never wrote a truer line than Harry’s: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
I love the sentiment in this article that perhaps the party should be reserved for the 10th year anniversary. The wedding is a day, and marriage, ideally, is a lifetime. Yet, planning a big wedding taught Brian and I a lot about working together, about compromise,and about each other’s families. Three ideas were key to my planning and my sanity during that year.
The first came from my friend Kelly, who had just gotten married the year before to his partner, Gary. This was years before gay marriage was legal anywhere, but that didn’t stop Kelly from throwing a great wedding. And here’s what he told me on a long drive to Safford, Arizona the summer before our wedding:
“The vows are promised to each other in private long before the wedding day. So the wedding is really about the families. It’s about bringing your families together.”
I held onto those words throughout our planning. I loved Brian, and I believed in the sacrament of marriage, but we could celebrate that in Tucson. Why go back and put on a big Chicago wedding? Especially since I was young, stupid, and determined to pay for all of it without any help from our families.
We were the first from each of our families to have moved away, and the first to get married. This was incredibly hard for my parents, who would have been happy to just build onto their house and have all nine of us stay forever. I was amazed in later years when my parents and Brian’s were more laid back about our siblings’ weddings. You’re welcome, siblings.
So, coming from two Irish families, we had a big Irish Catholic wedding in Chicago, which allowed more of our relatives to participate even if it meant fewer of our friends. I’m glad we did. We didn’t make decisions based on our parents’ wishes: my mom wanted me to wear an old fashioned veil that would cover my face, and Brian’s mom wanted a no-children guest list. I would amend what Kelly said just slightly: a wedding is about bringing two families together to create a new one.
Planning a wedding is a lot like building a house. It sounds like fun to decide which appetizers you’ll serve to 200 friends and family, just as picking out a light fixture for your kitchen might be fun ---- if you didn’t have to also select 50 other light fixtures and make 200 other decisions. When I was overwhelmed with details, Brian said, “Just decide what you care about and let the rest go.” I’ve passed on this wisdom to many a bride as: “Choose three things you really care about, give your time and energy to those three, and let the rest fall into place.” You still have to make those other decisions, but they don’t really matter---just pick and move on. Start by deciding what will matter to you.
And really, the only decision that matters in the long run is the person standing next to you.
I chose three things to focus on: the music, the photos and the people who would stand with us.
I have five sisters and didn’t know how to decide, so I chose my younger sisters, since my three older sisters had already been bridesmaids. I chose my friend Kris, who had been like a surrogate mother to me at Loyola, as my maid of honor. Kris taught me so much about what it means to be a good friend. Finally I chose my soul-sisters from Arizona, Mary Alice and Angie. I love that they were there that day, just as we were together to celebrate Angie’s wedding in Tucson a few years later, and just as we’ll be together in San Francisco this fall to celebrate Mary Alice’s.
Life is unpredictable, so I’m all the more grateful that these friends are still a big part of my life.
Even today, the first thing I do at church is look up which hymns we’ll be singing. Music has always played a key role in my connection to God, and while I had no idea what kind of dress or hairdo I wanted for a wedding, I definitely knew which songs. I remember our friend Jeff laughing years later when he heard “Be Not Afraid” was one of our songs. It’s still a favorite---the lyrics don’t reprimand you for feeling fear, but tell you to not BE the fear. I can see how acknowledging fear seemed funny and unromantic to Jeff, but I also think it is an appropriate emotion as you promise to commit your life to one person. “Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”
One of the most enjoyable parts about planning our wedding (over two short visits to Chicago at Thanksgiving and Christmas break) was going to hear Irish bands. We hired Dave Dunne and his Blackwater band. According to Google, you can still hear them at Cunnaugh’s Irish Pub. Dave has a beautiful voice and a lovely manner, and one of my favorite memories of that day is watching my mom and her sisters, cousins and old friends dancing to the Siege of Ennis and the Walls of Limerick.
My cousins and I were usually pulled on to the dance floor at weddings to perform the Irish jig or reel. We chose to spare them all that fate and hire the Trinity dancers to perform at our wedding. My dad is from the west coast of Ireland and his birthday was the same week as our wedding, so we dedicated their performance to him. It was also a great way to direct the spotlight off of us for a bit. (If you click the link, you can watch Conan O’Brien’s visit to the Trinity Dance school in Chicago!)
We also hired a DJ to play during the bands breaks, because we couldn’t imagine anyone but Pink Floyd singing “Wish You Were Here,” the song of our first dance. I’ve joked many times that we should have chosen a song with a title like, ‘Glad You’re Always Here” as Brian is often gone for weeks at a time during wildfire season. Still, I love that song. And for the father-daughter dance, we had “Unforgettable,” a duet by Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie. While dancing, my dad whispered, “Hey, this is my favorite singer” as if it were just a coincidence. Without a DJ, my friends and I would never have been able to dance like crazy to the greatest song ever recorded, “I Will Survive!”
Dancing with my dad, and with my little brother, Kevin, who was our ring bearer.
I had no idea how to shoot in manual, but I already loved photography. We hired a relative of Brian’s, which was one of the most expensive parts of our budget, though I know he gave us a big discount. He had shot numerous weddings, and wasn’t interested in the ideas of this young bride. He said no when I said I wanted some black and white shots. He said no when I said I was really interested in candid shots. When I gave him a checklist of my “essential shots,” he assured me he’d been a professional for years---but one of my only regrets from that day is that there isn’t one photo of my grandmother and me. In retrospect, I admire what he was able to capture in a dark church and with so many people---wedding photography is extremely challenging and something I have no desire to try. We just brought our own camera with black and white film, which produced the photo that remains on our bedroom dresser to this day. We had friends take candids---and some of my favorite shots are the ones they took back at my parents’ house after the wedding (re-enacting the awkward poses from the earlier photo shoot).
The last piece of advice is: “Be prepared for things to go wrong, despite all your planning and preparation.” Gretchen Rubin says, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories.” And that was true. When I get nervous, I lose my voice. Not in a laryngitis kind of way, but my voice drops out of my throat and into my knees. I’m an introvert by nature, and all that focused attention was overwhelming up there on the altar with Brian. The momentousness of what we were doing was not lost on me, and I understand why some women faint during their wedding. It was time to say my vows and I couldn’t find my voice. I was starting to panic…
…and then Danny Sheridan, one of our altar boys, fainted.
Later, in our wedding video, you can see him dancing to “YMCA.” He was fine, just happened to lock his knees and all that focus got to him too. His mom, who happens to be a nurse, ran up and took care of him. Brian and I stood there, holding hands, and once we knew he was okay, we all laughed.
Which was just what we needed. Then I was able to start fresh and speak with confidence, saying my vows to Brian.
So to those planning weddings today, remember:
1. No matter how much you prepare, things will still go wrong---but those things will also make great memories.
2. You have to make a lot of decisions but most of them don’t really matter. Choose a few things that will be meaningful to you that day and then let the rest go. Spend more time getting to know your fiance, and less time on Pinterest.
3. This day isn’t really about you; it’s the birthday of a new family. It’s about bringing together two families or communities to create a new one. Let your choices and attitude reflect the foundation you want for the new family you are creating.
We didn’t have a traditional honeymoon; we had grad school to get back to. But Brian surprised me with a suite at the Swissotel, with an amazing view over the Chicago river. We spent the weekend in the city where we had met and fell in love. We went to the aquarium and to the movies (“Four Weddings and a Funeral” had just opened). And we opened and read hundreds of cards from loved ones. I’ve never forgotten the note my cousin Aileen included, though I’m probably misquoting her:
If you’re reading this, the hard part is over. Now you can enjoy the best part: being married.
I tried to share that sentiment when a good friend was getting married last summer, and our other friends were horrified. No, they unanimously agreed, marriage is the hard part. And they’re right, marriage can be hard work. But it’s the kind of hard work that makes life worth living, the way making the kind of life you want is work. I found planning a wedding to be a lot of work. I remember the stress of driving to the airport the night before our wedding to pick up my Uncle Christy, whom I had never met before, and getting lost on the way home (so grateful you were with me, Mary Alice!). I remember saving, stressing about money. I remember trying hard to please so many different people and stay true to ourselves. The wedding was great fun, the mass meaningful, the food great, the drinks flowing, the music grand. I don’t regret any part of our big Irish Catholic Chicago wedding. In a way it was a gift to our parents, a way of thanking them for the families they had given us and acknowledging that we were leaving now to create our own family.
That work, of creating your own family starting with just the two of you, that’s the fun part. It might be hard work, but with the amazing coworker I have, each morning I wake up grateful that I get to do this work again.