Our celebration of our anniversary was different this year. We usually try to go away for a couple of days, usually to a small inn in an historic, picturesque location where there are nice places to stroll and good restaurants.
This year, B did get to take most of the day off from his now-working-from-home job. We did go out briefly for a couple of socially distanced errands and an afternoon visit to the walk-up window at a favorite local ice cream shop, but we made dinner at home with T and had a quiet evening in. All of which seemed right for this somber time.
Thirty-eight years is a respectable amount of time for a marriage and gives me hope that, if we can keep life-threatening disease at bay, we will be able to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, as we were able to do with our own parents.
Perhaps because we are hearing so much about people changing the date or plans for their weddings, I find myself thinking about B and my wedding, the changes in plan that it entailed, and how it was perceived.
Because B and I were planning to marry shortly after I graduated from Smith College, my mother and I did most of the planning the summer before my senior year. Those were still the days where the tradition of the bride and her family doing most of the wedding arrangements (and paying the costs) was still observed, especially when the bride was young and not established in a career. I chose to be married at Helen Hills Hills chapel on the Smith campus. I had been involved in the life of the chapel throughout my years at Smth, as an organist, choir member, and accompanist and was close to Sister Judith, the Catholic chaplain. The reception would be at the Alumnae House, a short walk down Elm Street from the chapel.
There was no resident priest on campus, so an associate from one of the Northampton parishes presided at mass on Saturdays. I asked him to preside at our wedding ceremony and he agreed. In January, he was re-assigned to a nearby city and decided that he would not come to the wedding. A young priest who was assigned to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst was filling in at Smith for the spring semester became the default priest for our wedding.
This turned out to be very problematic.
He didn’t know me – that I had been serving as a Catholic church musician for over seven years, that I took my faith seriously, and that I had also studied the history of Christianity in the United States and around the world. He also didn’t trust me, which was hurtful. When I met with him to do the questionnaire that is required, he made me swear on a bible to tell him the truth, as though I was going to lie to a priest.
In May, during the reading period before my last-ever final exams, the priest and I were taking a walk on the Smith campus to finalize some of the details. Because B is not Catholic, we were having a ceremony, not a mass, which should have made things more flexible. The priest, however, would not allow any changes in wording, would not allow Sister Judith to read the gospel or offer a reflection, which should have been allowed outside a mass. As we were finishing the walk, he said to me that he thought I would be more comfortable being married in a non-Catholic ceremony.
I was devastated. It was six weeks before the wedding and I didn’t have a member of clergy to preside. I went to the chapel offices in tears. Sister Judith wasn’t there, but Rev. John, the ecumenical Protestant chaplain was. He immediately offered to preside and gave me some different prayer books to look through to find a new ceremony to follow. We had to file dispensations of place and form so that the Catholic church would recognize the marriage and the priest would still read the vows, although they would be from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The best outcome was that Sister Judith delivered a beautiful reflection.
People often say that their wedding days are perfect and they wouldn’t change a thing, but there are some things I would change if I could. I would have made a recording of the ceremony because Sister Judith spoke without notes, so I have only memories and not a record of what she said. I also would have ignored the advice of the wedding gown shop and not worn heels and a headpiece that stood up on my head. Because B is about ten inches (25cm) taller than I, they were trying to make me look taller, which seemed silly at the time and even sillier now. Most of all, I would change the trauma and drama of the clericalism that led to my not having a Catholic wedding, the clericalism that still infects the church and causes so much damage.
Our wedding and reception were designed to be an adult affair, so we didn’t invite children. This wasn’t unusual at the time, but didn’t set well with a family member who wanted their grandchildren to be invited. I’m still sorry that those young cousins had a very boring day.
Some of the adults were bored and upset, too, although I, thankfully, was not aware of it at the time. The Alumnae House could serve wine but not liquor, which upset some people who somehow thought they were owed an open bar. We also did not have dancing; neither B nor I enjoy dancing and Alumnae House is not set up for it. After dinner and our delicious spice cake with buttercream icing, a break from the super-sweet white cake with white frosting that was traditional at the time, B and I went from table to table, visiting with our guests. Strangely, after we talked to people at a table, most left, so that, by the time, I changed to leave for our honeymoon, only immediate family and a few close friends were left to wave good-bye.
I don’t regret our reception choices, which reflected our personal style and preferences. I was sad that some guests gave my mother grief, although I didn’t realize that was happening at the time; it was very rude. I was also sad that people were putting their expectations over our true-to-ourselves choices.
My biggest take-away in looking back on the not-entirely-perfect wedding day that B and I had 38 years ago and in hearing so many stories of couples re-defining their own weddings due to the pandemic is that, while weddings are important days in our lives, they are just one day in a marriage. The accumulation of those days, each presenting joys and challenges, is what is most important.
Love is always most important.