Both Sides of the Aisle

A newlywed couple looks at their own wedding through the lens of gender.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

His Side of the Story

Weddings, it’s true, are generally the “bride’s day.” The role of some grooms is to be scarce until it’s time to show up, then not piddle on the rug. Perhaps I was fortunate—my bride didn’t seem to think I was nuts when I had suggestions. In fact, I even chose the venues we used. Ours was a duo affair from the beginning, and I got to choose a lot of the things that, looking back, meant the most to me.

There were many details I couldn’t recount now—who sat where, what color the flowers were, whether there even were flowers. I remember things mostly in broad strokes, thanks to a combination of being thoroughly overwhelmed and feeling as if I were in the eye of a hurricane.

People who knew about such things as what’s traditional flatware for a rehearsal dinner blurred by me, taking care of elements about which I never got the memo. (If you’re a groom, never fear: you did not get, nor will you or any other groom ever get that memo.)

But the big stuff I remember well. After the first gales of business had been accomplished, things happened fast. Our rehearsal dinner was an unexpected treat. I was thinking of some kind of sterile buffet at which people mutter at each other in small groups, and a few people say interesting things about the bride and groom. What happened was somewhere between a roast, an awards dinner and one of those montage sequences in which an entire childhood is recounted. I learned a good few things about my bride—the infant asleep face down in the spaghetti tale stands out—and a good few things about what my parents thought of their only child. It was, I suppose, a sentimental to-do, but it was an interesting one that left me feeling a great deal less nervous about the next day, and left me with a sense of what kind of family I was marrying into.

The next day was the fastest-moving on record. I’d only just had a nice breakfast, it seemed, when late afternoon was rolling around and I had to look presentable. Most everything after that in my memory is blank, until I entered the vaulting sanctuary. The second I did, I thanked Providence I’d had the foresight to book one of the most calming and pleasant compositions in the history of music for the walk down the aisle: a Bach cello suite (which exact number escapes me). The low tones of the cello, the intertwining lines of wistful melody unhinge anxiety like little else. We had only a solo cellist, and the atmosphere I walked into was made warm and welcoming by those sounds. As I then stood up front awaiting the bridal procession, so intent on not locking my knees I probably looked as if I were about to sit, I found that I wasn’t in fact going to lose all ability to function.

The ceremony was made yet more comfortable by an unusual addition—my father is a minister, so he did the honors. I’ve never walked that nuptial aisle before, so I can’t compare anything to it, but having his officiating making the occasion properly formal seemed right, and made me feel as if I wasn’t in such rarefied territory as the front of a church in mid-ceremony. It made it much less startling to realize that in fact I was.

I feel a little bad about what I most enjoyed about my wedding day, besides the unique pleasure of making a relationship official and permanent. Our reception was a true celebration.

As a musician, I had no trouble assembling a group of my friends that included many able musicians. And the musical fun that ensued was the most exuberant expression I could offer of the pleasure of being surrounded by friends and family, celebrating something that was serious, but was also extraordinarily happy. I just got concerned that perhaps I was having too much fun participating, and not completing a sufficient amount of the requisite glad-handing. Still. The front of a church is a bit of a pressure cooker. But playing a nice guitar solo to “All of Me” with close friends while the best man plays snare and my—I had to get used to it—wife singing? That was perfect. The parents, the family, the extended group of friends were all watching, and that was when I felt like I was—my bride and I were—telling them how we felt about this crazy thing.

At that moment, just beyond a bank of windows looking into our soiree, one of our friends overheard two old ladies, strangers, saying, “Look at that—the poor kids couldn’t afford a band, and the bride has to sing!”

Her Side of the Story

As a single cello plays the formal strains of Bach, the guests turn around to double doors about to open to reveal the bride. The deep tones of the cello crescendo, the doors open, everyone stands... and Tony, my husband’s oafy friend, walks through the doors.

That is the opening scene of my wedding video. I have to admit that when I imagined the wedding processional, I would not have relished the thought of being upstaged by latecomers. If I had it do again—if I could have predicted that very likely scenario—I’d have planted one of the ushers at the entry doors of the church to control folks trying to waltz into their seats 20 minutes past the hour.

And I surprise myself by caring about such an incident. Certainly I think of myself as an earthy girl with low expectations, not expecting my Big Day to be a princess-perfect day, as many women apparently do. But even I had some specific picture of how the day would unfold. Even I had to work a little emotionally later during the formal pictures to shake the sight of big, goofy Tony walking right in front of me when the doors opened, with his greasy hair-do and skinny tie.

But there were other gaffes. Like my rings. With my engagement ring on first, then my wedding band slid on after it, I was blindsided when my father’s wife leaned into me at the reception as I reached for champagne: “Your rings are on backwards.” My giddy smile melted as I took in what she was telling me. “The wedding band goes on first, because it’s closest to your heart. During the ceremony, you’re supposed to have your engagement ring on your right hand, and then slide that on after your wedding ring.”

I reached under the starchy tablecloth and switched them as the waiter refilled my flute. Who keeps track of this stuff? Who makes these rules?

And still I worried a little about the order of the rings in the very close-up photographs.

Setting out to have a “low-key day,” one that was “small and fun,” I see now that even as low-maintenance as I am, there were still very traditional aspects of a wedding day that had etched themselves in my mind; a veil, my father walking me down the aisle, a best man and a maid of honor, roses on the table, a dance with my new husband as our guests looked on. And all those things happened. It was the gale-force winds holding up my veil in the outdoor photographs, my friend Paige dancing wildly in her strapless dress and gigantic dark bushy underarm hair, and my dad having nine Grey Goose vodka martinis — those were the unknowns that were impossible to predict.

All of it—even the scary variables (my husband’s conservative Southern family staring as my family turned the dance floor into Animal House)—fits together somehow. Even my friend’s husband taking my sister out on the dance floor and looking dreamily into her eyes, exclaiming that she had “really nice hands.”

The truth is, I had quite a picture of the day and how it would go: the ceremony, the pictures, the toasts, the dancing and merriment. And each major element—the important ones—fell into place. But we’ll never talk about those things as the years wear on.

We’ll chew over the mishaps and gaffes. They’re more interesting, more fun, and in the end I thank my lucky stars for big greasy Tony.

What She Thinks About His Story

The roles seem almost switched from the expected; my husband had quite a visceral response to our wedding day. The seriousness of the day seem to put his stomach in knots. The music, our family expressing what we meant to them, tied new relationships together for him. And I didn’t expect him to notice or care about such things. Best of all, he didn’t seem to mind what he was “marrying into,” as my sister long ago recommended I refrain from introducing him to my clan “until it’s too late” (the wedding weekend).

All scheming aside, it’s surprising to see the heartfelt investment of my husband’s reaction to our wedding day. For many grooms, the day is about 20 minutes of serious looks into their beloved’s eyes giving way to a series of Scotch drinks and yukking it up with friends from college. Most grooms just barely stomach the emotional weight of the day, the meaning of the union they make at the altar. I married a guy who noticed the magic of the day and maybe even, just a little, relished it.

What He Thinks of Her Story

To my bride, our reactions to the wedding day seem to reverse the traditional male and female roles. But me, I don’t think so. It’s clear that she was beholden to some very traditional pressures, pressures that, I bet, keep many a bride from getting full enjoyment of her wedding day. Women are expected to have gotten the memo. The memo in which it’s all spelled out—how you’re supposed to assemble your undergarments, how your nails must look. Brides are expected to have memorized the thing, and function at a fugue-like level, enjoying themselves while successfully navigating a complicated path of rituals and correctness that women seem to somehow know—and critique in others.

I wasn’t, I bet, more emotional than she was, just freer to actually notice. Grooms are left entirely out of the memo. As long as they don’t do anything too boorish, most people don’t fully acknowledge grooms as more than particularly animated bridal accessories. I’m glad I married a woman who doesn’t put too much stock in knowing the particulars of everything a woman is expected to magically know. But it must be tough to be a bride—she had to contend with things that would drive anyone nuts. The good news for me was that, had I piddled on the rug, she probably wouldn’t have noticed.

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