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Who’s A Wedding Really For?

[REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM BELIEFNET.COM.]

"Weddings aren’t for the bride and groom," my friend said a month before her wedding, exasperated when I suggested that if she didn’t like Chicken Kiev, then by gosh, she shouldn’t serve it at the reception. "They’re for the families." I nodded my head as if I understood completely. But I didn’t. Not my wedding, I thought to myself. No way.

A few months later I got engaged. Reality dawned.

My now-husband, Aron, and I have an abundance of in-laws. Our parents divorced, and each has remarried. His parents have children from their second marriages, and there’s a step-grandmother on either side. The tally of our combined immediate families: 22 people. What they all have in common: Intelligence and sensitivity; New York residence at one time or another (aside from my grandmother, who’s from Alaska); and, of course, they each love us and have our best interests at heart.

What they don’t: Personality type (some are easy-going, others proudly judgmental; some vivacious storytellers, others "live in the mind"); Religious beliefs (Jewish and Christian, believers and atheists); Musical taste (including opera and baroque classical; the Rolling Stones; Ani DiFranco; and for my new pre-teen brothers-in-law, the Macarena); Financial means (some solidly middle-class, others upper-class); Political views (some die-hard feminists and gay-rights proponents, others religious and social conservatives); and, of course, what exactly our "best interests" are, and how to most effectively guide us towards them.

All of this diversity creates two things: Spicy dinner conversation and, oh yes–total and complete chaos. For me, at least. I don’t know how or when it happened, but I’ve fallen prey to the scourge of women everywhere: wanting to please. The confluence of the insanity of our combined families and my own personal insanity reached a glorious crescendo in the planning of my August wedding.

It all started innocently enough: After we announced our wedding plans, an offer was lobbed our way by Aron’s father and step-mother to give us an engagement party. "Great," we hastily responded. It was a bash: A lot of family and friends, loud music, excellent food. It was the kind of party that Aron’s dad and step-mom are great at putting together. It was not, however, the kind of party that either my mother or father, or Aron’s mother’s family, is known for. That difference resulted in the Great Bombardment of ’98: Offers from these families started pouring in. "Why didn’t you tell us you wanted an engagement party?" was the collective cry. "Now what can we do?"

Now, mind you, these were not specific offers. No one volunteered to audition bands for us, and I never received stationary samples in the mail from my mother, like my friend Mary’s mom did for her. "Tell us what to do," they said. Not wanting to shirk their responsibilities or fall beneath the standard that had been set, they also didn’t actually have anything in mind.

The only way each of our families was going to feel important was if we demonstrated how desperately we needed them. So roles were parceled out: Aron’s mom would do the rehearsal dinner; my two parents would pay for the wedding and be the official hosts of the reception; Aron’s father’s family would take care of the band and the liquor. And I called my mother at least every other week for wedding dress consultation. Soon everyone was placated, even if I was spending entire workdays on the phone.

By the time the wedding day arrived, I felt like I was planning a United Nations summit. My sister’s Orthodox boyfriend needed a hotel within walking distance of the ceremony site because he couldn’t drive, since we were getting married not quite long enough past sunset on a Saturday for him to consider Shabbat officially over; my soon-to-be step-mother in-law wanted to know exactly what all of the "other mothers" were wearing, so they wouldn’t match or clash; my own mother introduced Aron’s sister Jessie—his father’s daughter—to his maternal grandmother as "Aron’s half-sister, Jessie," which though true, is a faux pas within the family (and let’s not mention the fact that Aron’s maternal grandmother couldn’t remember her grandson’s half-sister’s name); my father wasn’t sure if Aron’s father was paying for just the wine, or if he was also picking up the tab for the hard liquor; Aron’s mother got in a fender-bender on the way to the rehearsal dinner, which she had spent months working on, and finally made it only to see Aron’s name misspelled on the customized menus. Typical wedding stuff, but lots more of it.

When I drove up to the wedding site on the big day a few hours before the ceremony, the sky was overcast. "I don’t want to alarm you, but there is a considerable chance of life-threatening thunder and lightning," the maitre’d whispered in my ear as she guided me by the elbow under the tent. All of the families were arriving, to change into their clothes and rehearse. "I don’t think we’re going to be able to have this wedding outside," she continued. It was 90 degrees out and the indoor facility wasn’t air conditioned. I didn’t hear another word she said as I pulled away from her. "If my wedding is a disaster," I thought to myself, "then that’s what it is. It’ll be over in a few hours, and I will go on to live a rich and exciting life." I wanted to cry.

More people arrived and stood around nervously, each with his own family. The wind picked up; the flaps of the vinyl white tent were whipped to the side, causing people to let out little shrieks and laughter. The rain pelted down in violent bursts, and on cue, the life-threatening thunder and lightning made an appearance. It’s at about this time that I started giggling manically and saying to anyone near me, "Life-threatening thunder? What, does it kill you with its noise?" We rehearsed the ceremony indoors, the rain falling in sheets outside the windows. The rabbi took charge. "Emily, now you walk down. No, not next to your parents. Behind them. Like this," he barked. I loved him. But sweat was pouring down his face and everyone else’s; my father took me aside and told me he was really concerned. "We have old people coming to this thing," he said. "They’re not going to last in here." Thanks. In-laws traded wary smiles and glances; no one was really saying or doing anything, but they all seemed rattled.

My friends shuffled me off to a changing room. When we emerged, dressed and made-up, the rain had stopped, and somehow, the ground was barely wet. Guests arrived and were seated atop the hill. Friends and family got into position, and started ascending the slope in silence, all 31 of us. I was the last person in the procession, and I walked alone, behind my father and step-mother, who followed my mother and step-father, who followed my friends, who followed Aron, who followed his father and step-mother, who followed his mother and step-father, who followed his friends, who followed his two ring-bearing brothers, who followed my grandmother and sister’s boyfriend; who followed Aron’s grandmother and step-grandfather, who followed Aron’s step-grandmother and her fiance, who followed our four sisters, who carried the chuppah.

I wish I could describe the color of the sun, which was slowly setting in a pink-orange glow behind the hill as we walked toward it; I wish I could describe the other-worldly hush that seemed to surround and buoy the group as I watched them all ahead of me, holding hands, looking back over their shoulders and up ahead, smiling, saying only the simplest expressions of wonder at the mist rising around us. As I carefully made my way up the hill towards the sunset, I could only let it all wash over me. My family, together, happy. She was right, my friend. The wedding was for them. And because they have our best interests at heart, it became, at once, for us.

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