It was a scorcher. I remember it being so hot that, as I stood in line, I could feel sweat trickle from my scalp down my back between my shoulder blades. My yellow dress and matching pumps clung to me uncomfortably – especially the shoes, as they tightly crossed an itchy patch of poison ivy on the arch of my foot.
While we waited for the ceremony to start, I laughed to myself about the fact that it had taken a village to help my sister into her pantyhose AFTER she had already donned her wedding dress. My younger sisters, in their matching yellow dresses, were also in line, each of us paired with a groomsman we didn’t know. When it was my turn to walk up the aisle, all I was thinking about was not making a fool of myself. I didn’t look at the people, friends and family I loved, turning in the pews to watch. I’m pretty sure I forgot to smile, I was so self-conscious.
I enjoyed all the events before and after the wedding. The rehearsal dinner ended in a gathering at the groom’s home. Guitars came out and we had a sing-along with the “old gang” from Loveland (where we used to live in Ohio) and the wedding party and guests who were already in town. Dave (the groom) and his best friend Randy, sang Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, among other crowd pleasers. The punch and cake reception, in the church, had a “shadow reception” in the parking lot, with beer dispensed out of the back of a station wagon for those old enough. Later that night all the college/graduate students headed downtown Cincinnati and the riverfront for a good time.
I was still 18, and full of whatever notions fill the mind of an 18 year old: friends, laughter, romance. I’m sure I listened to the sermon during the wedding – after all, it was Pastor Ross, our dear friend and sometimes youth group leader and I always listened to him. But my head was already full of fluff and what he said didn’t have a place to take hold. The people were lovely, the music was beautiful, and there was a particular boy there that I thought was incredibly special – that’s what I do remember.
It never occurred to me, that day, to wonder “What makes a marriage?” or “What makes a marriage last?” or “What does it truly mean to be committed to another person?” I thought I knew (because at 18 you always think you know stuff), and I didn’t think a wedding was the time for serious or thoughtful reflection.
Today, 32 years after my sister’s wedding, is another scorcher. Under 100 degrees finally, but still hot. As I write (thankfully NOT dressed head-to-toe in buttercup yellow), I realize I know both more and less about marriage than I did that day in 1980. On the more side, I know that a wedding is exactly the time for thoughtful reflection because it is a fun but very serious occasion. What is taking place is a sacred event, not merely a whimsically romantic one. Also, on the more side, I know that the concept of “for better or worse” often contains more worse than the bride and groom have foreseen.That this worse can include things like illness, and boredom, and selfishness, and financial crisis. I’ve watched as couples I know have either found a way to absorb these blows and come through with a stronger bond, or have found themselves blasted apart. Another item on the more list: marriage is not a spectator sport. If you are married, you have to play hard, and play to win. Your head has to be in the game.
Strangely enough, the “less” I know now as compared with my 18 year old self is so much greater than the “more”. I thought I knew that love spontaneously erupts in our hearts and leads to marriage – and if the love is strong enough the marriage is too. I now know that’s not quite how it works, that love is only one factor in a complex equation that I understand about as much as I do calculus. I thought I knew that there were particular hurts or violations (sexual infidelity chief among them) that, when committed by a spouse, were marriage deal-breakers. No questions, its over. Conversely, I thought that a marriage was safe as long as these particular issues never occured. Clearly, I suck at marriage math because both assumptions have proven false as I’ve watched the marriages of my family and friends ebb and flow, strengthen and (sadly) fail due to issues and behaviors nearly impossible to comprehend from outside the relationship.
Which is likely one reason I’m fascinated by this topic today – marriage is something I’ve only had the opportunity to study from the outside. As I think on it today, on my sister’s 32nd anniversary, I stand in awe of my parents and siblings who have, apparently, figured out how to do it so well. I also stand in awe of my friends: those whose marriages are anywhere on the continuum from happy to struggling to falling apart. I am in awe of their determination, hard work, joy and sorrow and the fact that they continue to function in (reasonably) normal ways.
There is a lot said these days about people not taking marriage seriously, about couples entering into the fun of a wedding without thought to the actual work of a marriage. The Brittney Spears and Kim Kardashians, whose weddings are barely over before the marriage is, are given as examples. However, in real life (as opposed to celebrity life) I haven’t seen that. In real life, I’ve seen people struggle to make it work. I’ve seen people sacrifice, try all sorts of creative endeavors and creative thinking to keep their marriages viable. And I’ve watched as people I love try to put their lives back together after their marriage has broken, and broken their lives to pieces.
So, what’s my point? Simply this: at 18, a wedding appears to be the most important part of a marriage. At 50, even those of us who’ve never been married know the wedding, though a serious event, is a jumping-off point. No matter what one thinks they know, the marriage will be an epic journey through the unknown. My role as family member or friend is to witness and support and uplift, regardless of my opinion – because if marriage is not a spectator sport, it is also not one where anyone needs or welcomes Monday morning quarterbacking from me. In closing: Happy Anniversary, Chris and Dave! And to the rest of you brave souls (married, divorced or someplace in between) – bon voyage! I’ll be here if you need me!