Last week my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
At least we think we did. It's kind of hard to count.
The first problem is that we took our time to get married -- seven years, to make absolutely sure we liked cohabiting -- so we've actually been together for 32 years. That's a bigger number than 25, but an odd number for major whoopee. Might as well wait until 35, or even 40, to bring out the balloons and noisemakers.
The other problem is that we really had two weddings. The first wedding was attended by 23 family members and close friends in our living room. The second wedding, a month later, was the one for which the invitations were printed and mailed to 150 people, most of whom my husband and I didn't know well if at all, in a city where neither of us lived, in the party room of my aunt's condo building. The guests were mostly relatives (I have approximately 4,000 cousins) and friends of my popular parents, and in order to glad hand with proper verve, both John and I had a little too much champagne, which might be why we don't remember much about the event, other than the fact that one friend, in his excitement to greet me, spilled an entire glass of red wine down the front of my white dress, so I spent the entire evening looking like an extra from a vampire movie.
As you might have guessed by now, our family unit is not sentimental about weddings. We're not sentimental about much, really, or at least ceremonial -- we don't observe Mother's Day, we don't wrap our birthday gifts to each other or even always manage to present them on time -- but about weddings in particular my feelings could best be described as mixed. A chicken and egg thing: it's hard to say whether I'm suspicious of wedding galas because our own experiences were so peculiar, or whether we went the weird route because we were so clearly not party animals.
Everyone who has ever planned a wedding knows that in short order, the tensions become less about how the two of you will be as a couple, and more about how you negotiate the conjoining of your two families. "Family of origin," the shrinks call the people to whom you first pledged allegiance. Weddings test whether your families will allow you to shift your primary loyalties to a spouse -- to make your own new family unit's priorities and rules -- or will still try to control you by the old rules. Weddings further test how you and your beloved communicate about these inevitable conflicts. Whether you can join forces and resist the party lines, or whether the old party lines will threaten your newfound unity.
Of course there must be real-life weddings like the ones in romantic movies. Everyone loves everyone, and as the officiator calls for the kiss to seal the deal, the audience swells with warm certainty that the newlyweds will be together forever. The worst you get is an inappropriately raunchy toast from the best man.
In real life, however, there are siblings with simmering resentments, snippiness from bridesmaids and nasty parental divorces that play out like the lead-up to a high school prom. I've been to a wedding where two women actually got into a "Jersey Shore"-style cat fight over a floral centerpiece. I've been to a wedding where the feminist bride explicitly told the priest to exclude the line about wives needing to honor and obey, and instead he made wifely obedience the theme of his stern, excruciatingly long sermon.
For all of these reasons, John and I wanted our wedding intimate, while my mother insisted on a big to-do. We also insisted on a secular service, which dismayed both my Jewish parents and John's Catholic ones. Tensions about all of this got so bad that on round one, we actually called off the wedding and broke up -- or, as was our wont, sort of broke up. (We once joked that ambivalence was so much our M.O., not just about marriage but even about clothing purchases, that if we had a family crest, our motto should be Semper Returnatum -- You Can Always Return It). I took another job and moved across the country. But we missed each other, saw each other as often as we could, racked up huge long distance bills (ah, love before email, Skype and cellphones) and a year later, I returned to my old job, moved back in and the wedding was back on. By then, both sets of parents were so relieved that we weren't going to continue living in sin -- or so whiplashed by the boomeranging -- that they would have consented to anything.
Pennsylvania is a Quaker state, which means we could marry without any kind of officiator, not even a judge. We just needed to declare ourselves married and sign in front of witnesses, who would also sign a slip of paper that we would deliver to City Hall. This we did, in front of our immediate families, our closest friends and our erstwhile couples counselor. John delivered a speech. Then he recited our favorite marriage quotation, from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whom W. H. Auden dubbed "The Santa Claus of Loneliness":
The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Now that's romance. I still get weepy reading Rilke. Even though in another part of the essay he declares about marriage, "That is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it." Sounds about as romantic as ditch-digging.
And yet, embracing that view, we're still together. Most of the close friends who attended our wedding have long ago divorced, some in spectacularly grisly ways. Just the odds, I know -- I would never suggest our crooked, grumpy path to longevity as a prescription for anyone else.
Recently, John had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get some car paperwork done for my son. To prove that we jointly owned the car, he brought our marriage certificate, on which, comically, the clerk had spelled my name wrong and corrected it with White-Out. (This was before computers, when documents were typed on machines with keystrikes so fierce that the periods punctured the paper). The DMV clerk looked at the document suspiciously. "What the hell is this?" she asked. John explained. "You can't use this," she proclaimed. "It has White-Out! It's not a legal document!"
"If it's not a legal document," I mused to John, with a glint of hopefulness, "does that mean we're not really married?"
He knew I was kidding. I love our marriage. I love it ruefully -- but rue is the coin of the kingdom around these parts. Anyway, how can a person feel anything but rueful about having somehow become old enough to have been with someone for 32 years? My son is 22. Before I know it I'll be not a blushing bride, but a mother-in-law of the bride.
And then -- like the noble mother of the bride in my novel Love Bomb, in which the worst possible wedding I could conjure (guests held hostage by a bomb-toting, heavily-armed woman) turns out shockingly well for all concerned -- I will have no ambivalence at all. I'll just throw myself into unadulterated joy for the couple, no matter how dry the chicken or how long it takes for the entrée to arrive. Because here is one thing I know, a couple of decades past the point where our Christmas tree was a dead ficus festooned with tin foil stars: hip irony will get you only so far in life.