03/15/2013 02:38 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

The Thread That Binds All Weddings, Large And Small

This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and on

By Sally Friedman

The bride drifts down the aisle in a billowy cloud of a gown. She is radiant -- breathtakingly beautiful.

Mind you, I have never seen her before this moment. Nor have I ever met her groom, her family, or his.

Why, then, are tears streaming down my cheeks? And what am I doing at the wedding of these total strangers?

My husband is a retired New Jersey Superior Court judge and is, therefore, authorized to officiate at weddings. And as "Mrs. Judge," I'm often invited to be with him -- at least 60 in the last couple of decades. I seldom decline.

I love weddings.

I love what they say about love, commitment, and devotion in this weary, old world. I love the glorious theater that every wedding, no matter how modest, instantly creates.

But it is undeniably a peculiar experience to be a guest at the wedding of strangers, the precise situation in which I sometimes find myself.

It's also a remarkable opportunity to see the shining best -- and occasionally, the disappointing worst -- of wedding days, from an unbiased perspective.

I've witnessed ceremonies in the most elegant hotel ballrooms, with crystal chandeliers gleaming overhead and acres of plush carpeting underfoot -- and in the humblest of fire halls, where floors are concrete and walls are cinder block.

I've seen flower arrangements that made me gasp, and receptions where 300 guests sat in gold ballroom chairs -- and rooms where seven or eight guests have huddled on metal bridge chairs without so much as a paper wedding bell for decoration.

And after years of being a semi-invisible "member of the wedding," I can tell you that in the end, the trappings have little to do with the spirit of a wedding.

Obviously, beautiful rooms do set a mood. But a setting can only go so far.

I'll never forget the super expensive wedding at the status country club with the hottest band of the decade and a caterer whose very name inspired awe -- with a bride who chewed gum throughout the ceremony, spoiling any semblance of grace.

I was far more moved by the bride who read her groom original poetry about the link between friendship and love, and the groom who sang a song he had written just for her, in a firm, strong baritone. This, in a township hall basement.

Now, that was a wedding where my mascara ran in rivers down my cheeks.

But then, I always cry at weddings.

No matter how many times I've resolved to be a dignified, proper judge's wife, I find myself weeping at the bride walking down the aisle, or crossing the room, or simply standing there. The tears also come when I see the groom looking at her in a way that says, without words, I am overwhelmed.

There is something about bearing witness to this ritual, so familiar, yet brand new each time, that inevitably brings a lump to the throat or a shiver down the spine.

The courage -- the faith, resilience, and optimism -- never cease to be awesome.

Trust me, officiants are not indifferent.

My husband loves to hear from "his" couples, some of whom even remember to send notes around significant anniversaries -- and pictures of their babies! He is always delighted to know when things are going well, and saddened to learn when they're not. And yes, it hurts when he finds out that a man and woman who once stood before him with such hope are divorced.

There's a part of my husband's wedding ceremony that I've practically memorized; he recites it just after the vows have been exchanged.

"Now you will not know the cold," he begins, "for you will each be warmth to the other. Now you will not know the dark, for you will each be light to each other . . .."

And no matter how many times I have heard those words, they always remind me what marriage is all about.

Trust me -- it's not about the flowers or the music or the salmon with lime salsa.

It's about that warmth and that light in the darkness.

It's about being a homeland to one another.

And it's always, always, about hope.

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