Years before she wrote about high-powered nuptials for The New York Times, this writer remembers admiring the ritual
by Cate Doty
I have loved weddings for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly. When I was a tiny thing, three or four, I had this bride doll whose big blue eyes closed when you laid her down, her long nylon eyelashes fluttering down to her blushed cheeks. She wore what had to be the most chaste wedding getup this side of the Reformation: a long-sleeve turtleneck lace bodice and ankle-length skirt, with three underskirts, a pair of bloomers, thick white tights that were a bitch to pull up over her rubber legs, and white rubber Mary Janes, which looked juvenile and out of place with her wedding attire.
My love of weddings didn’t come from TV, which I wasn’t allowed to watch as a small child save for Sesame Street, and I’m still disappointed that Bert and Ernie haven’t tied the knot. But I was an early and prodigious reader, in part because I was at that point an only child and didn’t have anyone to talk to during the day other than my mom, who maintains that I was reading full books by age three, and frankly I just don’t see how that’s possible.
But I ate up the Little House series when I was six, and read over and over the penultimate chapter in These Happy Golden Years in which Laura and Almanzo — Manly, rather — stood before her friend Ida’s father in his parlor and were married, the groom in his Sunday best and the bride in a black cashmere dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a high collar, and Ma’s square gold brooch pinned at her throat. It sounded luxurious and full of hope to me, although I knew even then that Laura was poor and would stay poor for much of her life, until she pulled her family out of deep poverty by writing. I was bewitched by Laura’s insistence that she would not say the word obey in her vows, while still denying that she wanted the right to vote. And I wanted to know what happened after the last stillness of the book, when Laura and Manly went back inside their house after watching the twilight fade on the first night of their life together. I knew that the first four years were deathly difficult, and ended in bankruptcy, a lost child, and crippling disease. But what were the interiors of that life together? I wanted to know what they talked about as they went to bed.
So maybe it wasn’t just weddings. Maybe it was life itself I was curious about. But weddings were a way into that life, and I knew that entry could be beautiful. For years, my parents had a department-store gift box full of the relics of their wedding: bits of lace from my mom’s dress, my dad’s crumbly boutonniere, a yellowed program, and a copy of their wedding announcement from the Fayetteville Observer-Times, the paper from my grandparents’ hometown. I read it over and over, and then I started reading the wedding announcements in the Birmingham News every Sunday. We lived in a tiny yellow house with a green stoop, and I spent Sunday mornings at the maple table my dad had made, reading the comics, the Mini Pages, and the wedding announcements.
And then, when I was five, I actually got to go to a wedding. My dad’s father was remarrying in North Carolina, so we piled into our little blue Datsun and headed up I-20 from Birmingham to the wedding. He had been dating a tall, wispy-slender woman named Susan, who brought to their relationship four daughters whom I found fascinating. They had big hair, makeup, lots of nail polish, giant goofy 1980s sleeves, and drama: love affairs, breakups, college dropouts, car wrecks, you name it. Susan presided over it all, with kind blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence and sly humor. She specialized in understanding girls, and I loved her like a shot.
Anyway, Pa — that’s what I called him, although most everyone else called him Monk — and Susan were getting married in someone’s backyard. The day of the wedding, my mom dressed me in a smocked dress, ankle socks, and white Mary Janes, and herself in a red dress with a blue and white belt. We stood in the grass while my grandfather committed himself to Susan, and she to him, led down the bridal path by an Episcopal priest. She wore a sensible white column dress with an open collar and carried a small bouquet of pink roses and baby’s breath wrapped in a white satin ribbon.
And then, after the ceremony, she leaned over to me and said, “Would you hold my bouquet for me?”
Well. Would I? WOULD I? Yes, indeed I would. I paraded around the backyard with that bouquet like it was my own wedding. I buried my face in the roses, breathing in the scent of hothouse love, and the petals were cool to my face. I held on to the plastic stem of the bouquet with both hands at my waist, just like I’d seen Susan do, and walked up and down the yard, weaving in and out of the small crowd, showing off my flowers to Susan’s daughters, my amused parents, and my dad’s kooky sister. When the cake had been eaten and the champagne had been finished, I gave the new unit of Pa and Susan a fierce five-year-old good-bye hug. Susan leaned down and whispered in my ear: “You can keep it.”
I told you, she understood girls. On the way back to our motel, I fell asleep in the back of the car clutching the bouquet, just like Ralphie on Christmas night with his Red Ryder BB gun. But my pride and joy was prettier.
Excerpted from Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages by Cate Doty, with permission from G.P. Putnam, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mary Catherine Doty