When our oldest son got engaged last year at sunset on a beach in Spain, my husband and I cheered from half a world away. I write these words without hyperbole: We were truly as happy about this pending marriage as two human beings could possibly be.
The parents of three sons, my husband and I would have a daughter at last, and we already loved this amazing young woman. We loved how happy she and our son make each other. We loved the way they support and challenge and admire each other, the way they are always laughing together. They are the kind of people who would rather save up for a grand backpacking adventure than a grand engagement ring, and we loved how a ring made from my great-grandmother’s tiny diamond made its way to Spain in a special wooden box that my son carried in his pocket, waiting for just the right moment to drop to one knee.
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What was there not to love? There was nothing not to love.
The months that unspooled between the storybook engagement and the pandemic wedding, on the other hand, produced much that was not to love.
It was always going to be a small, do-it-yourself event: just family and their very dearest friends at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, in a historic lodge that seats only 75 people. A newly minted college graduate would be the photographer. A fellow nurse at the hospital where my daughter-in-law works would bake the cake. I would grow the wedding flowers, and the bride’s mother would make the tablecloths for the reception. But no matter how simple it looks or how homey it feels, a D.I.Y. wedding requires a lot of planning.
How COVID-19 changed the plans
The coronavirus turned all those plans upside down, requiring new plans, and then newer plans, as the pandemic worsened, with wildfire infections spreading across cities and rural counties alike. Twelve days before the wedding, Governor Bill Lee extended Tennessee’s state of emergency for another two months.
The bride’s mother started making masks — enough for every single guest and member of the wedding party. The half-hour ceremony got streamlined to 15 minutes. Plans for the reception shifted to an outdoor patio, never mind that afternoon temperatures in July average 90 degrees in Middle Tennessee. Bottles of hand sanitiser would be nestled among the flower arrangements at every table.
Our own family’s pandemic wedding was absolutely perfect. Parents and siblings joined the couple in the hall; grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends watched via Zoom.
Even so, the guests were getting nervous. Family members of my generation began to send regrets. New York added Tennessee to the list of states from which visitors — and returning New Yorkers — would be forced to quarantine after entering. One of my son’s groomsmen, a childhood friend who now lives in New York City, decided he couldn’t afford to lose those two weeks and sent his regrets too.
As their wedding day approached, the happy couple was becoming a worried couple. Tennessee’s state of emergency limits social gatherings to 50 people or fewer, although that requirement does not apply to funerals, weddings or church services. Legally, then, the wedding could go on as planned, and those plans now included every safety measure anyone could think of. But there is more to a pandemic wedding than questions of legality, and clearly the tenor of this event had already changed. Was it truly safe? Would guests spend the whole time uneasy and subdued?
$74 billion wedding industry
With eight days to go, my son and daughter-in-law sent an email to their entire guest list that effectively cancelled the wedding. The ceremony would still take place; there just wouldn’t be any guests in Cedar Forest Lodge to witness it. “We both love each and every one of you and it truly breaks our hearts to make this decision, but we both know that the best decision isn’t always the easiest to make,” my son wrote. “We also know that a wedding is just one day in our lives and a wedding doesn’t make a marriage.”
They are far from alone in revisiting the whole purpose of a wedding. Just among our closest friends, one wedding has been postponed indefinitely and another finally took place, two months late, in the bride’s sister’s backyard. Here in the United States, the $74 billion wedding industry has come to a grinding halt. Abroad, it took three tries for Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark to find a wedding date that would stick, and the rescheduled wedding for Princess Beatrice of Britain included only immediate family.
In the end, our own family’s pandemic wedding was absolutely perfect. Parents and siblings joined the couple in the hall; grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends watched via Zoom. When the time came to make their vows, to promise that they would love each other through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, our son and daughter-in-law stood in front of a window installed during the Great Depression by workers who knew something about unearned suffering.
They stood and gazed at each other in front of that sun-drenched window, and I think they surely had no sense at all of how many loved ones were there with them or how many loved ones were missing from the echoing hall. They didn’t know because his eyes never left hers, and because her eyes never left his, and because the promises they made, however publicly such vows are spoken in a wedding ceremony, are promises that belong to the two of them alone.
— Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”