I didn’t grow up imagining what my wedding would look like. But I did always assume I would get married.
I was lucky enough to have had a happy, fairly conventional childhood. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York in a traditional family of four, with parents who’ve now been married for 36 years. From my limited perspective, that’s just what adults did: they got married.
When I met Tom, or rather met him again, I was nearing 30 and starting to lose faith in my assumption about getting married. After four years of many, many failed attempts at forming a romantic relationship out of the desperate game that is dating in New York City, I was starting to feel like I was never going to find a boyfriend, much less a husband.
Tom and I had worked together for three years at Scientific American magazine, but had only occasionally exchanged small talk by the coffee machine. A few weeks after my last day at the company, I returned one final time, a little reluctantly, for the office holiday party. I ran into Tom almost immediately, by the bar, and when we took the train home together that evening, he asked for my number and a date.
Later on, he’d tell me he had never attended a holiday party in the four years he’d worked at the magazine—until that one.
A little more than four years later, a few days after Valentine’s Day in 2019, Tom proposed to me in the living room of the apartment we share in Washington Heights. Two months ago, we were married, and although it was the very date we had set a year ago, our wedding looked nothing like the one we had planned.
I got started on planning our wedding almost immediately after we got engaged (I’m a type A Virgo who googles for a living). Tom didn’t care too much about the minutiae, but we agreed easily on the bigger things. We knew we wanted to get married in upstate New York; Tom had spent every weekend of his childhood in a town about two hours west of where I grew up. We knew we wanted a band—we both love music, and two of the best weddings we had ever been to had live bands. (At one, the bride’s ex-boyfriend joined the band for a 10-minute trumpet solo.) And we knew we wanted a venue that allowed our guests to stay on-site with us.
When we started planning our wedding, one of the first things that was recommended to us by several people was a book. A Practical Wedding Planner had tons of good advice, but the part that really stood out was its warning about an industry that was “built on selling you a pretty wedding,” along with its caveat that “pretty contributes very little to the actual experience of the day.”
I tried to follow its advice, but I couldn’t help myself.
I hired a hair and makeup artist; I cared a lot about the flowers and the photographer; I spent extra money on bright coral napkins that few would notice and none would remember; and I came very, very close to spending three times the dress budget on my wedding gown. I also really, really cared about what the venue looked like.
It took three months, hours of googling, and hundreds of emails to find our wedding venue, but when we did, I knew it was the one. Atop a high, rolling hill in the middle of a valley, with sweeping views of the Berkshire Mountains on one side and the Catskill Mountains on the other, sat the reception pavilion. A large, modern structure, it was built using asymmetrically patterned wooden slats in clean, Scandinavian-inspired lines that threw geometric dapples of sunlight. Behind the pavilion, past a clearing in the woods—perfect for a partially shaded ceremony under string lights—wound a leaf-covered path lined with tiny wooden cabins, each with a floor-to-ceiling window facing the woods. Beyond the cabins, the woods met a wide open sky above a field of wildflowers and a sparkling shale stone quarry turned into a manmade pond. It was perfect.
Once we booked the venue, the rest of the wedding fell into place: We hired a photographer whose photos had a dark, almost moody tint that made each image look like it was about to turn sepia; a local florist with an instinctive talent for the seasonal wildflowers of my Pinterest dreams; and an Italian red-sauce restaurant to cater a reception dinner of braised short ribs and eggplant lasagna. By Thanksgiving of last year, with eight months to go until our wedding in July, our wedding had been planned down to (almost) every last detail.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine caring so deeply about any of it—the dress that I would never wear, the little cabins our friends and family wouldn’t stay in, or the live version of our song that we wouldn’t dance to. Because with everything else going on in the world right now, there are many, many, many things worse than a canceled wedding.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine caring so deeply about any of it—the dress that I would never wear, the little cabins our friends and family wouldn’t stay in, or the live version of our song that we wouldn’t dance to.
When I used to think about the wedding day ahead of me, long before I had ever even considered the implications of the word “pandemic,” I’d sometimes, even in public, burst into tears. But it wasn’t about the flowers or the dress or the jaw-dropping mountain views. It was imagining myself standing facing the man I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to–and almost didn’t–meet and fall in love with. That we had both ended up in this unbelievable place where we were ready to commit to loving each other for the rest of our lives—that’s what made me cry in anticipation of the “perfect” wedding we had planned. It’s also what made me cry throughout the “imperfect” wedding we had instead.
We officially canceled on our 130 guests in May. Once we finally stopped planning for our wedding, we were free to start thinking about our marriage instead. After more than five years together, most of which were spent grappling with unforeseen health issues of mine, it felt like Tom and I had already been waiting a long time to move forward with our lives together. We decided to get married this July anyway.
Luckily, my parents had moved to a picturesque lake house right after my father retired a few years ago—so we had our wedding venue with a view. My mother had been our officiant all along, and by that time had also become ordained as a minister online. We had picked out our wedding bands months ago, so all we had to do was ship them upstate. And there was no three-month wait to obtain a marriage license in the small town of Athens, New York. Luckiest of all, our immediate families were healthy and could safely gather together on the day.
It helped that my mother is a natural host. In the week leading up to our wedding date, she prepped her sermon for the “ceremony,” made cold potato and green bean salads for the “reception” dinner, and baked quiches with hash-brown crusts for the “goodbye brunch.” She bought filet mignon steaks and bone-in chicken thighs for my dad to marinate and grill to serve with the salads, pink champagne and our favorite white wines for a post-ceremony toast, and a pop-up canopy to stand in as a makeshift arbor on the dock.
On the day of, we put the finishing touches on the decor: Trader Joe’s flowers and candles for the dinner table and my mom’s flowerpots for the dock. We decorated the canopy with plastic flowers and streamers from the dollar store and strung a “Just Married” sign and empty Spindrift cans (from all the seltzer we’d been drinking during quarantine) to the back of my parents’ boat.
We prepped a welcome snack of cheese popcorn and lemonade swirled with strawberry purée, plus a charcuterie and cheese platter and olives for the “cocktail hour.” Tom’s family arrived in the late afternoon with a three-layer wedding cake made by his mother (vanilla for Tom and gluten-free for me) topped with a cake topper passed down from her own parents. And we had coral linen napkins, except now decorated by my mother with little wooden heart-shaped signs bearing our names and wedding date.
We played the song “I Need My Girl” by The National, as planned, as I walked down the aisle, arm-in-arm with Tom. We didn’t have a professional photographer, but my mom’s oldest and closest friend volunteered to wear a mask and take photos of us on her phone. I wasn’t wearing the gown I had spent weeks looking for, and I didn’t have professional hair or makeup, but I felt pretty all the same. And I cried just as hard—with unrestrained happiness.
That we had both ended up in this unbelievable place, where we were ready to commit to loving each other for the rest of our lives, made me cry in anticipation of the “perfect” wedding we had planned. It’s also what made me cry throughout the “imperfect” wedding we had instead.
After the ceremony, we drank pink champagne from plastic cups as we spun around the lake on the boat, the streamers and tin cans glinting in the setting sun. Our close friends made a guest appearance via Zoom and “clinked” glasses and cheered for us. We had dinner way too late when no one was hungry and it was too dark out because we had been having too much fun drinking wine and eating entirely too much cheese. The pink fake flowers we had bought to decorate the dinner table unexpectedly flashed garish colored lights as we ate, which was funny, and made us feel a little like we were in a nightclub. We hadn’t planned on having a cake at our wedding, but we ended up with a homemade one that we shoved in each other’s faces at the end of the night, even though we had always said that it was a cliché thing to do. Tom’s family made unexpected toasts, and I cried again. And when everyone had gone to bed, Tom and I sat outside together, my head on his shoulder, letting it all sink in.
It still takes me a minute to remember to call the celebration we had this year “our wedding,” because it was so different from what we had planned, but our family members who were there remind us that it was our wedding, our real wedding.
I can’t honestly say this wedding turned out to be everything we didn’t know we actually wanted, or that it was better than the wedding we had spent all of those months planning. But I can say it was memorable, plenty pretty, and abundantly joyful.
I know I probably won’t care 10, 20, or 30 years from now about not getting to wear a dress with a train or walk down an aisle lined with wildflowers, I think I’ll always feel a little bit of loss over the sing-along we didn’t have with friends or that we didn’t get to exchange our vows in front of more of our loved ones. At the same time, we’re not waiting to move forward with our lives anymore. We’re beginning our marriage, which is as real as if we’d had that big wedding, and we’re not thinking about what we didn’t and won’t have. We’re appreciating what we do have, which is each other, forever—whatever that looks like.
What would you change—or keep the same—about your wedding? Tell us in the comments.