"I Missed My Mom Too Much To Plan My Wedding"

Photographed by Winnie Au.
It took 20 years to get married to my husband, John. He wasn’t the problem. I was.

I love John. He’s great. We met shortly after graduate school. We’ve lived together in three states, bought a house, started a business, rescued four pets, and generally get along like a couple of junior high BFFs.

Marriage became an annual discussion, but never in a romantic, propose-to-each-other way. It made sense for tax purposes, so each year we’d bring it up with our accountant, Meltzer. He’d sigh. “Just get married already. What’s wrong with you two?”

I’d usually blame the budget. I read somewhere that an average wedding costs $32,641. I’m not sure who calculated that specific number, but if I had $32,641 hanging around, I’d put it toward paying off my house. Plus, we need stuff: new computer equipment; a dishwasher; some fillings and a crown. Dental hygiene is important…and expensive. John was finally fed up. “We’re not getting any younger. I don’t want wrinkled-old-man wedding photos.”

He had a point. He was 46 — it seemed silly to call him my boyfriend. I didn’t mind getting married; we practically were. I just didn’t want a wedding.

The first and only time I envisioned my wedding was when I was four. I walked down the aisle — our hallway — in my pink ballet tutu. My groom was a Donny Osmond album I placed on a chair. Later, as an adult, I came up with several excuses to avoid it, and not just because I hoped Donny would eventually become available:

Family: Love them, but don’t trust them. I’ve had enough Thanksgivings with these folks to know that my special day could end in ruination.
Time: I’m busy and don’t have time to plan a wedding. Yes, there’s City Hall or Vegas, but those options felt sad, not special.
Chicken Dance: Does anyone even do this anymore? I don’t want to risk it.

But the real reason is that my mother died of breast cancer when I was 10. Because of that, life events that should be experienced with your mother — usually milestones that celebrate womanhood — are not celebratory for me. Most “firsts” were absolute disasters.

When I first got my period, a book called Girls and Sex mysteriously appeared on my bookcase. A few days later, my dad pointed to the book and said, “Let me know if you want to discuss anything” before hurrying away. I stayed away from that book like it had a sexually transmitted disease.

On my 16th birthday, I had my first date: Two big life moments in one. I had no idea how to flirt, so at dinner I stole a paper flower off the wall at Chili’s and then made a joke about it.

My first breakup happened about 14 hours after my first date. I guess stealing Chili’s wall art wasn’t funny. When my grandmother heard the news, she was more upset than I was, lamenting, “Why, why, why?” Not a confidence booster.

Every big moment I need a mother for was completely botched, and I didn’t want the wedding equivalent of Girls and Sex.

Maybe I deserved wedding angst. I have never been that jazzed about other couples’ weddings. Of course, I wished my friends happiness, but I always felt disconnected to the whole process. Weddings seemed foreign to me.

My knowledge of wedding etiquette was nonexistent. My best friend from high school got married when we were still in college. I was her bridesmaid, and I’m not even sure if I got her a wedding gift. (And if I didn’t, I’m apologizing now for being a total rube.) Post-college, when so many couples rushed down the aisle, I worked out of the country, so I wasn’t around to learn all the nuptial nuances. By the time I met John, most of our friends were already married. We didn’t attend many weddings together and didn’t feel the pull to follow suit. My sister did ask me to be her maid of honor, but we both knew it was in name only; I was clueless. One of her very organized bridesmaids did the heavy planning. I was happy to stay in the background, far away from the touchy-feely stuff.

If weddings were a sport, I’d be more of an unenthusiastic spectator, as opposed to a joyous participant. Mostly, I was bored, except when something unexpected happened, like the buttons popping off my friend’s wedding dress when she was doing the Limbo. Sometimes, at receptions, while other guests were getting uproariously drunk and partying like it’s 1999, I would sit and watch them, annoyed that they were having so much fun and depressed that I wasn’t. During rituals like the cutting of the cake and throwing of the bouquet, I’d hide in the bathroom to avoid the hoo-hah. At a shower, when friends were swapping mother-of-the-bride horror stories, I had nothing to contribute. The only thought in my mind was: It’s not fair. At least you have a mother. I would give anything to be able to argue with mine.

While my marriage would be between me and John, I wanted my wedding to be between me and my mother, and I’m missing that essential element. Nobody else in my family seemed to mind if I had a wedding or not, and that’s understandable — it wasn’t anyone else’s job. I’m not even sure a wedding can happen without a mom. Who else would willingly do the meaningless little stuff that makes a wedding a wedding — boss you about the invitations, keep your uncle from getting drunk, or force you to invite her friends? She never got to meet John. Isn’t that a prerequisite? Would we have fought because I wanted a non-froufy dress? I will never know.
Photographed by Winnie Au.

I used to pore over my mother’s wedding photos, mainly because I loved looking at her in them, but also with the hope of finding some answers. She was 20, looked like a young Mary Tyler Moore, and had the biggest smile ever. If I ever exude that much happiness, maybe I’m afraid I’ll die, too. Or perhaps I’m simply not worthy of experiencing such a moment. Also, I’m struck by her loss at inappropriate times, and the grief can be overwhelming. Standing at an altar in front of a huge crowd to publicly declare my love on what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life sounded like a nightmare. The last time I stood in front of a crowd at an altar like that was at my mother’s funeral. I was going through a chubby phase, my grandmother had picked out my least favorite dress, and my bangs were crooked. I felt completely exposed, pitied, and alone. I doubt I could even walk down the aisle as an adult without bawling, which could make our guests uncomfortable. Part of me is still stuck at age 10, and even pushing 50, I’d give anything for my mother’s guidance.

I didn’t know for sure what she’d say about my waffling, but it might have been: Don’t pass up marrying this wonderful man just because I’m not around. Quit making it about me. Make it about you.

So that’s what we did. It took us a while to figure it out, but after a lot of discussion about what we really wanted in a wedding, everything fell into place. We didn’t worry about trivialities and traditions. My friends and family graciously did that for us, hosting a lovely pre-wedding tea and post-wedding dinner. This gave us the opportunity to celebrate with them and the freedom to create a highly personalized experience for ourselves, focusing on what we do best and what makes us happy. We are print designers, so we created our own announcements and wedding book. I performed sketch comedy, so instead of a wedding video, we produced a comedy short starring us and our dog, Linus. We love to travel, so after months of research with an international wedding planner, we decided to get married in Geneva, Switzerland…just the two of us.

Three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the day we met, John and I got married in the beautiful, historic town hall in Carouge, a Swiss canton that was once owned by Italy and dates to the 1200s. The ceremony was in French, which neither of us spoke, but we didn’t need our translator to be moved to happy tears. Afterward, our photographer snapped us examining our wedding papers in mock horror — our favorite photos of the day. At our hotel, the staff gave us a standing ovation, the manager surprised us with a beautiful Swiss gateau, and the bartender supplied an endless amount of free Kettle chips. I was busting out of my very non-froufy Jil Sander dress. No chicken dancers in sight.
It was a perfect wedding, and we came in under budget…good for tax purposes. Meltzer was proud.

I think Mommy would have been, too.

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