When my boyfriend Mike’s parents went out of town, he and I would romp in their adjustable beds, raid their refrigerator, and watch movies in their bedroom. One night, walking into the kitchen in my underwear, I noticed a new folk-art family tree that Mike’s mother had made.
“My name should go there,” I said, pointing to a bare apple next to Mike’s.
With that, Mike got some paint, and I wrote my name in. From that moment on, we considered ourselves husband and wife.
Our parents, who were all divorced, insisted that we weren’t really married, but we just laughed. Look at all the good their church weddings had done them. “At least paint can’t be erased by a good lawyer,” Mike would say.
Ten years, two houses, and one daughter later, Mike and I still hadn’t bothered to get wedding rings or to exchange vows. Then Mike got a new job, with benefits, and we decided to get married so I could be covered by his health insurance.
Without telling anyone — or even making an appointment — we went to the justice of the peace on a Thursday afternoon. We brought our daughter with us, and I was wearing jeans. When the clerk said that the wedding room wasn’t available, we pleaded with her just to marry us anywhere.
We found ourselves in a storage room among piles of broken typewriters and three-legged tables. Mike recruited a middle-aged woman and her daughter from the “Eviction Notices” line to be our witnesses. We offered them twenty dollars for their time. When they saw where we were getting married, they probably thought we needed the money more than they did. We tried to tell them that, really, we were already married, but it was too hard to explain.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In my Catholic girlhood, sex education was short and to the point: no sex without a wedding ring. It could not be an engagement ring, either. Only a gold band on the fourth finger of the left hand would do.
I sat through many meals listening to my parents gossip, their remarks aimed indirectly at my sister and me:
“Did you hear? That Jane girl down the street has to get married,” my mother would say. “She’s getting married in the rectory on Saturday morning. She’ll never wear a white dress or walk down the aisle on her dad’s arm. How could she do that to her family?”
My sister and I, thirteen and fourteen, would squirm in our chairs and feel ashamed of being female, while our three brothers shoveled spaghetti into their mouths and smirked.
“It’ll never happen in this house, by God,” my father would say, “or I’ll make sure there’s nothing left of them to get married!”
My sister and I would touch knees for support.
“God punishes those who break the rules,” my mother would say quietly. “That’s why he invented weddings: so people would not be disgraced by their behavior.”
“The hell with God’s punishment,” my father would shout. “That’s a slap on the wrist compared to what I’ll do!”
In unison, my sister and I would ask to be excused from the table. Our request was always denied.
Every time someone in our neighborhood got married, suspicious older women would count the months until the first child was born. A few of my high-school friends disappeared and resurfaced after several months, saying that they’d been out of town. By the time I turned sixteen I wanted only to graduate and move away from home. I vowed never to marry a Catholic. But I also vowed not to get pregnant before my wedding if my father was still alive.
Six years later I married a man with no religious beliefs. We had lived together for a year before deciding to tie the knot. I wore a white dress. I was not pregnant.
By then my parents had separated and lived in different states. My father wasn’t interested in my wedding, or in me.
Elizabeth was a sixteen-year-old, pot-smoking hippie. I met her in Frank’s Pool Hall the summer I was twenty. She was fleeing her aunt and uncle, psychotic alcoholics who would dress her like a five-year-old and set her hair in ringlets. She needed a place to stay.
No sooner had she moved in with me than my mother came to town and found us shacked up in my attic apartment, washing down speed with codeine cough syrup.
“Why, Tony,” my mother declared, “I’ve never seen you so happy. Why don’t you two get married?”
Before we could reply, she began calling around, trying to obtain a marriage license for an underage girl. Elizabeth and I just sat there, stoned.
My mother bribed a judge across the river to give us a license and found a clergyman who would marry us the next day. She asked Elizabeth what kind of wedding dress she wanted. Elizabeth shrugged and said dark green velvet. My mother went shopping and came back with a boxy chartreuse suit. Elizabeth tried it on. She looked like a hot-water heater.
I told my mother that I didn’t think this wedding was such a good idea. For one thing, I was a homosexual.
“Tony, Tony,” she said, “don’t you know that all men think they’re homosexuals just before they get married?”
I took another swig of Robitussin. Elizabeth sat in the corner, staring at the floor.
The next day the florist came with an armload of white tulips, and we left for the church. My mother rode in the back seat and complained that her heart was racing. The gang from the Seven Seas Bar, my neighborhood hangout, was waiting impatiently at the church doors; my mother must have invited them. The minister came, introduced himself, and began the ceremony. As he was reading a long passage from Kahlil Gibran, Elizabeth thrust the tulips into my hands and lit a cigarette. In no time at all, we were husband and wife.
The reception was at our apartment. Someone had draped toilet paper here and there in an effort to make the place look festive. There was no wine, no cake, no hors d’oeuvres. Our friends from the bar left quickly, leaving us alone with my mother. Elizabeth and I were speechless, in awe of the monstrous thing we had just done. My mother showed no signs of leaving.
Elizabeth and I went into my bedroom and closed the door. She took off her day-glo suit and lay on the futon in her underwear. I stripped down to my shorts and lay down beside her. We drank more Robitussin. Eventually we heard my mother calling a cab and shutting the front door behind her. We held each other tight and cried ourselves to sleep.
Several days later an envelope arrived from my mother. It contained a newspaper clipping about our elaborate church wedding, the lavish reception at the Pontchartrain Hotel, and our plans for a Tuscan honeymoon in the spring.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
When my parents wrote to tell me that a childhood friend of mine was getting married, they sent a bus ticket along with the invitation. I was touched by their gesture, but I was decidedly not interested. I had dropped out of high school five years earlier and was now a full-blown drug addict. I hadn’t seen my friend since we were ten. Although I had fond memories of her, I couldn’t imagine facing her and answering chatty questions about the squalid life I had made for myself. When my boyfriend traded in the ticket for money to buy heroin, I didn’t object.
Weeks later, I went to pick up my check at the unemployment office. It was a particularly dismal day, and I felt trembly and drippy and achy: the beginning of dope sickness. Worse than the symptoms was the certainty that I would spend the entire check on dope, and my next check wouldn’t come for two weeks.
That morning, my boyfriend and I had brainstormed about things we could steal and sell to make money. When we failed to come up with any promising ideas, he had calmly suggested that maybe I could turn a few tricks, as a “time-efficient” way to get some cash. Although the idea made me wince, I felt too hopeless to be mad or offended. It wasn’t as though I had never considered it. I had already done just about everything else I had promised myself I would never do: what was so different about this?
Staring out the bus window on the way to the unemployment office, I caught a glimpse of a cat’s bright eyes in the shadows under someone’s front stoop. I thought about my friend, who would be married in eight days. I remembered how when she and I were kids, we used to stage weddings for the barn cats that were our not-quite-pets. We’d snatch two of them up and dress them in doll clothes, then walk the cat bride and groom down the aisle on their back paws until they inevitably escaped, sometimes giving us well-deserved scratches.
Her upcoming wedding suddenly seemed like an opportunity to escape from my self-inflicted misery.
I collected my check and met my dope dealer as planned, but before I could change my mind, I bought a one-way bus ticket home, departing the following evening, and hid it deep in the secret lining of my bag. Then I returned to my room and packed my scant belongings.
The next day, shortly after my boyfriend and I had our morning fix, a fellow addict appeared with a trunkful of stolen video cameras. We spent the better part of the day riding from pawnshop to pawnshop, telling sad stories and collecting handfuls of bills. When we tried to find a dealer, however, we couldn’t reach anyone we knew, so we bought some dope from a guy in an alley. It turned out to be crap. Our addict friend promised us a sure score if we could wait a few hours.
I still can’t believe how close I came to missing my bus so I could wait for that connection.
Gathering all the willpower I had, I announced I was going to buy cigarettes. I gave my boyfriend a longer-than-usual kiss goodbye, but he was sulking about the bad dope and didn’t notice. I arrived at the Greyhound station with five minutes to spare.
One excruciating week later, I stood in a packed, steamy church wearing a borrowed silk dress. I barely recognized my friend and spent most of the reception hiding in the bathroom. But I never shot dope again.
University Park, Maryland
I was an impressionable young girl, fresh from boarding school, when I entered a monastery. This was in the 1950s, before Vatican II, and nuns were still considered “brides of Christ.” I looked forward to my investiture, six months away, at which I would wear the flowing white gown and gauzy veil of a bride.
Our monastery had two wedding gowns, which were let out or taken in to accommodate each “bride.” The novice mistress had me try on both gowns. One of them fit, albeit snugly. A week later, I donned the gown again, this time with the abbess and vicaress present. The gown was now too tight. Always a plump teenager, I had gained a few pounds on the monastic diet of pasta, potatoes, and bread.
“Too heavy for a young girl,” said the vicaress, whose own girth almost matched her height.
Her words burned in my ears. I’d thought I could stop worrying about my weight when I’d entered the monastery. After all, God didn’t care if I was stout or thin. But even here, it seemed, size mattered.
I’d been on a perpetual diet in high school. My mother used to say I could lose ten pounds — in each leg. I escaped the constant harping in boarding school, until a portly nun stopped me in the hallway to ask how I was enjoying my stay there.
“I love it, Mother,” I answered. “It feels like home.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” she replied, her smiling face wreathed in chins. “And what are you doing besides enjoying school and getting fat?” Then she glided away, her black veil and habit billowing behind her like a pirate sail.
After the incident with the bridal gown, I thought, I’ll show them all. I’ll get so thin they will beg me to eat.
And so I cut my food consumption each day until I was eating practically nothing — a sliver of egg, a piece of lettuce. On the day of the investiture ceremony, the wedding gown zipped up with ease. I had not only become a bride of Christ; I had become anorexic.
Beryl Singleton Bissell
I had been dating Ron, a childhood friend, for several years. Marriage was an unspoken assumption between us. Meanwhile we were attending separate graduate schools more than a thousand miles apart.
I thought occasionally about where Ron and I would marry and what kind of wedding it would be. I even picked up an issue of Mademoiselle that featured “folkloric” wedding gowns, which were the height of fashion in 1971. The dress on the cover struck a deep, romantic chord in me: layered dotted swiss with puffy sleeves ending in long Victorian cuffs. I tucked the magazine away among my notes and occasionally pulled it out to dream of finding such a gown — though I couldn’t hope to buy one on my limited income.
That spring my housemate Catherine asked if I would like to spend the weekend in New York City, where she was going to visit her parents. Never having been to New York, I eagerly accepted. As I packed, I pulled the magazine from its hiding place and looked on the “where to find merchandise” page. The gown was listed under Lord & Taylor, New York City. Maybe I could just try it on.
Early Saturday morning, while Catherine was visiting with her mom and dad, I made my way to Lord & Taylor. I told the saleswoman that I had no money, but she happily filled the dressing room with all the wedding gowns from the magazine. She seemed to delight in my childish pleasure as I tried on gown after gown. I was saving the cover dress for last when the attendant burst into the dressing room and said: “You’re a perfect size 10.”
“Yes, I suppose I am,” I replied.
She tossed a wedding gown in my direction and told me a young woman and her mother were there to “see” gowns, but the model had not shown up. Would I do it?
I had little choice. She had already pulled the first gown over my head.
I spent an hour or more parading around in dresses while the young woman and her mother watched. Finally, the two selected a dress, and I returned to the changing room to find the beautiful gown from the magazine cover. It was still my favorite, even after I’d tried on almost everything in the store.
The attendant walked in and saw the gown in my arms. “Take it,” she said.
“Take it. We have no contract with you as a model, and I was wondering how to pay you. Take the dress.”
I returned home with my gown and called Ron that very evening. “Will you marry me?” I asked.
“Of course I will,” he said, laughing.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I’m serious. I already have a wedding gown.”
More than thirty years later, we are still married.
Fultonville, New York
When my mother-in-law, Leighton, was a teenager, she was very much in love with a handsome, hardworking young man named Arthur Tuthill, whom everyone called “Tut.” Leighton and Tut dated all through high school and college, but then Tut shipped off to the South Pacific during World War II, and Leighton met and married another man in his absence. When Tut returned from the war, he started his own family and moved a number of times for work. He and Leighton lost contact.
Leighton was widowed in her early sixties and for twenty years lived by herself. Then one day, she got a phone call from Arthur Tuthill, whose own wife had died some months before. He lived about an hour away and asked if he could come over for a visit.
Tut visited Leighton every Sunday. They shared memories of the war years and talked about friends from school. She spent a weekend at his home, and he spent a few weekends at hers.
A little less than a year after their reunion, Leighton announced that she and Tut were getting married. She was eighty-three, and he was eighty-four. It would be a very simple ceremony, she said: just her, Tut, and the minister in a small country church.
About a week before the wedding, Leighton told me the dress she’d ordered from a catalog had come in the wrong size, and there wasn’t time to reorder. She’d have to go shopping with her daughter. She was so worried about the wedding that she wasn’t sleeping well.
“It’ll be fine, Leighton,” I told her. “You know, if God can bring you and Tut back together after all these years, he can certainly handle a wedding.”
“You’re right,” she said, with tears in her voice. “He brought that boy back to me.”
After sixty years, she was still a nervous young bride, and Tut was still her handsome boy.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
As a naive freshman in college, I started dating a boy who was just back from Vietnam. We went to antiwar protests and sit-ins together. I wanted to have sex with him, but I was the daughter of a Southern Presbyterian minister, and I believed what the Bible said about no sex before marriage. So I made a private contract with God: I would consider my boyfriend and myself to be married, and we’d have the formal ceremony later.
The morning after the consummation of our “marriage,” I knew I’d made a mistake. Nevertheless, we arranged to be officially married seven months later, in a church with my father officiating.
The night before the wedding, I didn’t sleep at all. My maid of honor was asleep in my bedroom, and other friends and relatives were sleeping all over the house. Feeling trapped, I went into the hall to sit on the steps. My mother was already sitting there.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“Yes, I do,” I told her.
I got through the ceremony and the reception by imagining how I would act and feel if I were really in love. That’s pretty much how I got through the whole marriage, all sixteen years of it.
In 1980, my brother and I took a trip to the South Pacific. On the way, we stopped in Hawaii to visit an old college friend of mine, and I fell in love with a wild surfer who lived in her basement. My brother and I continued our travels aboard tramp steamers, but I pined for my beautiful surfer boy.
A year later I returned to Hawaii and persuaded that boy to come home with me to Minnesota. He was totally unprepared for life in the frozen North. He didn’t even have shoes! My sister bought him a coat and boots. My father was sure I would dump him once his tan faded. But we stayed together and eventually decided to elope to New Orleans. When I called my brother to tell him the good news, he exclaimed, “Great! I’ll call Mike [our younger brother], and we’ll come with you.”
This wasn’t exactly how I had envisioned it, but my fiancé and I decided it would be an adventure.
Since Mike is quadriplegic, we drove down in his specially equipped van. On the way we all bought jaunty red berets to wear as a traveling costume. The mood grew more festive the farther south we drove.
We hit New Orleans and rolled out of the van, bedraggled, sleepy, and in a bit of a daze, still wearing our red berets. People stared at us and even moved off the sidewalks to get out of our way. (Later we learned that our red berets were identical to those worn by the Guardian Angels, a citizens’ brigade that some accused of vigilantism. People thought Mike was a wounded Guardian Angel riding around in his wheelchair.)
Although Mike and I dressed casually, my older brother and my fiancé wore tuxes. We all ate oysters and drank champagne for breakfast. When a waitress asked what we were celebrating, my older brother said, “A wedding.” She looked at him and my fiancé in their tuxes and said, “I hope you two will be very happy.”
After my surfer boy and I were married, we had a picture taken of the “wedding party” in the French Quarter. It looks like an album-cover photo from the seventies: the men in tuxes and berets, the bride in jeans, and all of us barefoot.
We will celebrate our twenty-second anniversary this year. I guess you don’t have to have a huge church wedding to make a lasting marriage. You don’t even have to have shoes.
When my unmarried sister got pregnant at twenty-four, she did not know whether to marry the father or get an abortion. In Japan, where my sister and parents live, it is considered immoral for a single woman to get pregnant. She and her boyfriend had only part-time jobs and were not independent.
Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but my mother told her not to marry if she wavered in her judgment. My sister was afraid of becoming a mother and a wife, but she also worried that having an abortion was wrong. Finally she decided to marry and have the wedding in Hawaii.
About three weeks before the wedding, our parents got divorced. My mother had known for years that my father was having an affair, but somehow my sister’s wedding plans had set her off. My mother did not want my father to come to the wedding. When he said that he had adjusted his work schedule to come, my mother announced that she could not come because her passport was in her married name. In the end, both of my parents were forced to come, because my future brother-in-law’s parents would be there, and my parents thought that if they did not make an appearance, they would lose their standing in the family.
My sister called me three days before the wedding and told me that my future brother-in-law’s father was a typical Japanese patriarch, very strict. I lived in the U.S. and had pink hair and a pierced nose. My sister told me I had to dye my hair black, or I couldn’t come to the wedding.
I was very upset. I did not want to dye my hair, but I understood her need to be accepted by her in-laws. I had just decided to dye my hair when my mother called, furious. She reminded me that my sister used to color her hair blue, green, pink, orange, and red. She also had more than ten piercings in her ears and two tattoos.
Still fuming, my mother called my sister and said, “You used to do the same thing, and now it is too embarrassing? Can’t you introduce your sister to them with pride?”
I went to Hawaii with bright pink hair. I was a little afraid of meeting my future in-laws, but they were kind to me. They even liked my hair.
After all that trouble, the bride and groom had a beautiful ceremony in a church by a pond. The sunlight came through the stained glass and shone on the couple as they took their vows. Everyone was there to see it.
There are only two phrases in the traditional wedding vow that matter: “in sickness” and “for worse.” Any couple can stay together when things are going well. Being able to continue when all that you thought was good is gone — that’s commitment.
Irwin and I were married in 1972. We bought a house in the suburbs, had two children, and thought we were happy. And we were — but we were just playing house.
Eighteen years later, Irwin had a heart attack. Though he survived and gradually regained his strength, his sickness changed everything. We cared for each other more consciously and deliberately. Even so, we occasionally still took life for granted.
Then, on October 30, 1995, Irwin went to the doctor with vague complaints, and I went in for a routine mammogram. Within the next three months, he had triple-bypass surgery, and I had a mastectomy. Hours after my first chemotherapy session, Irwin was rushed to the hospital; one of his bypasses had closed and required emergency angioplasty. Thankfully they were able to reopen it.
Still, we hadn’t yet experienced “for worse.” Five days after New Year’s 2000, I awoke and found Irwin lying beside me, unable to respond. He was having a stroke.
In the days that followed, when he was unable to walk, feed himself, or even nod “yes,” I felt a love unlike any I’d felt before: Unconditional. Total.
Irwin quickly regained the ability to walk. Speech took longer. For half a year, I drove him to therapy almost daily. I’d wake up in the morning and find him sitting at the dining-room table, laboring over his “homework.” He struggled, day after day, with a courage and a perseverance I’d never guessed he had. And my love for him kept growing.
I don’t think we got married at our wedding. It took “in sickness” and “for worse” to make the marriage real.
New Hempstead, New York
I was sixteen when my cousin Beverly took me to Planned Parenthood. In the examining room, the doctor spread my trembling knees and inserted the cold speculum. No one had ever looked in there before. When he was through, he wiped the gel off, tossed the rubber gloves into the trash can, and announced matter-of-factly, “You’re pregnant.”
It was raining as I left the clinic. I had to hurry back to school to perform at opening night of our high-school play. I had begged my father to let me go to public school because the Catholic school I’d attended had no drama program, and I wanted to be an actress. I was tired of blue-plaid skirts and stern nuns telling me what to do. I knew I was meant for something more.
Having sex with Sam had been my way of proving to myself that I was grown-up. He was nineteen and had a lemon yellow Malibu. We did it in the front seat, even though the stick shift got in our way, because I didn’t want to have “back-seat sex.” He didn’t use a condom; I didn’t ask. I felt no pleasure and was disappointed afterward. I couldn’t wait to get home and throw my wet panties in the trash.
When I missed my period, I told Sam. He said not to worry, that everything would be fine. He would quit college and get a job at the paper factory. We could get married.
Get married? I wanted to go to college and study acting.
After my trip to Planned Parenthood, I told my parents the news. The next night they had a meeting in our kitchen: my father, my stepmother, my mother, Sam’s parents, and a priest. They sent me to my room, but I sat silently on the stairs and listened to them argue. Sam’s mother said maybe it wasn’t even his child. My mother wanted to spirit me away to a hospital and force me to have an abortion. My father and the priest refused.
I never spoke up. I sat on the top stair and mourned the loss of the person I’d thought I would be when I grew up. As I listened to them talk, I realized I was going to have the baby. I could either marry Sam, or go away, have the baby, and then become a “sister” to the child my father and his second wife would raise as their own.
I decided it was better to marry a near stranger than to be the helpless pawn of scheming adults. I would have my own home, my own husband, and a baby to love. I could do it. Maybe I could even go to college and become a teacher or a nurse.
My stepmother took me to a bridal shop and told me to pick a dress from the clearance rack. The saleswoman helped me find one that would hide my bulge. My mother, who was excluded from the wedding plans because of her abortion suggestion, wasted no time in telling me I had chosen an out-of-season dress.
At the very last minute, when my father was walking me down the stairs to the sanctuary full of friends and relatives, we stopped.
“You don’t have to get married,” he said with tears in his eyes. “You can come home. We’ll figure it out together.”
My mind reeled. I wanted to run out of the building and down the street. I wanted to be somebody. I still felt certain I was meant for something more.
“It’s OK, Dad,” I said. “I can do this.”
We began to walk again. “Time in a Bottle” was playing. Everyone looked as if they were at a funeral. I felt sick, and Sam was pale with fright.
Afterward, my grandmother told me I was going to be all right. I was an O’Donnell, and we were a strong lot.
My grandmother was right. I was strong enough to finish high school; to have another baby at twenty-one; to watch my forty-five-year-old father die; to divorce my husband; to move to Colorado with nothing but a carload of boxes, two small children, and my dreams; to graduate from college; to open a business; to paint, sculpt, and write; to live as if I am meant for something more.
When I was an adolescent, I decided the ideal age to get married was twenty-two, and the best wedding would be a traditional church ceremony with a fancy white dress.
As I neared, and then passed, the “ideal” age, my wedding fantasies began to change. Being “given away” by my father seemed too patriarchal; I would proceed up the aisle with Dad on one arm and Mom on the other. Then I rejected the notion of being given away at all; I was my own person and could darn well parade up that aisle by myself. Then I took away the aisle: I would marry in a garden, wearing flowers in my hair and sandals on my feet.
More years passed, and I decided I would settle for a justice of the peace, or possibly eloping.
Now, at the age of fifty-one, I’m entertaining the notion that a solid relationship might not require any kind of wedding at all.
Hillsborough, North Carolina
“Let’s just do it,” he proposed.
I’d been threatening for a year to leave him if he didn’t commit. It was 1971, and we had spent the previous twelve months with the Black Panthers, training their health cadre to fix teeth. (When the revolution came, the Panthers did not want to rely on the capitalist system for their dental needs.) Among our peers, marriage was seen as reactionary, but I was willing to risk the label.
Two days later I stood inside Bronx City Hall, finally experiencing my own doubts. My maid of honor and bridesmaid were both pregnant. The judge was unsure which of us was the bride. I wore a pale blue linen dress with little stack heels (a sure sign of my latent bourgeois tendencies). My soon-to-be husband wore the blue suit he had bought after graduation to wear to job interviews. The ceremony lasted less than five minutes.
Was this all it took to commit for a lifetime? I’d expected to feel different afterward — more mature, I suppose — just as I had expected to feel different after the Holy Ghost had touched me at my confirmation. Was I actually married? Had the Holy Ghost really been present that day?
Both our mothers cried when we called them and told them what we’d done. My mother was upset at having been left out of a major life event. Beneath that was the fear that I had repeated her mistake — marrying someone from a different religion and background. His mother cried because I was a shiksa. To her credit, though, she treated me like family once she got to know me.
After the ceremony, we returned to the clinic in the South Bronx, where the Black Panthers greeted us by throwing rice and shouting, “All power to the people!” (Two years later, of the seven Panthers gathered there, one was dead, and two others were in jail.)
Sometimes I laugh about my wedding day. But that stubborn, reactionary part of me still wishes my mother had been there.
On February 12, 2004, San Francisco City Hall began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The next day I was in a museum across the street on a field trip with my daughter’s eighth-grade class. We ended up with extra time at the end of the day, and I suggested to the teacher that we walk over to city hall so the kids could experience the historic event firsthand.
The sidewalk in front of the building was crowded with camera crews and protesters holding signs proclaiming gay marriage to be a crime against nature and a sin. As we entered, I started to feel some apprehension. Many thirteen-year-olds were homophobic, in my experience. Were these kids prepared for what they were going to see? Would they act appropriately?
In the lobby, hundreds of happy people stood in long, snaking lines, waiting to get a license or get married. There were couples with babies and grandparents. Some carried flowers, confetti, and bottles of champagne.
We walked up the large marble staircase with couples being married on either side. Applause would ring out whenever a ceremony concluded. As we watched the scene from a second-floor balcony, I tried to answer some of the kids’ questions: Why was same-sex marriage illegal? How long would this continue? If the court found the marriages illegal, would these couples still be married?
Walking down a long corridor, we came upon a couple just finishing their ceremony. Two of our girls ran up and shouted, “Congratulations! Did you just get married? That’s so cool.” None of us could keep from smiling. There was a sense that, even if the courts stopped the marriages the next day and invalidated all of the ceremonies that had already taken place, a historic step had been taken for civil rights.
Later that day, I was lucky enough to witness the wedding of a friend and her partner of many years. Although the ceremony lasted less than five minutes, it was a very intimate experience. The two women, both in their fifties, had lived together for much of their adult lives. Now they were finally able to make it legal.
I thought about my own twenty-year marriage and wondered if I had taken the right to wed for granted. My marriage gives me strength and security. It’s made me a happier person and provided a framework for my life. How could our government deny some of its citizens the same opportunity?
San Francisco, California
When I woke up that Friday morning, I rolled over and said to Bill, “I have an idea: Let’s get married. Today.”
“I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” he replied.
“Maybe. But what do you think? Should we find out?”
Bill had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, a grade-four astrocytoma, and the prognosis was poor. The surgeon had given Bill six to nine months. Three of those months were already behind us.
After breakfast, Bill and I ran errands and went to the town hall. It turned out to be simple to get married in Vermont. You fill out an application; they hand you a license.
We took the application back to Bill’s house. (I still lived in New York City but had been staying with Bill since he’d gotten sick.) We needed some time to get used to the idea of marriage. Although we had been a couple for almost eleven years, we’d never seriously considered getting married. We didn’t want children, neither of us had much money, and I had never wanted to be a bride.
But I wanted Bill to know, while he was still able to understand, that I loved him and was going to stay with him even when things got bad. Whatever we would face, we were going to face it together. (It had also occurred to me that, as his girlfriend, I could be kept out of the hospital ICU, whereas if I were his wife, I could not.)
We settled on the following Thursday. The next decision was whether to invite anyone. We weren’t sure our families would be able to make it; the wedding was just two days before Christmas. My mother and Bill’s brother and sister-in-law wanted to be there, though. Bill found a justice of the peace. We’d have the ceremony at his house. It was settled.
I, however, was very unsettled. I had imagined a town-hall ceremony. Now not only was I getting married, but I had to clean Bill’s house, which he hadn’t finished building. It still had exposed plywood floors, missing wallboards, and empty holes where light fixtures and switches should have been.
That afternoon I bought some fabric to cover the huge rolling toolbox and dress up the dining table. I also bought a bottle of decent champagne and stopped by a florist for a bouquet.
“What color’s your dress?” she asked.
I hadn’t even thought about a dress. I kept only jeans and T-shirts at Bill’s place in the woods.
Bill and I went to the mall and wandered around the clothing stores. There were plenty of red and green velvet dresses for holiday parties, and lots of black. (Under the circumstances, I wasn’t about to wear black to my wedding.) We ended up shopping for tools at Sears, and there I saw a long burgundy dress with a scarf and embroidery on the front.
I modeled the dress for Bill. It was hard to tell whether he liked it. Since Thanksgiving he had been growing progressively quieter and less responsive. I was losing him.
Our wedding day dawned clear and warm for December. With Christmas decorations, candles, snacks, and champagne glasses, the house actually looked ready for a party.
It took Bill more than an hour to get dressed; he wouldn’t let me help. When he declared himself ready, I rebuttoned his shirt and pinned a carnation to it.
Mom brought my brother Scott, who had made time to come in spite of having a two-month-old baby at home. They were followed by Bill’s brother and sister-in-law and the few friends we had invited. All we needed now was the justice of the peace, but she was an hour late. Bill called her. She had gotten the time wrong, and now she was lost. She couldn’t find the house, which was on an unnamed dirt road. I had to drive out to the main road to meet her.
The ceremony was short and mentioned nothing about anyone obeying anyone else, or staying together “till death do us part.” It was just the joining of two people before a handful of witnesses. We drank champagne and then all went out to dinner at Bill’s favorite restaurant.
To celebrate our one-month anniversary, Bill and I went out to dinner again. A change in his medication had made him more alert and communicative, and we were having some of our best days together.
By the time we had been married two months, Bill had undergone a second surgery and couldn’t tell what day it was. By six months I was a widow.
My wedding day wasn’t the happiest day of my life by a long shot. But it was exactly the wedding I wanted.
Astoria, New York