These days, it’s common for couples to get married by a layperson with credentials bought online. But in 2003, the first time I was asked to officiate, so few people knew this was an option that whenever I mentioned it, I got a bug-eyed look and a lot of questions. You can do that? You can just be a minister?
You, who didn’t attend divinity school, they meant. You, who had a bat mitzvah.
Is that even legal?
I got all these questions because I couldn’t stop talking about my role in the upcoming wedding. I was honored and moved, busting at the seams with delight.
A wedding announcement might have referred to me as a “friend of the family,” though that hardly did justice to the long, tender history I shared with Lis, the bride-to-be. Her mother’s pregnant belly was the first I’d ever touched. Her baby pictures filled my photo album before my own daughters were born.
The day she asked if I’d officiate, I bought books about wedding ceremonies. Then I went on line and became a Universal Life minister. It cost me eleven dollars. For an extra eight dollars, I could have purchased a sign for my dashboard, identifying me as clergy, but though I was enticed by visions of endless free parking in New York City, I declined. I found the church’s mission statement on the website: we were all “children of the same universe,” all of us worthy of the right to be ordained, no matter what our spiritual background. Yes, I thought, after reading that. That seemed true. Even so, I dismissed this ministry as a benign scam, a backdoor way for me to marry Lis and Troy.
Though I’d been married once and had attended many weddings, before I opened those “how to plan a wedding” books, all I really knew about weddings was that the groom came down the aisle first, followed by the bride in white on the arm of a father. A rabbi or minister spoke; friends and family members did readings, often Corinthians 13:4-7 (“Love is patient, love is kind. . . .”) or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. . . .”). The best man fumbled while searching for the ring; then, the groom fumbled while trying to fit it onto the bride’s trembling finger. We all slid to the edges of our seats and waited with communal bated breath for the kiss, and when at last the bride and groom fell into each other’s arms, the tension in the room broke, and we all laughed and cheered.
But I couldn’t have named the sequence of events and hadn’t known that in Judeo-Christian weddings, it goes this way, most often: procession, opening remarks, charge to the couple, exchange of vows, ring exchange, pronouncement, kiss, closing remarks, recessional.
After I finished reading the wedding books, I understood that the wedding ceremony is as precise a form as a sonnet or a sonata. The venue might be different (backyard, country club, seaside, church), as well as the music, the readings by friends, the vows, the officiants, but within the basic structure is a story that goes something like this: once, these two people were separate; now, they’re about to become a couple; welcome them into your community. When the ceremony was successful and we were drawn into the story by moments of genuine emotion, we didn’t see the formal structure or think of it as a rite of passage. At least, I didn’t. I hadn’t thought of the ceremony as the time when a couple goes public with what beforehand had been a private relationship.
At the time, I was six years into a happy divorce and had no desire to be married again. But I fell deeply in love with the idea of marriage while reading about every aspect of weddings, from the ceremony to the possibilities these unions held.
By the time Lis and I sat together to plan for the big day, she and her fiancé, Troy, had already made most of the big decisions. Our job was to go over each step, to fit in the readings and discuss the details. Where would the musicians stand? How many unity rituals should they include? What material should they use for the Celtic hand binding?
Then I went shopping. I’d planned to wear something that was ministerial and ended up buying a full-length dress, rust-colored, with flowing sleeves and an irregular hem. More plumage than Presbyterian.
At the end of October, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin, where the happy couple, raised in no religion but culturally Christian, one might say, would be married by a Jewish minister in the Gates of Heaven Synagogue. The mid-19th century building—which is now an historic landmark, used by the public for a variety of purposes—had a balcony, where the women had sat in yesteryear, and a bimah, where I stood while the bride processed down an aisle so narrow her voluminous gown brushed the sides of the pews. It brought me back to the night in western Massachusetts when her mother had lifted her long shirt and I had placed my hand against her hard belly. How intimate that long-ago moment had been, how connected I’d felt with that unborn child, and now with the lovely young bride, with her flushed cheeks and strawberry blonde hair.
I worked very hard not to cry as she approached. This is not about you, I told myself each time I felt a catch in my throat. This is not about you.
The reception was held at a farmhouse just outside Madison, decorated with pumpkins, Indian corn, and baskets of candy bars. When I took in the guests milling about, I began to laugh. The bride’s uncle—a Luddite, apple-tree pruner, and former celibate guru who now had a wife and son—was chowing down on candy. And there was my own former husband, with flowing white hair, red suspenders, and ill-fitting thrift-shop jacket. His girlfriend was beside him. I waved my arms and hurried to their table. I was so happy to be single.
Long ago, I had loved this man in a way I’ve never loved anyone before or since. Madly. Blindly. Head over heels. Drunk with love. Drunk on the night he pulled me into a stranger’s bathroom and proposed to me.
He was not a man my mother would have chosen for me—raised as a Catholic, fifteen years my senior. Though gainfully employed, there was something feckless about him that I found charming, and my mother must have known it would be useless to express her opinions. I was gone, could hear no objections.
It took one afternoon to plan my wedding to this man. I made a list of three places in New York where we might have the party, and we settled on the third, a restaurant on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, across from the dormitory where I’d lived for two years. We booked the date: July 15, 1975. Then my mother and I walked to MacDougal Street, where I bought a Mexican wedding dress, with a square neck and voluminous bell sleeves. This I wore with a floppy white hat that had daisies woven through the brim. “It’s your wedding; put on a little lipstick,” said my mother, so I put on a little lipstick.
I was twenty-six. I should have been locked in a tower.
We hired a woodwind quartet from Juilliard, and an eccentric friend of my husband’s talked a judge named Harold Rothwax into officiating. On the day of our wedding, the judge biked to the Village from arraignment court, arriving about an hour before the ceremony. He had a boilerplate wedding service tucked into his pocket. I asked him to say I now pronounce you husband and wife instead of man and wife.
Someone at the restaurant had seen the name “Bernstein” and provided us with a chuppah, which we used. My husband stomped on a glass.
“At least, the judge is Jewish,” my mother supposedly said.
My new husband, beautiful blue eyes brimming with tears, went from table to table, saying, “Aren’t I lucky? Aren’t I the luckiest man in the world?”
We were supposed to stay at the Plaza Hotel that night and, in the morning, drive north to Portland, Maine, where we would pick up a ferry to Nova Scotia. But traffic was light, so we headed out of the city after the wedding and stayed at a Travelodge in West Hartford, Connecticut. I carried the groom over the threshold on my back: it was the punch line of a long-standing private joke. I was crazy about him.
In time, we had children, a rundown house, a dog, a better house. We had some fun and then a lot of heartache. When I thought I’d die if I had to live with him any longer, I left. By then, we’d been together nearly twenty years.
Some months after we separated, he bought me a book for my birthday. When I pulled off the wrapping paper, I saw the title in fat black letters: Guilty. My gut twisted. Then I saw that it was written by Harold Rothwax, the judge who’d married us.
To Jane, with all my love, my husband had written on the flyleaf, as if I was not guilty after all.
Almost thirty years after our wedding day, as I slid into the seat beside my former husband and his girlfriend, the love and anger and guilt had long ago vanished. I was giddy with relief that he was living with someone else.
For months after Lis and Troy’s wedding, whenever an impending marriage was mentioned, I jumped up and cried, “I can marry you! I’m a minister! I can do it.” I said this once at the copy machine at work, where a colleague was talking about a commitment ceremony she and her partner were planning. “I can marry you!” Same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal in Pennsylvania, but this didn’t stop me. “I’ll go to Massachusetts! I can marry you there!”
How nice of me to offer, she said. Then she gathered her papers and left.
I felt a little foolish. I also realized I didn’t want to marry her. I didn’t know her well enough.
My standards continued to evolve. I decided I’d only marry couples whose relationships seemed loving and durable. I wanted to feel their commitment to each other, to believe that they had the ability to hang on in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, etc. Not that it mattered how seriously I took my role as Universal Life minister since no one expressed any interest in my services. For the next eleven years, the only weddings I attended were as a guest. All were formal affairs with mainstream members of the clergy officiating.
And so much crying! I had held back my tears when I married Lis and Troy, but as a guest, I gushed. Sometimes, I cried because the bride and groom were so fresh and lovely, and when I saw them trembling with emotion, I was reminded of all the obstacles they faced and wanted more than anything for life to be sweet for them. I wanted to believe their tender love might last.
Once I cried because the groom, previously remote and unemotional, burst into tears at the sight of his bride walking toward him, with her swanlike neck; pale, bare shoulders; and fitted gown nipped at her tiny waist.
Another time I cried because they were so young and unformed, and all I could think was: Oh man, you have no idea whatsoever.
Only once, I didn’t cry. This wedding was held in the basement of a Presbyterian church. He was in his early thirties, divorced once, widowed once; she was pregnant and had a little girl with a prior husband. Someone handed each guest a flower when we walked into the auditorium. We took our seats and waited. On the stage was a large rug with a maze printed upon it. The bride and groom walked through the maze in different directions, solemn and silent, while we clutched our wilting flowers. It seemed a troubling metaphor to watch these two lost souls, each on a separate path, neither able to find the other.
Sitting beside me while the bride and groom were lost on that maze was a man I’d met at the end of my fifties. As soon as we moved in together, friends started asking if we planned to get married. Usually I brushed off the question by saying, “I did that once.” Watching the befuddled couple, it occurred to me that if I’d come of age in a different time and had felt compelled to marry every lover with whom I cohabited, I’d have to count him as husband number five. I imagined telling someone, “I did that four times.” It would make me sound like some unstable Hollywood starlet of yesteryear: Zsa Zsa Gabor minus the glamour and Hungarian accent. What’s her problem? people would think. He would seem a little daft, too, to take on an oft-married, obviously troubled woman. How could you trust someone who’s already been married four times? How could you believe your union might endure?
But as a child of the sixties, I simply set up housekeeping with three of those men, and when our relationships soured, we split up the books and record albums and went our separate ways, and I got to say I’d only been married once. Now I began to wonder what would have happened if, pressed by mores, I’d married one of these men.
Man Number One and I were babies, playing house—better not to count him. But Man Number Two and I had been companionable and well matched. Still, I shivered to imagine our life if we’d stayed together. I was young and unsettled and didn’t know how to live with a man and get what I needed. In the end, it was good that we parted. Son of a philanderer, he got married not long after we broke up. He and his wife are still together. And when I married, too, I stayed with my husband for two decades.
My mother spoke disparagingly of my “failed marriage.” Though she knew I had sound reasons for leaving, she still viewed it as a major flaw that I couldn’t stay married. My former husband had used these same words. But was it a flaw? As time had passed, my views had softened. We had a good run, didn’t we? We loved each other, raised our kids, hung on as best we could. Why was this a failure?
As an officiant-in-waiting, I wanted my couples to stay married. I wanted all those dewy brides and blushing grooms to honor their vows. I wanted them to buckle their seatbelts in turbulent times. I had some long-married friends who’d done that. The richness and depth that comes of these long unions is fine and enviable. But some of us are unsettled in youth; we make choices that don’t have longevity. My husband loved more fiercely than anyone I’d ever known. He also hated with the same ferocity. I should never have married him, should not have stayed with him as long as I did. When I left, I saved myself, wounded my children, and lost a web of relationships we’d built over the decades.
The man who sat beside me, clutching his flower and watching the maze walkers, is the perfect man for this season of my life. He would never pull me into a bathroom to propose or let me carry him on my back. Though his eyes didn’t well up at the sight of me, he’d never fallen into terrifying rages or slept in the car instead of coming home. When I thought about marriage, I was reminded that I would never have chosen him when I was young. Maybe those early relationships got me ready for the one I had now.
I loved him, loved our stable life together, could not imagine what might tear us asunder. Why not get married? Friends of our vintage pointed out the practical reasons to wed, the tax advantages, the doubled social security. I listened and thought, Ugh. Is that what it’s come to?
Then I thought, The only marrying I want to do is as a minister.
Finally, eleven years after standing on the bimah in the Gates of Heaven, I was asked to officiate at another wedding. My former husband was dead by then. The maze walkers had divorced. Lis and Troy were about to have a second child.
Eddie, the groom-to-be, was a cinematographer: warm, levelheaded, fun. He lived in my house on and off for a year while shooting my older daughter’s documentary, sleeping in a small room off the kitchen I still call “Eddie’s room.” One night during his stay, a woman came to visit: a playwright, pale and willowy, with long hair and a big laugh, the kind of person whose generosity of spirit you can feel the moment she enters a room. When she arrived, the temperature changed. I could feel their mutual attraction. Eight years after that night, they decided to get married.
If I could have chosen one couple to marry, I would have chosen them. “Yes,” I said, when Eddie asked. Absolutely yes.
The venue for what would end up being the first of two consecutive ceremonies was at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks, where I’d once done a residency. After my ecstatic yes, Eddie reminded me that I had encouraged him and Andrea to apply, and they had. It was there, on Utowana Lake, they’d first talked about marriage. So they’d thought it was fitting that I officiate at this place, where they had deepened their commitment to each other and made the decision to wed.
These days, the list of people legally permitted to officiate at weddings registered in the City of New York includes the expected officials: judges, justices of the peace, city clerks at all levels, and the mainstream pastoral crowd made up of priests, ministers, and rabbis, active and emeritus. There is also a mind-boggling list of others, including apostle, elder, guru, imam, lecturer, mayor, practitioner, rinpoche, roshi, sensei, swami, and vicar.
That said, your sensei or rinpoche needs to have a notarized proof of identity and information about their church. Because my church does not publish a directory, the City of New York demanded additional documentation that certified the church’s beliefs and the reasons for its being.
The Universal Life Church had seemed a bit of a con in 2003, but that was before the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, before all the public conversation about those who had been unfairly shut out, denied the legal and financial benefits of marriage, denied the ability to stand before members of their community and say, “I do.”
I’d moved twice since I had last officiated and could no longer find the books I’d bought in 2003. Not that it mattered. Now there were hundreds of Internet sites to help prospective brides and grooms plan their ceremony. There were for-profit sites, with ads for wedding planners and brides’ magazines, and sites with advice for Unitarians and Jews, seniors, atheists, Wiccans, anarchists, couples of every gender. The sequence of events was the same.
I got my credentials in order, arranged for transportation to the Adirondacks. Two weeks before the wedding, we had our first conversation about the ceremony. When I asked what they had in mind, Eddie said they were thinking maybe the guests could pick up something from the ground that represented space or energy: a feather or a rock, maybe. Then everyone would sit in a circle while a friend played music, and each person could speak about what the offerings symbolized. They also wanted a remembrance part of the service, to acknowledge those people who were part of the community but no longer with them in a corporeal way, like Eddie’s sister or Andrea’s abuelita, her grandmother. But they were open to ideas. They wanted my input.
I kept thinking about the maze-walking couple and their restless guests wondering why the couple kept grimly passing each other and where to chuck the dying flowers. When I pictured Eddie and Andrea’s guests, many flying from Chile and Puerto Rico, asked to scour the grounds for feathers and rocks, I got worried. A wedding ceremony couldn’t be made of symbols without a story. They needed a story. I couldn’t afford to be as shy as I’d been the first time.
I sent them the bones of the wedding story, marking what traditionally fit into each segment so they could think about how their own ceremony might be structured. Then I asked if they wanted me to write something about them. Eddie seemed surprised. “Of course,” he said.
I arranged to speak to them separately so I could hear the parts of their history I didn’t know. Eddie was first. I asked when he’d met Andrea, what had attracted him at first, and what he loved about her now. They’d met at work and were friends at first. Over time, their friendship deepened, evolved, changed. Eddie talked about Andrea with affection and respect. He spoke of his love for her with awe. As I listened, I thought of the impossibly romantic notion that there was only one person on Earth, one soul mate for each person. One’s bashert, Jews called the person with whom one was meant to be.
“Do you ever think you and Andrea were destined to be together?” I asked.
No, he said, they had chosen to be together. And they had chosen to stay together.
Andrea agreed, after describing Eddie with the same affection and respect I’d heard in his voice. “We’re choosing to get married. It’s what we decided to do.”
I was so taken by this: their decision to marry was deeper and more meaningful than what I’d expected to hear. It illuminated the divide in me that I hadn’t fully acknowledged. In everyday life I was unsentimental, a little jaded, perhaps. If I hadn’t seen it all, I’d seen enough. And yet there was a place inside me, untouched by life experience, that still held onto the dream of undying romantic love—mad, boundless love. That was the story I’d wanted to see enacted at a wedding. I had to admit it was the reason I resisted getting married. I wanted a grand statement, the bended knee, and overflowing eyes. Not drunk, but drunk with love.
Eddie and Andrea seemed very wise to me. Their love was seasoned; it had been tested. To say I know you well and choose you as my spouse was a richer, more hopeful story than the one I’d been waiting to hear.
I arrived at Blue Mountain on Friday afternoon, a day before the wedding. A dozen guests were already busy, making flower arrangements and preparing food in the retreat center’s huge kitchen. Eddie’s father was marinating meat for the eighty people attending that night’s barbeque. Children were squeezing oranges and shaping cookies while grownups diced vegetables and washed pots by hand. One friend was mixing batter for the first of nineteen cakes she would bake over the next twelve hours.
On the morning of the wedding, a crew prepared a grand buffet breakfast with chilaquiles, hash browns, and clafoutis. A theater director choreographed the ceremony that would be performed later that day. Friends would mount flags, play the mandolin, sing, and tell stories. Never had I seen so many people work so joyously to make an event happen.
Only the weather failed to cooperate, so Eddie and Andrea’s wedding ceremony wasn’t on the dock, as they had intended. Instead, we gathered around the stone fireplace, adults in folding chairs, children cross-legged on the floor. The musicians sat on either side of the hearth, along with the friends and family members asked ahead of time to speak on passion, on patience, on fun.
They were so beautiful as they slowly processed: Eddie with his shiny curls and burgundy jacket and Andrea in a silk gown her friends had dyed her favorite shade of green. They joined hands and faced this community who had promised to welcome and support them. And there was trembling, yes. And there were tears of emotion. They fumbled with the rings. They fumbled to find and unfold the paper on which they’d written their vows. The guests sat upright, waiting for them to kiss, and when they did, we laughed and cheered. We wished for their love to endure. We had reason to believe it would.
* Illustration by Tugboat Printshop.