As a child and young woman, I attended a Presbyterian church in Georgia where my parents are still members. The current church was built in 1976, when I was six, and I recall the blend of curiosity and awe I felt upon seeing it for the first time: its massive stone walls, soaring wooden beams, the rich red upholstery in the sanctuary. The stained glass windows, an artist’s and writer’s dream, appeared at first glance to be abstract collages of color, but a closer look revealed images, stories, a narrative that traveled from pane to pane. And I was fascinated with the bride’s room, a small, quiet space adjacent to the ladies room off the narthex. Its lime green, high-pile carpet and counter-long mirror framed by marquee-style bulbs made it glamorous and exotic, and I liked to sit on the swirly brass vanity chair and imagine.
One of the most beautiful features of the new church (now 38 years old) was a central courtyard. It is best viewed from the narthex, adjacent to the sanctuary, as the wall between the narthex and the courtyard is made mostly of glass. My mother Margaret has always loved the courtyard, and for as long as I can remember, she has voiced her dream that I would get married there someday. We would stand in the narthex, side by side, imagining the scene together. Guests would enter from the narthex and take seats in white chairs lined up in the central grassy area, shaded by several trees. The groom and minister would enter from the door off the church library, to the left. The bride would enter from the choir room door on the far right, behind the guests, then walk the along the curved, pebbled walkway in front of them to meet her groom. Flowers would bloom all around, the sun light the ceremony. It would be intimate and beautiful.
For years that was the plan, that I would get married in the courtyard. We talked about it enough that I can still picture the walk clearly in my mind. But the years passed, and I remained single. I moved away, first to Ohio, later to Virginia, and I still remained single. The church was expanded and renovated, a fountain placed in the courtyard, and it began to look like I’d always be single. And the years flowed on: I was no longer a member of the church, the minister I’d grown up with retired. When my mother and I had stood at the window dreaming, it had never occurred to either of us that a wedding wasn’t a sure thing.
By the time I met Steve, my brother had moved out west, and my work, my hobbies, most of my friends, and Steve’s, too, were located far, far away from that sunlit courtyard. The open grassy space where we’d planned to seat the guests has since been filled with plantings, benches, and the burbling fountain. It doesn’t make sense anymore, on several levels, to get married in a church courtyard in Georgia; it doesn’t suit us, and it’s no longer the wedding I want.
Still, I mourn the loss of the dream, as much for my mother as for myself.
In many ways—though neither my mother nor I ever thought of it specifically in these terms—we’ve been planning my wedding my entire life. I looked through my parents’ wedding album many times, admiring my mother’s pillbox hat and veil, her Watteau train, the pale pink bridesmaids’ dresses. More than once I fingered the sixpence she kept tucked in her jewelry box, and admired the pearl bracelet my father had given her for their wedding. Our conversations surrounding these objects always included the phrase “When you get married…”; there was never an “if.” And, of course, we dreamed about the courtyard. The simultaneous ease and intensity with which these shared dreams were expressed speaks to just how deeply embedded they were in my vision of my self and my future, how profoundly intertwined with my mother’s love, her desire for my happiness. I know this connection is not specific to my mother and me. The primary relationship in a marriage is that between the bride and the groom, the two partners joining their lives in matrimony. But when it comes to the wedding, the relationship between the bride and her mother is a powerful force.
A wedding is intimately bound up with the mother-daughter relationship, which can be a blessing and a curse. My mom cried for joy, and I very nearly joined her, when she saw me try on my first wedding dress, and we’re gleefully collaborating on the pillows and other decorations. It’s been wonderful to share these long-awaited experiences, set goals together, and partner creatively. In some ways I think the fact I’m an older bride makes it more fun for both of us: we know ourselves and each other more fully, and we respect each others’ vision and talents as equals—and we value it all the more deeply because, after all this time, we both understand what a gift this occasion is.
Not everyone is so lucky. While I understand why, for a young bride whose parents are footing the entire bill, mom gets a big say, it seems a shame when her wishes take over, like the mother of four girls who forbade her daughters to choose an outdoor venue because she didn’t want to worry about the weather. Or the dental hygienist who told me she was “hands-off” in her own daughter’s wedding, because the bride “was 26 years old, and she could do what she wanted”—but then spent the next ten minutes explaining how she’d insisted her daughter get formal bridal portraits taken and lamenting the fact that she herself was not the focus of more photos on her daughter’s wedding day. Maybe it’s a self-perpetuating problem: some moms are overly invested in their daughters’ weddings because their moms planned theirs. Their only chance to realize their own vision is through their daughters’ wedding, and so the cycle repeats.
Even if I’d tied the knot years ago, my mom is just not that person, a fact for which I’m eternally grateful. My mom, a retired educator, a crafter, and lover of nature, is an amazing woman I’m proud to call my friend. She volunteers for her local no-kill animal shelter as a “Catvocate,” visiting the cats weekly and taking them to a play room so they don’t have to be cooped up in cages all the time. She hand-makes cards not only for everyone in the family, but also for all the shut-ins who are members of her church. She and my dad, impressively, are approaching their 50th anniversary, and as best I can tell, she truly IS the world’s best grandma. I wouldn’t call her a saint, but back in the day, she and my dad and two other brave moms camped with twelve prepubescent Girl Scouts at Walt Disney World for a week, and everyone lived to tell the tale.
I’m so lucky to have my mom as my ally and enthusiastic supporter, and much of what I know about partnership and love I’ve learned from her. She’s shown me what it looks like to live generously—to invest without invading, to care deeply and unconditionally, to find more joy in giving affection than receiving attention. In some ways, the relationship I have with my mom is the kind I’d like to foster with any partner: one built on genuine affection and friendship, one in which the partners feel comfortable expressing themselves, listen carefully to each other, offer encouragement, respectfully negotiate differences, and allow dreams to change as people grow.
The real dream, of course, is not realized in the trappings of a wedding, only symbolized by them, something my mother—a wise woman—has always known. What’s really important isn’t where or how you celebrate love, but the fact of the love itself. Which is why, I think, she relinquished the dream of the courtyard wedding with such grace. My mother would have thrilled to watch me walk down the aisle on the church courtyard path, as we had imagined together so many times. But I know she would rather I walk down the aisle wherever, whenever, on whatever path I choose—as long as that path is the one that leads to my happiness.