The Wedding Present

Steve and I received our first wedding present shortly before Christmas. Steve’s mother Judy, a widow who lives in a retirement community outside DC, asked us to visit so she could give us a special wedding gift, a crystal wine decanter. The decanter had been a present to her and her husband Jack, Steve’s father, when they were married in Tampa in 1954.

In a note she sent to Steve, she indicated she wanted to give us the decanter now while she still felt in reasonable control of her health. Her vision is failing, as is her memory, and she’s aware of her fading faculties. We’d wanted to make a visit anyway, as her 85th birthday fell in early December, and we knew we’d be away for the holidays. So we drove up to take her out to dinner and sit for a while.

Steve and his mom Judy

Steve and his mom Judy

Petite, with short gray hair, Judy welcomed us warmly with hugs when we arrived. Despite her frailty, she carries herself with poise. After dinner at an Italian restaurant, she gave us the decanter, wrapped carefully in a towel and tucked into a handled shopping bag. It is a striking piece with family history, and I felt honored she wanted to pass it on to us. As we chatted, her frustration with her increasing limitations became evident. She struggled to see the particulars of the engagement photos we’d brought her as a gift, and when she’d begin to tell a family story she would often frown and pause a few sentences in, shaking her head. “Now, where was I going with that?” she’d say, and give a rueful laugh. She held significant events fairly clearly in her mind: she knew we were soon headed to England, and that she would be spending Christmas day with her daughter’s family. But the finer details frayed at the edges, and sometimes the thread was lost altogether. Continue reading

The Problem of the “Perfect”

When I went in for a dental check-up and cleaning not long ago, my hygienist, “Christina,” told me her daughter had gotten married last spring, right around the time Steve and I had gotten engaged. Since she’d recently planned and carried out a wedding locally, I thought she might be a good resource for vendors, and she was eager to offer advice. In between bite-wing x-rays, I asked about planners and photographers, and she shared a couple of names. By the time she started telling me about her daughter’s venue and describing the day, I was tilted back in the chair, various instruments scraping and splooshing and polishing my teeth, a captive audience unable to speak.

Which was okay, because Christina had plenty to say.

She told me about her daughter’s wedding dress. When they found “the one,” it was a tiny bit over their budget, but she decided it was worth the couple hundred dollar splurge. Then they’d driven to Richmond and spent four times the amount of that splurge on alterations to ensure the dress was “perfect.” “The dress matters so much,” Christina said, as she handed me the suction. A bridal portrait of her daughter sat on a nearby shelf, and the dress was flattering. Still, interviewing multiple cleaners all over town, and stressing out the poor woman they’d selected so much she swore she hadn’t slept the night before she was to press it? It seemed a little extreme.

Then, Christina told me about her daughter’s wedding party, the bridesmaids’ dresses they’d chosen. “I was worried about one of my daughter’s attendants,” she said, lowering her voice confidentially. “You know, worried about her figure.”

I was glad my mouth was already open. What on earth?

“And she’s sort of this shy, quiet type, too, a librarian, so I was worried about whether she’d even have a good time,” she continued.

I blinked rapidly in defense of introverts everywhere.

“But—” Christina turned away to check the x-rays of my mouth splayed across the computer screen behind her. “Her dress looked lovely, and she was fine.” She descended on my mouth again. “In fact, she came up to me at the end of the wedding and said ‘This wedding has ruined all other weddings for me in the future—it was perfect.’ And that—” she paused and pointed the polisher at me “—is what your mother wants to hear.”

I’m thinking: after 45 years, my mother just wants to hear me say I do.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Christina added, a bit wistfully. “But, it was fun.”

Fun is good. Fun is great. It’s not a Broadway production competing for a Tony; it’s a wedding celebration. We say our vows, we have a party, everyone eats, drinks, dances until the shoes come off and the conga line rolls. Legal, fun, and done: those are my criteria.

Don’t get me wrong—I want the flowers to be exquisite, the wedding party to be radiant, my dress to float just-so as I descend the stairs against the backdrop of robin’s-egg-blue sky. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t pictured this or that moment, in this or that ideal way. But aspiring for everything to be “perfect”—a word Christina kept repeating, a standard she seemed to think attainable—is, in my experience, mostly a recipe for trouble.

Christina told me she’d dreamed for months about her daughter’s wedding day. She’d cried imagining that morning, how special sharing the preparations and getting ready together would be. “And then,” she said, “we just ended up fighting.” The plan was for her daughter to text her when she woke up, and mom would go in to snuggle her before they launched into the big day. “Well,” she said, shaking her head at the memory, “by the time she texted, I was already up and doing wedding stuff that had to be done. And somehow I missed the text.”

And that’s the problem of the perfect: too many, too high, too exacting expectations. Not to mention misplaced priorities in pursuit of it. What “wedding stuff” was more important than that snuggle? Then again, attempting to script that kind of “perfect” moment is usually unwise, because no matter what happens, it rarely matches the fantasy.

There is no such thing as “perfect,” not really. There are expectations, and people or events that meet those expectations—or don’t. We have a habit of calling whatever does meet (or exceed) our expectations “perfect”; what doesn’t is a disappointment. But “perfect” is an abstraction, a relative concept, a practical impossibility. “Perfect” is perception, not reality, and acting as if it is a clearly defined, achievable entity is more likely to lead to discontent than delight.

“I learned my lesson,” Christina reassured me—or maybe herself. Later that morning, when she and her daughter were at the salon together getting hair and makeup done, the wedding planner called with an issue. Christina took a deep breath and decided to let go of trying to make the day “perfect.” She referred the call to her husband and went back to enjoying the moment with her daughter.

I’m not sure my hygienist has fully overcome her perfectionist tendencies, but as a recovering perfectionist myself, I know it’s a tough addiction to crack. So whenever I start to worry about some little detail (What if we can’t get the right color daisies?) or some piece I can’t control (What if it’s pouring rain that day?), I remind myself that oftentimes the most memorable moments come from the minor mishaps and unexpected events, the things you couldn’t possibly have planned for but will never forget. I think back to how all the guests at my brother’s wedding were preparing to hum an impromptu wedding march in case the bagpiper, who was delayed, couldn’t make it in time. Or the moment when we realized we didn’t have rose petals readied for the flower girl, and my mother sat down with a basket in her lap and began to pluck petals. My brother knelt down in front of her, took a rose, and went to work.

As we were scheduling my future check-ups, Christina asked about my wedding date.

“September,” I said, happy to be sitting upright once again, my mouth appliance free.

She clicked through her online calendar. “Oh, good,” she said. “That’ll be shortly after a cleaning, so your teeth will look great for pictures.” She turned to me and smiled. “Perfect.”


A Mother’s Dream, in honor of the wedding that wasn’t

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. Continue reading