The other day my father and I were chatting about how much fun we’d had at my wedding last September. We talked about the food, the venue, the band, and we had ourselves a nice stroll down memory lane. Then, just as I was about to get off the phone, my father hit me with a doozy. “I just hope any dancing I do at weddings in the future will be at other people’s weddings,” he said.
I chuckled good-naturedly because by then I’d learned an important lesson: when you tie the knot for the second time, at least a few people will remind you— jokingly, of course— that it’s not your first trip down the aisle. Instead of feigning shock and exclaiming dramatically, “I’d plumb forgotten about that first big day— thank God you reminded me,” or wondering aloud why said person was invited to either of your weddings, you must smile through it all. As an “encore bride,” magnanimity is your calling card. It’s a little like the requirement that chubby people be cheerful.
And, honestly, I can’t say I blame these folks— or even my father— for their teasing. Had I been asked a year ago if I thought a gal should play the starring role in two weddings in the span of four years, I would have said no way. In fact, when Mike proposed last March, I said yes without hesitation. But a few seconds later I tacked on a major qualification: I was ready to be married again, but I wasn’t ready to get married again.
In 2003, I’d had a lovely affair here in Baltimore. To even consider having another wedding in the same city just four years later felt unseemly, even gauche. “It’s OK for stars like J-Lo,” I told Mike, “but not for your average gal like me.” I didn’t want my parents to spend the money. I didn’t want my guests to buy me gifts. I didn’t want my friends to have to fly across the country just on my account.
But that was only the practical portion of my reluctance. The other part was emotional: to have a second wedding was to acknowledge in a very public and very concrete way that my first wedding ended in failure. By no means was my divorce a secret. Still, walking down the aisle again so soon seemed like shouting from the mountaintop, “Hey, everyone! My first marriage went down the crapper. Watch me roll the dice again!”
“I feel naked even thinking about it,” I said to Mike.
For all the reasons I married him, he didn’t get excited or defensive. He simply said he wanted to do something to mark the occasion. “I mean, this is one of the most important days of my life,” he said. “I’m marrying the woman of my dreams.”
How uncomplicated was his joy… how unfettered by shame or failure. I was in awe of him. I wanted to be him. Alas, I was me. And so, with the inspiration of desperation, I concocted a plan: “We could get married at the courthouse and have a big party afterward.”
When I later mentioned the idea to my friend Jess, she said her husband, Aaron, who had been married for the first time only five years before they tied the knot, had suggested the same thing when they got engaged. “I never fantasized about my wedding, but I knew I didn’t want it to be a shameful thing,” she says. “Something about the courthouse seemed like skulking.”
What she saw as “skulking,” Aaron— and I— saw as avoiding shame. “The thing that gave me the most anxiety was the sort of quasi-religious pageantry in front of people with all the traditional things being said,” Aaron told me. “The whole time I’d be feeling like I’ve got this shame or stigma because I went through this once and failed to make it work.”
Exactly. Which is why taking our vows privately and celebrating with a party seemed like the best of both worlds— less shame for the once-burned-twice-shy half of the couple, but still celebratory for the fresh-faced, innocent half. Unfortunately, the idea got nixed after Mike and I visited his family in D.C. for Easter and announced our good news. In between the screams and the massive bearhugs, I realized that to deny his family the chance to see him get married because I wanted to hide was shockingly small. At that moment the scale tipped, and my shame at being scared outweighed my shame at being a failure.
So I unclenched a bit more: we’ll have a wedding, but it will be very small. However, when an initial tally revealed that just our families constituted about 50 people, we had to acknowledge that an intimate dinner party for 10 was not in the cards for us.
Then I took a different tack: we’ll have a wedding, but it will be very informal. On a lovely spring day we drove to the Baltimore Zoo and scoped out the pavilions. “I can see it now,” I said. “We’ll have the wedding on a Saturday afternoon. There will be red-checked tablecloths on the picnic benches and barbecue and everyone can wear shorts. It will be like a picnic.”
When I reported our decision to my parents they were somewhat less enthusiastic. “We don’t want our friends having to walk through Druid Hill Park to get to a port-a-potty,” my mother said. “That’s not safe.”
“My friends go to the bathroom about once every hour,” my dad said. “You know, they have aging prostates.”
“And sitting at picnic tables is hard on everyone’s backs,” my mother added.
I was sitting on my couch, petting my cat while I talked with my parents on the phone and suddenly I started crying. Yes, I’m a big girl and all that. But I just felt hopeless. “I don’t want it to be a big affair and be extravagant and ostentatious,” I said. What I meant— and what they knew I meant— was I don’t want to waste your money … again. Because, let’s face it: when your marriage ends a few years after it began, you feel that whatever money was spent celebrating it was spent in vain. Maybe there’s a threshold above which you don’t feel that way— say eight or 10 years. But four?
For all the reasons my mother is wonderful, she said, “Look, we want to have a nice event. Think of it this way: we’re doing it for Mike.”
Ah, yes: I would think of the wedding as a celebration of Mike and in that way it would be tolerable. I know most brides don’t view their weddings as events to be tolerated, but that was the only way I could bear the idea at the time. And I’m not alone— Aaron came around to his second wedding in much the same way. “I had my own reservations but I realized I didn’t want to rob Jessica of the wedding,” he says.
A week later, Mike and I had booked a venue, a caterer— and we’d soon hire that band my father would rave about. I was feeling pretty good. And then one of my dearest friends called to tell me she’d gotten engaged. “We were going to have a wedding, but it turned out to be a big hassle,” she said. “So we’re going to the court-house with his parents and afterward we’re going out for dinner.”
My mouth literally started watering— my reaction was that physical. I longed to be her more powerfully than I’d ever longed to be someone. Other brides dream of a huge white dress, a church with vaulted ceilings, a guest list of hundreds and a table of presents. I fantasized about the courthouse and a Chinese dinner.
Then, a few days later, I offered to throw a baby shower at my house for my cousin and she declined, saying she didn’t want to make a big deal about her pregnancy. At first I said I understood. But then I heard myself saying this: “A lot of stuff in life sucks. So when you have a cause to celebrate, I think you should.” She relented and we invited 10 women to a shower at my house at which my cat ate half of the appetizers and my aunt told tales about how gargantuan my cousin was when she was born.
I don’t want to call it an epiphany, but encouraging my cousin to celebrate her pregnancy made me realize how meager I’d been about my own cause for celebration. I mean, was I really going to mope because my husband-to-be, my parents and my soon-to-be in-laws wanted to fete my good fortune? Suddenly it just seemed terribly angst-ridden— and, worse, terribly ungrateful— to be so dead-set against celebrating my marriage to Mike. Which is to say, I decided to get over myself.
Once I did, I started to actually enjoy the wedding planning. All the pressure I’d felt four years before to create the “coolest wedding ever” evaporated and anything that was too much trouble or too much fuss was out the window.
My first time as a bride, the idea of wearing white literally never occurred to me— I was bound and determined to do nothing expected. I hired a local costume designer to create a custom-designed gown, and it was beautiful— all shimmery blue and pink layers of chiffon. But this time, I got online one Sunday afternoon in July and ordered a few white dresses from Nordstrom.com. Then my friend alerted me to the Isaac Mizrahi collection at Target.com. I spent an hour on its Web site and came home a few days later to 20 boxes waiting at my front door. Up in my room I tried them on one by one— the slinky evening gown, the princess ball gown, the informal party dress. I liked one from Nordstrom and one from Target. The Nordstrom dress needed alterations, so I chose the sateen cream strapless cocktail dress from Target. My mother and I giggled that it cost only $49.
For my first wedding, I did much hand-wringing and hair-pulling about invitations— the design, the printing, the mailing. This time, we e-mailed invites. And forget wrestling with place cards and table assignments— it was goodbye seated dinner. We didn’t even rent enough chairs for everyone to sit at once. Instead of a fancy updo created by a licensed beautician, I did my hair myself. Instead of painstakingly creating a list of essential photos to be taken by a professional photographer, Mike’s sister and brother-in-law shot our wedding. Making these decisions— which I could only do because I’d walked the aisle once before— turned me on to the good side of being an “encore bride.” After all, how many times in life do we get the chance for a do-over?
Speaking of the do-over, however, I’ve learned that one of the sources of backlash against second weddings is from bridesmaids who don’t want to spend for dresses, shoes, wedding showers, etc., only a few years after they shelled out the first time. I can’t say I blame them— I wouldn’t want to be a bridesmaid at any wedding, first or second— and I didn’t have bridesmaids at either of my weddings. Same goes for gifts— apparently some guests resent shelling out for place settings and china after they did so a few years before. I guess I can understand that, though if you’re looking at it from strictly an economic viewpoint, the gift is “payment” for the party. Anyway, I definitely didn’t want gifts and Mike has a primordial fear of stuff, so we asked our guests to either refrain from giving or to donate to a few selected charities.
Some people gave us presents anyway, which was lovely— except for one of my kin, whose gift came in the form of an offer to alter the first wedding present she’d given me, a needlepoint tray stitched with my name and my husband’s and our wedding date. “I can erase your first husband’s name, insert your new husband’s name, change the date and then give it back to you,” she told me in an e-mail.
Once I got over the shock, I politely declined. I know she offered out of kindness, but you don’t want to play with fire. Even people who marry for a second time decades after their first marriage admit a kind of compulsion to “do things differently.” “Throwing the bouquet— I knew I wasn’t having it the second time because I had it the first time,” says Paula Bisacre, who married first in 1989 and again in 2003. “We didn’t have a wedding cake. We didn’t do the father-daughter dance. My jewelry was about as far from the first one as I could get. But the biggest thing is I did not want the long, white dress.” Bisacre, who lives in Howard County, is the publisher of a new quarterly magazine, ReMarriage, which will launch this April and be distributed throughout Baltimore, D.C. and northern Virginia.
I have to admit that as the weeks before the wedding zipped by, I did harbor one small fear, and that was that my previous wedding— my previous husband, my previous self— would be in the room with me and Mike and our guests on Sept. 15 when we tied the knot. Like ghosts, I guess. In those weeks, I did think more about my first wedding and my first husband than I had in a while, which I guess makes sense. When you do an encore, the original is there under the surface, like a palimpsest.
Maybe those ghosts were hiding in the trees when I walked down the steps into the courtyard and to the altar where Mike waited on that sunny September Saturday. But I didn’t see them and I didn’t feel them. I didn’t worry that people were judging me, recalling my failure or even comparing this wedding with the first— even though the night before one of my parents’ friends had told me, “This is the last wedding of yours I want to come to.” It was exactly the kind of comment I’d feared months before; it was exactly the kind of comment I’d have done anything to avoid. But when it actually happened, it was just a pinprick, not the gory stabbing I’d imagined. And though it was crass of the guy to say such a thing, I had to agree with him: this was the last wedding of mine I wanted to attend, either.
No, I didn’t feel ashamed or even self-conscious as I stood at the altar that day. Instead I felt the kind of uncomplicated joy I’d seen in Mike months before. That, and a powerful— almost physical— sense of gratitude that people in my life can and will save me from myself. Had I given in to my own reluctance, I would have squandered an opportunity to celebrate something as miraculous as love, particularly love after loss. And compared with failing or wasting money, that seems a far more serious crime.