May 2009

Wedding Album The Officiant

The idea of marriage takes on a whole new meaning when you're asked to perform one  by Sue Smalley

It's official: Sue Smalley gets kisses of love and gratitude for helping two friends become one.

The Setup
I was guilted into marriage. My then boyfriend, Kevin, and I were living together in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my mother was livid. To a conservative Lutheran from a blue-collar town in Bible Belt Indiana, shacking up was a sin, and image-conscious mothers of girls born in the ’50s did not want their daughters deviating from the path of righteousness. I loved my mother, so her tears cinched it. “We will get married,” I told her after one of her heart-wrenching phone calls. “You just put it together, and we will be there.”

Kevin was my first and only true love. I met him at 15 in the summer of 1970. He was a breeze of fresh air blowing through a stagnant home of held-in emotions and pristine exteriors. With him, I felt free for the first time and relished the passion for life he embodied. We met and fell in love, and I knew I had discovered my soul mate just five miles from home.

To the 1974 me, the idea of marriage was just that: one that had lost its value in society. But to make my mother happy, we agreed to go through the motions. We bought some hippie rings and headed to our hometown on a weekend to get married. Before the wedding—a small family gathering at my mother’s church—Kevin and I attended a mandatory premarriage meeting with the pastor. It was there I offered my one input about the content of that day: I struck from the ceremony a line he intended to include, “As man is to God, woman is to man,” because it represented everything I rejected owing to my feminist views.

The Request
Flash-forward 34 years to 2008. My next-door neighbor Lisa Henson (co-CEO of the Jim Henson Company) calls and wants me to take a walk with her because she has something very important to ask me. Lisa and her fiancé, Dave, are planning their wedding, so I assume it will be a request to throw her a shower or help in some way with her two kids. As we stroll, Lisa says, “Hear me out. Dave and I want you to marry us.”

What? This is so far off my radar screen that I actually discover the true meaning of dumbstruck. She lays out their logic: “You are an atheist like Dave, in that you don’t believe in a personal God, yet you ascribe to Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and many teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam like me. You are a friend to us both...and someone happily married for 34 years.”

I love the idea of performing a wedding. It seems to be what my heart wants to do, but my brain thinks otherwise. Can I do it right? I’m not licensed to perform marriages, but I discover you don’t need to be licensed in Colorado, where the wedding will take place. What about my social anxiety—particularly my fear of public speaking? While I have learned to overcome it in my profession as a university professor giving academic lectures, leading a marriage ceremony is something else entirely. Can I be calm and have enough presence of mind to conduct the wedding Lisa and Dave so rightly deserve?

It is my daughter who helps me finally gain the confidence I need. When I tell her of Lisa’s request, she merely answers, “If Joey Tribbiani can do it, then you can do it, Mom!” Ha—reduce the request to a Friends episode! I tell them yes, and we are set. I am the official officiant.

The Preparation
In the aftermath of saying okay, the first question Lisa and I have is, “What should the officiant wear?” We go shopping at Carolina Herrera, where Lisa bought her wedding gown, and I find a lovely black dress with a small line of purple woven through the fabric. Check that box—the dress is done. Now, what to say?

Because I have never performed a wedding, I approach it as if I am teaching my first class or presenting my first science lecture. I research. I buy books and collect data, such as information on the couple’s first meeting, how they fell in love, what their dreams are, how they inspire each other, how they’ve formed a family (with the two children from Lisa’s previous marriage), what they learned from their previous loves, the deaths of their fathers, etc. We are on our way.

The Ceremony
Very early one morning, I sit at the computer, and out it flows. My speech will be about marriage as a bond, a sacred act in which we leave our self-centered worldview and move into one where we are part of something larger than ourselves. Marriage is a reminder of this.

Ironically, “As man is to God, woman is to man,” the sentence I had removed from my own cere­mony 34 years prior, is exactly the thesis of the ceremony I have prepared...without the man, God and woman nomenclature. The experience of God as self-transcendence can be revealed in the relationship of love between two people. Marriage is the communal act of declaration that you will share in this discovery and support each other in its flourishing.

The Day
July 26, 2008. The families and 100 guests gather in Telluride, Colorado, at a mountaintop chateau. The backdrop is a snow-capped majestic peak seen through a floor-to-ceiling window. I begin the procession, walking down the aisle ahead of Dave and the groomsmen. As we move into place, the music starts, and Lisa enters, radiant in happiness and followed by her bridesmaids. The words I’ve practiced so intently flow easily in the timeless space created by the bond of Lisa, Dave and their loved ones. It’s as if we have traveled beyond the borders that shape our lives. We are encased in a bubble of love—the eternal type, everlasting.

The Aftermath
Performing the ceremony changes my life. I realize how much I value marriage and the sacred proceedings that seal it. What I saw as a religious relic in 1974, and a concession to my mother, has taken on newfound significance as a vital part of our shared humanity. For years I rejected ceremony because of its connection to religion, but ceremonies need not be religious. In times of great transition, when change is front and center—birth, death, coming of age, marriage—they have the power to remind us of the unwavering nature of eternal love.

I finally get it—the value of marriage, the value of ceremony, the sacred space we need to embrace the eternity of love, all that my mother knew so many years ago. Perhaps now I can thank her for guiding me down that path in her own way.