The day I chose my wedding gown stands out as one of the most exciting of my life. On a crisp, winter Saturday morning, five months ahead of my wedding, my mother, stepmother and I met for breakfast and then made our way to a bridal salon in lovely Haddonfield, New Jersey. This particular salon had been highly recommended by my Matron of Honor, and we were not disappointed. The service, atmosphere and selection of gowns were stunning, and it took less than two hours to settle on the gown that was simply perfect!
That day was also the one and only day on which I got to wear that beautiful, perfect wedding gown.
My boyfriend (now husband), Dan, and I were fortunate to be able to speak by phone a few times a week while he was in Pensacola being beaten into the ground by a USMC Drill Instructor, er… attending Officer Candidate School. It was during one of these conversations in January 1995 that Dan asked me to marry him. After a two-year courtship, we knew we would be headed to the altar at some point, but once we experienced that first military separation, the decision to make things official took on a new sense of urgency. (Unbeknownst to me, Dan had already sent a letter to my father, asking for his permission. The letter Dan received in response remains one of his – and my – most treasured possessions, especially now that my father has been gone for nearly 12 years.) Dan was set to graduate from OCS in May and then return home to Philadelphia to spend the summer on Recruiting Duty before reporting to Nuclear Power School in Orlando in September. We chose July 15 as our wedding day, and I began to plan in earnest.
While this condensed schedule provided me less than six months to plan our wedding, I knew I could make it happen. Within a few days of Dan’s asking and my answering, I had set up a tabbed binder with sections labeled, “Guests,” “Invitations and Stationery,” “Contracts,” “Music,” “Flowers” and several more. I was lucky to know a great local stationer who was able to help me select and order invitations on a rush basis. My father was friends with a local jeweler who stunned me into silence as he poured out a bag of loose diamonds in front of me, sorted them into “lousy, okay and great”, and custom-designed the engagement ring than Dan had sketched out on the back of an envelope.
Dan and I knew what kind of wedding we wanted – elegant, but relaxed and unstuffy. We wanted to hold the reception in my father’s beautiful backyard, complete with bathing suits to allow people to go for a swim in the pool if the weather cooperated. We wanted heavy hors d’ouevres and punch, champagne, cake, mini desserts with coffee and tea – a cocktail party atmosphere that would allow us to mingle and relax. We wanted the backyard because it was already awash in flowers and shrubs, allowing us to spend more liberally on music. We wanted a string quartet serenading us with “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” during the ceremony and a DJ rocking us out with 80’s music at the reception.
In the midst of planning for our perfect wedding with everything we wanted, I got home one afternoon to find a box on my doorstep – our wedding invitations had arrived! I tore into the box, and I began to cry just a little as I ran my fingers over the perfect engraving. This was really happening! Then… my phone rang. It was Dan, and I was so excited to tell him about the beautiful invitations that I hardly noticed he wasn’t saying much. He finally spoke up, “I won’t be able to go to work at the Recruiting Office this summer. I’ve gotten orders to go directly to Nuclear Power School two weeks after I get commissioned. They will give me three days of leave for the wedding – one to travel home, one for the wedding and one to travel back to school.”
I sat in stunned silence for what felt like an eternity. When I was able to speak, I heard myself say, “Well, that just won’t do!”
I could practically hear Dan cringe on the other end of the line, probably thinking I was about to have a bridezilla-style tantrum. I sensed his concern, and I quickly added, “I don’t want to start our marriage like that. When we get married, I want us both to be able to enjoy it, not to feel pressured and rushed and sad the next day as we have to say goodbye again. What if we get married right after you finish OCS, so then we can both move to Orlando together?”
If it is possible to hear someone smile, I am sure I heard Dan doing it through the phone. “Really? REALLY? Are you sure?” he asked repeatedly. “I’ve never been more sure of anything,” I replied. We decided that we would get married on May 13, just a week after his OCS graduation and commissioning. I called my father and had a little fun with him. “Dad,” I said, “we’re cancelling the wedding.” I quickly let him off the hook and explained what had happened and the decision Dan and I had made. He told me how proud of me he was for being level-headed, and we immediately shifted into overdrive to cancel old plans and come up with new ones.
The minister we’d chosen for our wedding was not available for May 13, and we could not find another on such short notice. Fortunately, a family friend of Dan’s parents was a District Judge, and he was thrilled when we asked him to marry us. We rescheduled the wedding to take place in my father’s backyard. We would cut the guest list to just immediate family, and we booked a private room at a local restaurant to host a dinner for the smaller group after the ceremony. I bought some plain, white note cards and printed out “Change of Orders” announcements, which we sent out to our guests along with the original invitations, which were just too darn beautiful not to use! I had a moment of hysteria when I learned my wedding gown would not be available or ready in time for the new date – AND we would lose the deposit we had already made. A momentary pang of regret washed over me, but I brushed it off and decided that if I was going to be a military wife, I’d better start practicing at handling loss of control, disappointment and changes of plans.
OCS graduation day finally arrived, and Dan’s family and I flew down to Pensacola, where his mother and I each got to pin on his shiny, new Ensign bars. In my carry-on bag was my new engagement ring, tucked into its velvet box. Dan had requested that I not put the ring on my finger other than to confirm that it fit at the jeweler’s, and he asked then that I not look at it on my hand. How could I refuse his request? After the commissioning, I was surprised and moved to tears as my new Officer (and Gentleman) got down on one knee in his choker whites and asked me to marry him. “I wanted to wait until I was a commissioned officer to put this ring on your finger,” he said. How romantic! (This from the man who will not buy flowers because they’re not practical… who knew?!)
Our wedding day arrived, and with 40 members of our immediate family and a few, dear friends, we made our vows in my father’s backyard. May weather in Pennsylvania can just as easily feel more like late winter than nearly-summer, so we had our fingers crossed, and we were not disappointed. The sun shone bright in a clear, blue sky, and the temperatures hovered nicely in the upper 70’s. When we arrived at my father’s house that morning, I asked if he’d let the neighbors know that we were having a wedding there that afternoon, to prepare them for an onslaught of cars parked on the street and to make sure no one would be mowing their lawn while we were saying, “I do.” He assured me that his neighbors all cut their lawns in the early morning.
One of the best pieces of video footage my stepmother got that afternoon was of my uncle taking off like a shot across the backyard behind Dan and me as we said our vows, hurdling the fence into the neighbor’s yard, then hearing the sound of that neighbor’s lawnmower come to an abrupt stop.
My father’s next-door neighbor had started his lawn mowing right as Dan was starting his vows (and had just begun to get teary-eyed on me.) After the ceremony ended and we were officially husband and wife, I said to Dan, “how about the timing on that lawnmower?” His reply? “What lawnmower?” My sweet husband had been so focused on his vows that he had not even noticed the noise! His expression when seeing my uncle’s athletics on the video was simply hilarious. My father apologized profusely, but given all the glitches we’d faced already, all we could do was laugh. Forever since, the sound of a lawnmower in the neighborhood reminds us of our wedding day.
(the picture above is of my Uncle, just moments before the ill-timed lawn mowing incident)
A few years ago, I was asked to model a wedding gown for a local bridal salon for a commercial they were shooting. I was thrilled! A picture of me, in a wedding gown? At last! The gown was lovely, and I did get some candid photos taken. But truly, those photos of me in that gown could just as easily be photos of me any other day, in jeans and a t-shirt. They evoke no special emotion in me. The picture of my younger brother and sister carrying the family dog down the “aisle” in the backyard ahead of me to keep him from getting in my way are much more special. The picture of all of us, posed around the pool, with all the lovely plantings, is my favorite, and the video of our wedding, full of parents and grandparents who have since passed on – and the ill-timed lawn mowing neighbor – is something I will treasure forever.
A marriage is not defined by a gown, or flowers, or a fancy, catered sit-down dinner. When it comes down to it, a wedding is but a fleeting moment in time. A marriage, however, is something that lasts. Starting our marriage off together – making it the true beginning of our lives together rather than just a perfect, lovely party – was what we wanted, then and now. Seventeen years later, I have never regretted my decision. The Navy has been the cause of many more unexpected changes of plans in the years since, and each time, I remind myself of how it all began.
And still – I wouldn’t change a thing.
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