I love Dalia’s wedding graduate post for a million reasons. It doesn’t look like every other wedding in the blog-o-sphere (And thank goodness!), it speaks directly to the issue of finding a way to throw a wedding that is true to your core values as a couple (which is why I started this blog in the first place). Plus, she has wise words to say about religious compromises, and about the fact that your wedding is never going to sum up everything that you are. Because you will keep on changing and growing, together, and as a pair… and that is just as it should be.
To start off, my husband’s father grew up in Cap-Haitian in Haiti, and attended the same school that my great grand-father ran from his house. He has clear memories of being taught by my grandfather in the classroom. When many middle-class Haitians fled to Francophone African countries such as the Congo during the Duvalier dictatorship, some of his relatives made their way to Cote D’Ivoire, as did one of my aunts. They are still very close friends.
Now for some people, this may sound a little too close for comfort. But this revelation early in our relationship had the opposite effect on me- it gave us a lot to bond over very quickly, and made me feel more grounded in my heritage (I am of Congolese and Haitian descent and a product of dictatorship and exile, as well as several generations of educators). But in the end, what makes our relationship special is that we are two very different people who both insist on not following traditions blindly. We both like to do things our own way, orthodox or not, which is one of many reasons that my husband is the perfect man for me.
When we decided to get married during a trip to the Berkshires almost four years after we met, my anxiety over having a wedding began to kick in. We were in a much more financially precarious position than when we started out, and I felt all of my over the top wedding fantasies becoming more and more out of reach. Meanwhile, my poor fiance really just wanted to get married with minimum fuss, but also deeply cared about what his mother thought. So, we were prepared to have a smaller wedding in St. Thomas- but quickly nixed the idea because it put too much financial pressure on family members who we really, really wanted to be there. Plus, some of our elderly non-negotiable guests had health issues that would make this impossible.
Instead, we focused on having a family-focused wedding in Long Island that didn’t feel generic, spoke to our core values as a couple, and wouldn’t break the bank (hint: I bought my Pronovias gown pre-owned). I’m glad we did because even though our families sometimes stressed me out, seeing pictures of my great-aunt on my father’s side along with my grandmother and my maternal aunts who made it all the way from Belgium to be there always makes me feel strong and rooted. My mother passed away from breast cancer eight years before and the same disease claimed one of my closest aunts only four years later. What I went through made me want to gather my family and closest friends for a joyous occasion rather than a funeral, and I was willing to foot the bill to do it (within reason, of course).
Figuring Out The Ceremony
There were other issues too- such as, would we have a traditional Bakongo wedding beforehand? (The groom is supposed to petition the bride’s maternal uncle, pay a predetermined dowry to the family, and buy them all gifts. They, in return, must cook all the food and host the party.) I just couldn’t imagine how that would work, seeing as how my husband’s family is not familiar and wouldn’t have been comfortable with it. And I wasn’t sure if it really fit me either. Okay, so I let that go and mourned that a little. Catholic wedding ceremony? This gave me a long pause. I have not been a practicing Catholic for many years and have considered myself an adherent to Creation Spirituality, which has Christian roots but is more of a spiritual outlook than a religion. My husband grew up Catholic as well, but doesn’t really practice either.
In the end, we decided to go with a Unitarian minister who we felt a strong connection to and created a ceremony that stuck to our theme of bringing our complicated families together. We decided that we didn’t want to say anything that we didn’t personally believe and that if we are one day led to be Catholics again, maybe we’ll renew our vows with the church one day.
The ceremony really helped me to finally let go of a lot of the wedding stress that I had created for myself. We had an ancestral libation that really spoke to the both of us- it focused on welcoming the ancestors we could and could not name into the sacredness of our union, but also emphasized the living souls who were present and those who couldn’t make it.
Then we had members of our respective families say ‘We do’ to our union. Even though it was different and not really Christian, most of my family members absolutely loved it. Then we had our personal vows, some of which we said together. Standing across from my groom, it really clicked. Of course, I still felt nervous and a little bit awkward, but my husband totally did everything he could to put me at ease, including cracking a small joke here and there and getting a few laughs from the crowd. And from me! It made me appreciate him all the more.
What Mattered: Favorite Moments
We snuck away to a nearby beach to take pictures after the ceremony, just the two of us. A man playing Teddy Pendergrass from his Jeep turned up the volume when he spied us taking photos on the beach, so at one point we were dancing while the sun set. It was lovely to have that time for just the two of us, even though I had been worried about sacrificing time with guests at the cocktail hour.
Other favorites? Dancing with my dad to Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds,’ the whole crowd dancing and singing in unison to Billie Jean.
Last but not least -when my sister sang a Congolese wedding song called ‘Yamba Ngai’ towards the end. She had memorized it completely and sang it with such passion. She had people singing along, cheering, and dancing. It was the best wedding gift anyone could have ever given me.
What I Learned
Looking back, the most important thing I wish I had realized during planning is that some people are just going to be negative. Period. About anything you choose to do. So if you are compromising something important make sure you are doing it for yourself too. After my wedding, a few people felt free to say the DJ was horrible. I’m not going to lie- this sucked, but it taught me how to be the best guest ever, wedding or otherwise: offering to help when I can, no mindless criticism, and dancing anyway when I think the music might be hokey.
I also wish that I realized that weddings can’t ever capture the sum total of a multi-faceted person or couple. Because the thing is, no matter how much you think your wedding will reflect you, in the end it can’t. Because we are always changing and evolving, and it’s scary if we don’t. So, it doesn’t really matter whether or not my wedding had a Paris theme, it only matters that my interest in strengthening my French has been reinvigorated. If I’m still alive and can take the train to Harlem to purchase African fabric, who cares that I didn’t have time to find a seamstress to make cute but elegant African dresses for the reception? My married life affords me the luxury of tackling these fun projects one at a time.
What Really Mattered
On a deeper level, what really mattered was the look on my grandmother’s and aunts’ faces when we gave away our bouquets. My maternal aunts putting my mother’s locket around my neck before the wedding. Seeing my cousin-in-laws’ photos of themselves with their mother smiling and dancing, months before she perished in the Haitian earthquake. The sneaking suspicion that our blessed dead were alive with us as my father held up his glass in a toast in remembrance of them.
And of course, what really matters is embarking on this new adventure of marriage with my husband.
Photos By: Jacqueline Catanzaro, plus friends Tiffany & Naomi