A few months after we got married, Jared and I were walking home from the pub and happened to pass through a wedding reception. A Foo Fighters song blared from the normally quiet sailing club and we could see people on a dance floor through the second story windows. As we watched, a bride and groom, slightly disheveled, ran across the walkway to the docks to get a few late-night photos.
“Hey,” I said. “A wedding.”
“Well spotted,” Jared said.
I wanted to call out to them, to say We just got married too! It’s like noticing that you’re wearing the same shirt as a stranger; you can’t help but notice you’ve got something in common. I was looking for emotional validation, acknowledgement that not too long ago, we’d been in their position. The newlyweds laughed as they posed, and I kept my thoughts to myself; if there’s anything I learned while wedding planning it’s that interference from strangers is rarely appreciated.
Now that I had successfully been through my own wedding, I thought I had a new understanding of how to help people who were still planning theirs. The next time I had a close friend or family member getting married, I hoped that I would be the perfect ally. I would know the right things to say and what to steer clear of, conscious of heightened emotions and ready to offer support. I’d be overflowing with sage advice about managing complicated feelings and guest lists, plus give useful tips on cutting costs and which elements to DIY.
That’s why I was so blindsided when my little sister and her boyfriend announced their engagement last spring and the first question that zipped through my mind was Can I see the ring? This, followed by When are you guys going to get married? and Do you think you’ll wear a veil?
I wasn’t a cool, savvy older sister at all! I was just like everyone else, with their rules and expectations and gun-jumping. What I had learned, it seemed, was nothing. My marriage license did not bestow me with the ability to dispense useful advice in any form. It only made my questions more confusing for the newly engaged. I imagined Megan and Alex knitting their brows in consternation after our Skype sessions. Shouldn’t she know better than to ask those pushy questions? they’d say to each other.
Fortunately, my advice was not required. Within weeks of getting engaged, Megan and Alex had picked a date in July of 2015 and put down a deposit on a Chicago brewery. At that point, our own wedding was still five months away and we hadn’t even worked out where we were going to buy the alcohol. I immediately Googled the venue and found myself getting drawn into her wedding; it was the antidote to my planning stress.
“I’m so excited for your wedding,” I told Megan.
“Stop it,” she said, horrified. “Your wedding hasn’t even happened yet.”
Megan refused to indulge in talk of her wedding, adamant that the family should focus on mine first. The week of our wedding I wrote You’re up! in my copy of the APW book and passed it to my sister. When I stopped by my family’s condo the night before we left for our honeymoon, she was already nearly finished. That night, talk turned to Megan and Alex, about how they were next.
“You guys,” Megan shouted. “It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours! We are not talking about this now.”
I realized that although it was Megan and Alex’s wedding, we still saw it as ours. The rest of the family has an emotional stake in her wedding, each of us for different reasons. For me, it was a chance to share what I’d learned, to help her along. All of my wedding questions had been answered; it was over, no going back now. But here was Megan, going through the same experience, and hearing about her choices allowed me to better imagine what it was like for her.
My wedding advice, when applied to anyone else’s wedding, could be totally useless. Although Megan had my back for all of the choices I made, that doesn’t mean she wants the same from her wedding. I thought back to the times I struggled to make decisions: what I wanted wasn’t for someone to tell me what to pick; it was to tell me that whatever I chose was okay. When you’re in the thick of wedding planning, bombarded by wedding talk by everyone in your life, it can seem like small decisions carry a very big weight.
There were plenty of moments leading up to our wedding when I attributed too much importance to minor decisions. I knew that the difference between a silver tie and a grey tie would not make or break the wedding, but there was a time when it felt important. Any wedding-related questions consequently felt loaded, a perceived reminder that each choice could contribute to the success or failure of the day. I couldn’t recognize them for what they were—people trying to connect with me about an experience that many of us have or imagine having.
Why, then, do I find myself wanting to ask Megan the same questions that used to bug me? Clearly, one wedding does not an expert make, and I still don’t know the right things to say. What I’m trying to do is show my enthusiasm, and asking about centerpieces and hairstyles is one way to do that. If I can’t be there to help, I need to look for other ways to be there for my sister as she plans her wedding.
Megan and I have been playing the role of sisters much longer than we’ve played the roles of brides-to-be. It’s not surprising, then, that my tendency to be an older sister is more deeply ingrained than anything I learned during wedding planning. As her sister, I might not always say the right thing, but I hope I can show that I care, that I appreciate the magnitude of what she’s doing.
Even though weddings vary wildly in scope, there is something more than the details that tie them together. A wedding marks a transition; for some it may be small, for others life changing, but for all of us it symbolizes the beginning of something significant. Perhaps the best we can do is to be there for each other with the best of intentions, even if it means asking—or answering—a few pushy questions along the way.