In central Missouri, the tradition is for an older, unwed sister to dance in a pig trough at her younger sister’s wedding. You can find video evidence of this on YouTube. The DJ plays “Cotton-Eye Joe.” In the middle of the dance floor, the trough resembles, disturbingly, a child’s coffin. The sister circles it for a verse or two. The song is painfully long. The crowd hoots, then grows silent, then rouses itself again when the dancer steps one foot and then another into the trough. “If it weren’t for Cotton-Eye Joe, I’d have been married long time ago,” the Rednex croon. But she isn’t married, and that’s why she’s asked now to bless her sibling’s marriage with an act of triumphant humiliation.
I’m lucky I wasn’t born one state south: Both of my younger sisters were married several years before I will be. In fact, nearly everyone I know was married before I will be.
When my friends began to get engaged, I was twenty years old and studying abroad in England. In the musty dorm computer lab, I received thrilling emails. Rings were the size of ice-skating rinks. Bridesmaid dresses would be in periwinkle with chiffon scarves. One foggy evening, walking down some cobblestone street, I realized what a seismic shift had occurred in my life. Some people were choosing to marry. Some weren’t. All of a sudden, I became a woman who was not getting married. Before I had been a college junior trying desperately to get her romantic life to somehow be as orderly and fulfilling as her academic life and eating too many digestive biscuits and drinking whole bottles of cheap Sainsbury’s white wine (because study abroad). I was still all this, but I was also not getting married. Not any time soon. I lived in that state of not-getting-married for almost a dozen years. And nearly the whole time, I fretted about it.
I now wish some benevolent British fairy would have visited my bedchambers in 2003 and said: Darling Jenny, you won’t be getting married until your thirties, so stop your fussing, get working, and also get ready to live a little, because that’s what you’ll spend the next decade doing. (And if that same fairy godmother could have vanquished my student loans, even better.)
A Different Kind of Trough
In my dozen years of not-getting-married, I went to at least twice as many weddings. I went to weddings in the mountains and weddings by lakes. Full Catholic wedding masses and five-minute ceremonies. I attended weddings in which I was brought along as a date and weddings to which I was surprised I’d been invited. I wore that periwinkle chiffon bridesmaid dress with a scarf thrown around my neck and another chiffon gown in forest green and various other bridesmaid dresses in blacks and maroons and blues. I had shoes dyed. I had my hair done badly. And I loved so much about these experiences: Being with the bride while she was getting ready. The buzzing moment in a reception just after dinner and just before the dancing starts. The tremendous and tremendously brave act of commitment. At first, these weddings made me feel grown up, adult. Later, they made me feel that I was somehow lagging behind.
I never had to dance in a trough, but I did attend a lot of those weddings alone, sometimes because my partner-of-the-year couldn’t make it, sometimes because I didn’t have a date, and sometimes because my relationship at the time hadn’t been deemed worthy of the plus one. My metaphorical trough was hard for all the obvious reasons—it was difficult to be single when others around me were finding love and committing to it. Other women I knew had a consistent partner, someone who had known them for years, attended their college graduations, their grandfather’s funeral. My boyfriends walked through the revolving door of bad selection and indecision. At weddings, I often danced alone. I stopped volunteering for the bouquet toss. Then brides stopped having the bouquet toss, because, you know, there were so few single women, and the tradition might embarrass them. At the last wedding I attended, a close friend turned to me and admitted, “I’m just so over weddings.” She was married, of course.
And Different Kinds of Happiness
In just three months, I’ll be married too. When I got engaged last summer, I found myself with an unexpected new worry, not about planning, but about my past. Now that it was my turn to be the bride, I wondered if I had been good enough, attentive enough, supportive enough of all the brides who had come before me. I had been happy for them, truly, while also being nervous for myself. It was a happiness of a different quality than the happiness I might bring to their weddings now. The truth is it’s easier to be happy for someone when you’ve wanted and already gotten what they’re about to get, be it a spouse, a baby, or that fantastic job.
The summer I turned thirty, both of my younger sisters were engaged. I felt ambivalent about turning thirty anyway, and when I went home to visit, my parent’s house was all weddings, weddings, weddings—my sisters on their laptops doing all the wedding planning verbs. I could see that the two of them had entered the realm of the affianced, of which I couldn’t yet be a part. Conversation turned around and around questions of what colors and which dresses and how to determine the guest lists, until finally I couldn’t stand it any more. “No more talk about weddings,” I shouted one afternoon, louder than I’d expected. I loved my sisters and their future husbands; I was so happy for them; I wanted their celebrations to be perfect, and I did my best with showers and bachelorette parties. Sometimes a knot formed in my stomach that wasn’t from jealousy, so much as the fear that they were leaving me behind.
I suppose we can only bring to a wedding who we are at the moment. Many of my friends will participate in my wedding as members of the not-so recently-married but recently-parents. (Babies under two years old constitute ten percent of our guest list.)
I did everything I could in my twenties and early thirties to support those I loved in their weddings. Sometimes this was expensive, lonely, or hard, but it was always worth it. If I had believed that my own barefoot prancing to “Cotton-Eye Joe” would have somehow blessed my sisters and their husbands, I would have danced in that trough. Twice. Thank god, though, we can ignore tradition. Dan and I are having a “Bouquet Toss for Tequila” open to all genders. To the victor, the spoils.