“You know, it’s no coincidence that we find ourselves here. While our backyard isn’t a destination for most weddings, it is for this one. That’s because this is where their story began. It’s a story that’s eight and a half years, two states, hundreds of miles, and now two rings in the making. And it’s all led back to here. It’s a story that began right where we now stand.”
Ask any happily engaged couple planning an intimate backyard wedding about how they envision their day. They probably wouldn’t say, “You know what I’d really love? Rain. And not just drizzling, like, a downpour. Unmanageable amounts of rain. Lots of mud everywhere. Also, wind would be great. And I would love it if it were unusually cold, despite being the middle of summer! Most of all, though, I’d definitely like it if the wind blew so hard, it would send a tree crashing through our tent, potentially nearly killing or severely injuring our beloved friends and family!”
I know I sure didn’t wish for these things. But they’re what I got. And somehow, the day was amazing.
The week before our wedding, unbridled joy frolicked hand in hand with nearly unbearable stress, a confounding and exhausting combination of emotions that only a handmade wedding can give you. Despite the stress, countless unfinished projects, and a couple total failures, the week could not have been more perfect. My fiancé and I watched every day as the vision for our simple, intimate backyard wedding, which we’d had for years, started to become reality. We had always wanted a laid-back, low-maintenance but beautiful backyard wedding—barbecue food, good beer, great music, extraordinary love—and that was what we were on track to get in spades. Family drank cold beer and sat under the tent, marveling at the lights we’d all worked together to string up (using lots of determination and even more duct tape). Aunts stopped by with samples of the baked goods they had been eagerly whipping up. Toddlers danced and played together in the yard. We blasted music as we sung and sweat together as a family, working toward an increasingly daunting and fast-approaching celebration of the love Aaron and I had shared for eight years.
Every day the temperature swung between 70 and 80 degrees while the sun beamed brightly. Every evening, we were greeted with a breathtaking sunset. It was exactly the kind of beautiful summer Michigan is known for. The kind of summer you’d be foolish not to celebrate an outdoor wedding in; the reason a backyard wedding at my childhood home would be foolish not to have. Despite weather so beautiful that it’d make Hawaii blush, the day before our wedding, we could no longer ignore the wedding day forecast: we were going to get rain.
The morning of June 27, I blinked my eyes open. When I crawled down the bed to the window, the rain was pelting the window with such ferocity I couldn’t even see outside. We had gotten our worst-case scenario: a torrential downpour.
That’s when I knew we were fucking doomed.
The ceremony was planned as an uncovered one, complete with a hanging backdrop my maid of honor and I had worked tirelessly to create. The downpour of rain on the roof of the tent was far too loud for a wedding ceremony to be heard underneath it, and since the safety of the tent was our plan B, we were out of luck. I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. There was so much to be done to fix this, I had no idea where to begin. Despite how proud I’d been that I had held it together through it all, I was overcome with anxiety and had a classic Heidi Uhlman panic attack. I wanted so badly to walk away from everything.
When I finally summoned the courage to walk outside, however, I was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw everyone in the yard. Family and friends bustled about, making phone calls, hanging tarps, reorganizing tables, and moving the dance floor away from the rain; they were even making creative use of a stack of photos I’d brought but never planned anything with. My brothers were on their way to gather breakfast from Coney Island while my mom reheated leftover soup for everyone else, and my maid of honor organized flowers on every table that she’d cut from her own backyard that morning at 6 a.m. Every single person was soaked through every layer of clothing they had on, without a dry hair on their head. Even though the wind was furiously blowing, the air was cold, and the rain was pouring, there was nothing but warmth and love under that tent.
Ten minutes before the ceremony, after our emotional first look (which sucked away every drop of anxiety in my veins) and our group photos, we checked the forecast. For the next thirty minutes, the drizzle was going to cease, and for those thirty minutes only, we were going to be free from rain. But by 5 o’clock, it was going to begin again, and was not predicted to stop. Our outdoor dream ceremony was going to happen, just as we’d planned it.
Chairs were toweled off and guests pooled into our humble backyard. The next twenty minutes of our lives were transcendent. Aaron and I, surrounded by sixty of our closest friends and family, held one another’s hands and poured our hearts out, choosing readings from some of our favorites: What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, Good-bye Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson, and the song “So Many People” by Stephen Sondheim (I made it almost all the way to the end of that one without crying). Our officiant was my little brother, who led us through his beautiful, rowdy, hilarious, and moving ceremony. We shared our handwritten vows. As we walked back down the aisle to the front yard, our parents, siblings, and every bridal party member in the processional followed us down, and one by one, surrounded us in a giant group hug, everyone laughing and crying tears of joy. We hugged so hard, my dress ripped a little.
It was the happiest moment of my life.
As dinner ended and speeches were set to begin, along came a massive gust of wind, shaking the tent—and with a crash, a tree snapped at its base and its massive branch came piercing through the roof of the tent, straight to the table below. The tent sagged to the side, weighed down by the mighty tree. Without hesitation, guests rolled up their sleeves, came to the side of the tree, and heaved the tree out of the tent and into the woods. Everyone burst into cheers and applause.
My fear of everyone’s judgments was quickly overruled by overwhelming relief: Everyone was all right and no one was injured. Had the wind blown a little harder or the rain fallen a different direction, that tree could have fallen in just the wrong way, and someone could have been seriously hurt. My brother grabbed the mic and said, “Hey, it’s a woodland-themed wedding. What did we expect?” My uncle shouted, “No one worry, the butter tarts are safe!” “Hey, trees gotta dance, too!” another person shouted, inciting raucous laughter from everyone in attendance.
And just like that, complete strangers embraced togetherness. No one even gave a shit about the tree.
The rain, the oddness, and perhaps the danger of it all, brought everyone together in ways I could not have imagined. Sure, the sign I’d made directing folks where to park had blown over in the storm. Vases had blown sideways, sending water all over the tables. Meticulously coiffed hair had blown out in the wind. I had only painted half my nails. The caterers forgot to bring water for the guests. And sure, had that tree fallen a little harder or a little faster, our dear Eric Rinker might have spent the rest of our wedding in the hospital (*cringe*). But despite all the negative chaos, none of it ended up mattering one bit.
Every soul there beamed with joy. As our officiant, my brother wrote and performed the most moving ceremony I’d ever witnessed, that elicited as many tears as it did laughs (which is no easy task—as a wedding photographer, I have seen many ceremonies). By the reception, friends and family who had arrived tucked awkwardly into suits and dresses threw their cares into the wind, tossing their neckties onto the tables, donning oversized hoodies over their dresses, and cuddling up in blankets. We yanked branches off the fallen tree and danced with them on the dance floor. Friends hashtagged photos with #diyskylight. The speakers nearly blew out during our circle pit to Andrew W.K.’s “Party Hard.” Bridesmaids snuck extra wine bottles into their sweatshirts. Friends who had joked about bringing umbrella hats in case of rain actually brought them, inspiring my brother and me to bust out all the ridiculous hats we own. Folks slow-danced in the rain to Notorious B.I.G. and ran barefoot through the puddles. Guests who’d entered as complete strangers exchanged friend requests, phone numbers, and promises to visit when they’re in from out of state. Some family members even squashed longstanding beef. Everyone hugged and cried and sang and danced, and celebrated the extraordinary love Aaron and I have for one another. Two families became one. And Aaron and I were again reminded what incredibly lucky individuals we are.
Love can do all of this.
For weeks following our wedding, my eyes would well with tears just thinking about how incredible our wedding day was. We received message after message from friends and family who longed to go back to that day, who shared how welcomed and at-home they’d felt, how it was one of the most loving celebrations they’d ever witnessed.
A wedding free of convention and comfort and cliché isn’t something that should be feared. It should be embraced.
For me, a wedding photographer, the unpredictability, togetherness, and sheer beauty of our wedding day ended up shaping how I view my couples, their weddings, and my business: the importance of preparedness, the importance of pure, raw moments, a thankfulness for the trust my clients place in me, and it made me so grateful for my own photographer, Heather. And mostly, the abandonment of the idea of a “perfect” wedding. Beautiful isn’t a centerpiece you place on a table, and it surely isn’t that DIY project you spent so much time on. I promise you: beautiful is what happens. Embrace what happens, whatever that is, and I promise you, your day will be beyond perfect.