Novelist Elizabeth Berg wonders whether a walk down the aisle helps — or hurts — a couple’s future
Many years ago, when my daughters were maybe four and nine, it was a slow summer day, and I suggested we liven things up by having a wedding. The bride and groom were teddy bears, and I went all-out for the impromptu celebration. I made a multi-tiered white cake, and when it was cooling, my girls and I went to the party store for decorations. We got the requisite white double bells to hang from the kitchen ceiling light, a lace-like plastic tablecloth, paper napkins with entwined silver hearts, and silver plastic cutlery. The bride wore a hanky veil and I believe the groom wore a nice looking vest. We may have put blush on the bride; I can’t remember if this is a true detail or if my imagination is just begging for it. But what the heck, we’re talking about a wedding between two stuffed animals over 25 years ago; let’s say we did put blush on the bride. Let’s say we put blush and lipstick on her, and that she carried a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley and white ranunculus from the garden, tied together with a length of white satin ribbon. (This last I know isn’t true, but hey.) The sudddenly-betrothed were helped to walk down a hall aisle which had been formalized by a runner of white paper towels.
The bears exchanged vows before the minister whom I believe might have been a stuffed animal elephant, and were made to kiss, and the three of us offered applause. Then the bears and we were seated at the decorated kitchen table where ginger ale was served in plastic champagne glasses; a most excellent (if I do say so myself) cake was served on wedding paper plates; and a good time was had by all — especially, I like to think, by the bears, who surely were beneficiaries of the most stress-free wedding in the history of the world. It’s the only wedding I’ve been to where I didn’t watch someone getting married and think, Oh god, I hope this one works.
I am struck by the number of people who have told me they got married knowing it was wrong. They walked down the aisle, Mendelssohn’s march playing second fiddle (so to speak) to brain-bound strains of “How can I be sure?” or maybe even “Stop! In the name of love.”
Do love and marriage really go together like a horse and carriage? Or is marriage the surefire way to make love grind inexorably to a halt? I’m sixty-two years old now, and I can honestly say I don’t know. I can honestly say, as does Ray LaMontagne, in his achingly beautiful song “Jolene,” “Still don’t know what love is.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t know if marriage is the right thing to do with love.
Here’s what I do know. Marriage takes an enormous amount of work, and it takes willingness and vulnerability. When I look back on my marriage, (I was married for 24 years, have now been divorced for 15 years) I have to admit I didn’t try hard enough at any of those things. I felt I was doing the wrong thing when I got married, but it seemed a better alternative to staying alone. I was twenty-five, which I thought was the right time to get married so as not to be an old maid. (Such were the times.) And anyway, my ex-husband was a great catch, a really swell guy, as the woman he’s married to now would likely confirm. But I? I was not so swell. I was always wanting something else, something I think now might have been a life lived alone.
Still, there’s one good thing that came out a marriage about which I was constantly ambivalent: my two daughters, whom I love fiercely and completely unambivalently. And who I want to succeed in love and marriage in a way that I couldn’t.
As of this writing, one daughter is married and has three children (oh, those children!) The other is in a serious relationship. Here’s the advice I have given each of them, and please withhold judgment:
To my daughter in a serious relationship, I’ve said, Look. If you’re not sure, get out. If you’re truly in love, then have the courage to truly commit. Grind you teeth and hunker down for the hard parts and say out loud — and often — that you love the good parts. Say that to each other. Keep love alive. It’s fragile. It’s needs a particular blend of oxygen and elbow grease. Give all you can to your relationship so it can give to you.
Now here comes the part where I ask you to reserve judgment. To the married daughter, I’ve said, Okay, you know what? You can’t get divorced. You can’t ever get divorced. Because you have children. If you ever feel like you want to get divorced, do what you need to do to stay together. You cannot get divorced.
I know. I know. What am I going to do if my daughter ever really does want a divorce? I’ll support her, that’s what I’ll do. But first, I’ll say, Oh, honey. Are you sure? Be so sure.
That’s something I could never be, is sure. Not in love and not in marriage. In the way of all parents, I suppose, I want better for my children. I want them to understand and embrace love in a way that seems as simple and spontaneous and a teddy bear wedding. Can they achieve that? Of course not. Will they think it’s worth constantly trying for? I hope so.
Editor’s Note: Bestselling author Elizabeth Berg’s latest novel, Once Upon a Time, There Was You, is all about love and marriage. And life.