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Going to the Chapel

Maybe it’s the humidity—short-circuiting the motherboards, triggering relays to the biological clocks or something—but among my peers it’s wedding season. And, despite some pronounced personal misgivings about the institution, it turns out that my cynicism may have faultlines. True, a struggling journalist can never have too many complimentary buffets or open bars in his life, but for a moment it seemed like there might be more to it than that.

The most recent wedding I attended, that of a grade-school friend with whom I also roomed for a while when we were both half-hearted undergrads, was a pleasant and traditional affair: white dress and black tux, church, biblical readings, banquet-hall reception with DJ. Rather than the standard stretch, the limo that delivered the bride and her maids was a block-long assault vehicle, but otherwise the component parts were all in place in recognizable form. I am, myself, however, no great lover of ritual, and there were some things about the ceremony that I couldn’t help but note as mildly disconcerting:

First, stranger as I am to the ways of Catholicism, I was struck by the incongruity between the earnestness of the promises made and the (let’s face it) falseness of the iconography amid which they were made. In short, the whiter-than-white Christ-child figurines on either side of the altar, each working a distinctly Western European medievalist look complete with auburn pageboy ’do, kind of freaked me out. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me: Maybe this is just an expression of a newish father’s neurotic fear of the very concept of an all-powerful Caucasian infant, but for a non-believer, the historical inaccuracy of the symbols sets a shaky tone. And, of course, you misogynists and ball-and-chainers can fill in your own cynical quips about the appropriateness of getting hitched beneath a statuette of a man cruelly hammered to a cross.

The vogue for wedding readings among my crowd of lapsed this-and-thats, recovering such-and-suches, agnostics, apostates, atheists, free-thinkers and freaks has settled into the multi-culti anthropological (Native American passages score high) and/or the playfully poetic (ee cummings sets a nice tone). So, I was a little unprepared for the Genesis. (If any of my crowd happens to be reading this: Not Gabriel-era Genesis. Or, rather not Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.) I guess I just thought that the anxieties already on the minds of a marrying couple might be sufficient without reminding them that they are to be masters of the beasts and the fish and the fowl, and so on. C’mon, give the kids a break. Least till they get back from Bermuda. From what I gather, somebody else is on the hook for wrangling the insects—which is a bitch of a job—but, still.

That said, it was a quaint and modest church in a picturesque, tree-thick village in Columbia County on a summer day so gorgeous it could have been whipped up by the chamber of commerce for tourist brochures. The minister was an assuring and gentle presence—he looked like an ecclesiastical Fred Rogers—and the good-will of the guests was palpable. It was, for the day, anyway, a community gathered to witness, verify and welcome a new union. At my most rock-hearted, I’d be hard-pressed not to respond. It was an almost tidal tug at emotion.

Now, it’s been a long time since I was an even peripheral member of that group. Grade-school was eons ago, and the undergraduate years were spent in a terrarium of lecture and beverage centers. I was included in the wedding by the groom’s choice as sort of a director’s-cut version of his life, and probably made little sense to some of the viewers. The groom’s mom and brothers didn’t recognize me at first—and the vast bulk of the 250 or so people wouldn’t have known me from Adam (whom, I gather, they actually know pretty well). So, my sense of the solidity of this community was necessarily part fiction. For all I knew, it might have dispelled as the congregants spilled out the center aisle onto the lawn, shaking hands down the reception line on the way to cigarettes and AC.

At the reception though, I was seated with one of the groom’s former coworkers and his family. Husband and wife and their four kids had slogged up from North Carolina—more than 10 hours—just to make the wedding. And this family’s collective charm nearly killed me.

Maybe there was some element of Yankee snobbery in my appreciation of Daddy’s references to his son as “mah boy” and to his wife as his children’s “maw-ma”—but I don’t think so. They were just so freaking nice. They were warm and funny, in general and with one another. They touched each other easily, affectionately and often. The eldest, a 15-year-old Christina Applegate doppelganger, had the most exquisitely bored expression I’ve ever seen, but she lit up with laughter when her mom playfully recalled the teenager’s exasperated reaction to the announcement of the youngest’s impending arrival: “Maw-ma, don’ you an’ Daddy know ana-thing at all ’bout birth control?”

That tide of family-feeling that I felt building at the church was at full flow. But when the married couples were solicited by the DJ to hit the floor, Daddy moved to the bar while his wife sat at the table clapping alone to the strains of the Village People’s “YMCA.”

“Are you crazy? Dance with your wife, man,” I thought in strained incredulity. “For God’s sake, you lucky sonavabitch, dance with your wife.”

But it was late and, if not for the 40-minute drive ahead of me, I might have been at the bar myself. Maybe it wasn’t all that important. Maybe it was just the humidity that had gotten to me. I hit County Route 9 and the AC, and soon enough felt like myself again.

—John Rodat

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