A few days or possibly weeks after our engagement, I told my mother over the phone. "I didn't realize you were serious about him," she said. She told me I was too young to get married.
Wedding planning was stressful and awful in many ways. What I wanted, what my mother wanted, and what Michael's mother insisted upon were very different things (Michael didn't particularly care what we did). I had been saving up for my wedding since my first job out of college. I knew if I left it until I was engaged I wouldn't have enough time to save up enough money to fund it myself. I figured since my parents wouldn't put up anything and my fiance's parents might go by the "bride's family pays" rule, I should plan to bankroll it myself. Michael and I ended up funding it together, but he was delighted by my forethought. Michael's parents ended up funding something too, but that was because they wanted to hold their own separate wedding for us over which they'd have complete control, and we told them we didn't care as long as they paid for it themselves. (They're actually lovely people. We get along really well. But if you give them an ounce of power... I didn't know the ramifications back then. It was a dark time.)
I could remember my mother badmouthing other people's weddings since I was a child. She seemed affronted whenever people served full meals at their wedding receptions. Our family weddings were usually ten minutes long and featured cake and punch at the end. No meal, no dancing, no alcohol of any kind. Just vows, cake, and go home. More than that and she accused people of being "frou-frou" and putting on airs. Michael's family considered wedding planning a competitive sport and a chance to show up other family members, as I later learned. "Ooooh, real champagne. This wedding is so much nicer than Amy's was. Isn't it?"
My ideal wedding would have been elegant and featured cocktails and rich food and dancing. There would be lots of flowers, and it would be held in the evening and go until after dark, unlike the afternoon weddings in my family. We didn't know where to start though. Michael and I lived a thousand miles away from our parents, who lived hundreds of miles away from each other. We looked at some locations near our home in New York City. They were very expensive, but they would allow me to be involved in the planning without taking undue amounts of time off from work. My mother wanted me to hold the wedding in my hometown so all the family could attend. None of my family would be willing to travel except maybe my mother. I mentioned looking at local wedding venues to my dad, and he told me he didn't care where we held the wedding, that while he couldn't travel for the wedding, he didn't have any particular desire to attend anyway. I learned later that this was a lie. He was very upset at the insinuation that I might have my wedding near my town instead of his. He had apparently wanted me to feel very strongly that I must hold the wedding close to him because his attendance was important. But he wanted me to feel more strongly about him being there than he did, and I simply did not. To be honest, I didn't want either of my parents there. I'd never tell them that though.
I knew my ideal wedding wouldn't work with my actual family. I wouldn't be comfortable getting married in front of my parents, or Michael's, for that matter. It just felt weird. Short of recasting my family, my secondary wedding of choice would have been what I called a "Kids Only" wedding. Michael's and my friends and his family members who are our contemporaries would be the only invitees. No one would judge us or say I looked fat. No one would yell at us. I wouldn't have to worry that my virgin mother would want to talk to me about the impending wedding night. It would be like eloping except with friends present. But I knew the "Kids Only" wedding wouldn't work either because our parents would be so angry at being excluded that we'd effectively trade in a few months of grief for many years of shamings.
I gave up. I told my parents we'd hold the wedding in their town. Michael's family was willing to travel. I made the mistake of telling my mother that I knew it was the only way Dad could attend, and she told me that was a terrible reason to hold the wedding there. I should have been having my wedding in their town so that my maternal grandparents could attend. Sure it's the same town and convenient to all of them, but clearly I don't love my grandparents and she was going to tell them so! She would tell them the truth about me! So that happened.
I knew my wedding was going to be a bad experience, so I decided I should at least keep it inexpensive. My mother used to complain that, when she got engaged to my dad, her father had told her, "Here's $100. Go have a wedding." They had been poor, and I guess my mother hadn't saved up anything toward her wedding in the years she'd been working, so she had had a cheap wedding. Ceremony in the church where we both grew up, cake in the church basement afterwards. I told my mother she could plan my wedding. It would be in our hometown, and I would pay for it. She had a budget of $5000 to work with. I thought this would make her happy. It was a truly terrible move on my part.
I knew $5k wasn't much for planning a wedding anymore, so I told my mother I wanted a ceremony in the church where we'd both grown up and a reception in the church basement, just like she'd had. She'd need to pick out a cake and flowers, which seemed simple enough. She'd always scorned "fancy" desserts, so I felt sure she would choose a basic cake flavor like vanilla or chocolate that wouldn't offend anyone. I didn't really care how any of it turned out. I knew I had to tell her it was great no matter what. That was how she raised me. I just didn't want anyone to yell at me anymore.
In hindsight, it seems weird that I turned the reins of wedding planning over to my mother AFTER she told me she was going to poison my grandparents against me. But then again, maybe it's not so weird. I would have done pretty much anything to avoid "getting in trouble." It didn't matter that I was a financially independent adult living a thousand miles away from my parents. I just wanted my mother to be happy and love me and not yell at me anymore.
My mother seemed excited to plan the wedding she'd never had. She immediately started looking for new venues. She found an outdoor location on a major highway in our town. I didn't want an outdoor wedding, and based on what I knew of that highway, I could only envision the local Hooters surrounded by loud traffic. I didn't want her to find a new venue. I knew every venue I'd explored cost exponentially more than the church. She said she loved the place though and wanted to fax me pictures. I asked her to send me prices. She said it didn't matter and she would pay for everything with the money she was getting from refinancing the mortgage on the house (as referenced in A List of Mom's Antics).
She demanded I fly home so I could taste cakes. I told her I trusted her to pick something. If she liked it, I'd like it. Something basic like vanilla or chocolate would be good. She said no, they have so many flavors and fruit fillings, I needed to taste them all. During this time, my mother would call me at odd hours in a variety of moods. Once she called me around 6am because she wanted to know how to fax me information about wedding venues. She said she had lost my phone number, she seemed upset at me for that, and she said she had spent the last hour calling people, waking them up, and asking if they knew how to reach me. She isn't an early riser, and I am confident she hadn't been to bed yet. Other times I would come home from work to a happy morning voicemail chattering away about wedding cakes and an afternoon voicemail calling me a ungrateful little bitch who she "didn't raise this way." I never knew what to expect. This was around the time I started drinking. It helped me stop shaking, which I had started to do every time the phone rang.
My high school friend Allie, who had declared herself maid of honor and who I was too afraid of to tell no, asked if she could help with the wedding planning. I said okay. I would divide up the planning between her and my mother, who seemed overwhelmed and increasingly mentally scattered anyway. My mother, however, was outraged at the suggestion that I might take away any of her responsibilities. She said Allie could plan the whole wedding for all she cared. She was done being treated this way. The wedding was off. She didn't raise me to be this ungrateful. Allie took over attempts at planning for a little while, but it didn't get any easier. I couldn't handle it anymore. I was afraid of both women, and I just wanted it all to be over. I put the entire wedding on hold for almost a year. When I felt ready to approach it again, I looked up wedding planners online and called one whose gallery of wedding photos looked nice. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
Wedding planning changed dramatically as soon as I talked to my wedding planner, Lisa. She was polite, easy going, and knew how to plan an event. Her taste was similar to mine, as evidenced by the photos on her website, so I basically just gave her some pictures and ideas of things I liked and she showed me what she thought we should do. I usually agreed. Easy. Fun. All the leg work was hers, and she didn't yell at me once. "Are you really this easy?" she would ask when I agreed with her choices or trusted her professional judgment on something. "This is unreal." Lisa was a godsend. She even helped me with my parents.
The wedding ended up being much more expensive and much more elegant than what I'd previously planned, but we had enough saved up. It was more like my "ideal wedding" scenario except with my family present. There was an open bar, dinner, an elaborate tiered cake, dancing, and even chair covers, which inexplicably cost $800 to rent for the night but really brought the rooms together. Allie was a musician and remained in charge of the ceremony music, which was coincidentally the biggest source of stress for me in all the wedding planning.
I knew I had no control over my mother's behavior -- or anyone's but my own -- so I set myself two manageable goals for the wedding day:
- I would be a happy, gracious bride. I didn't have to actually enjoy the day or "be fully present" or anything tricky like that. I just didn't want to give anyone cause to say I was "being a bridezilla" or to talk smack about me. If someone talked smack about me, I wanted their listeners to be able to look over at me, see me smiling and happy and thanking everyone for coming, and think that the other person was unnecessarily being an asshole; and
- Be legally married by the end of it.
My husband and I made a few contingency plans in case my mother tried something at the wedding. In addition to the wedding planner, who would keep my newly divorced parents away from each other, I enlisted two close friends and bridesmaids to act as a buffer between my mother and me. If my mother tried to engage me in a lengthy conversation, scream at me, cry at me, or do anything that might be hard for me to cope with at my own wedding, they would step in. They would engage her in conversation, invent a reason I was needed elsewhere, and allow me to extricate myself gracefully.
We also needed a contingency plan in case my mother faked a heart attack. I've posted here before about my mother faking a heart attack while I was home on break from college and on the phone with my boyfriend (now husband). Because I think there is a decent chance she faked that heart attack because I was paying attention to my boyfriend instead of her, I was very concerned she might fake another one at our wedding. What then? We'd be out thousands of dollars and still unmarried at the end of the day. Being married was one of my two goals for the entire day. If I ignored her or said, "It's okay, everyone, she's just faking!" I'd look completely heartless, regardless of if I was right. Looking like a happy, gracious bride was my only other goal for the day, so I couldn't very well act like a harpy. "Canceled wedding" and "heartless daughter" both sounded like outcomes my mother would potentially consider a win, so we enlisted more help. Fortunately, quite a few of my husband's and my friends from college are doctors. Two different doctors volunteered to leap to my mother's aid in the event of a fake heart attack or other unforeseen ailment, give her a quick once over, call out to the room, "It's okay, everyone! Carry on with the wedding! She's in good hands!" and remove her from the premises for further care. Should anyone present insist on halting the wedding for her, the doctors would insist that we carry on, so we would. Doctors' orders.
My mother called me to RSVP for the wedding. I hadn't heard from her in awhile. She sounded good. Feeble, but not angry. I think she'd been depressed. I think that was usually what prompted her to stop calling me for weeks at a time. We had a pleasant exchange. There was lightness in her voice, like she was trying for me, almost like I wasn't her offspring at all. She warned me she wouldn't look good at the wedding. "You always look good to me, Mommy," I said, which made my skin crawl, but I felt it was expected of me. She told me about all the gifts she'd bought me to take on my honeymoon. She said she had packed an oversized suitcase full of bathrobes and slippers and massage oils and heart-shaped things she had found in the Target dollar aisle.
She said her parents wouldn't be attending my wedding. My grandfather hadn't attended a wedding in decades, and she said my grandma didn't want to embarrass me with how poorly she gets around. I insisted she wouldn't -- embarrassing me with someone else's poor mobility is not a thing that has ever existed -- but I'm sure my insistence was moot. I don't know why my grandmother wouldn't attend -- maybe my mother had successfully turned her against me, or she was self-conscious, or there weren't enough able-bodied people to accompany both her and my mother to the wedding, or Grandpa didn't let her out of the house anymore, or she didn't want to be out in public with my mother -- but I'm confident any reason my mother gave me would be one she'd contrived herself for her own purposes. Historically, her purposes tended to be guilt or alienation.
Michael and I flew to my hometown a few days before the wedding. They have a waiting period for marriage licenses there, so we put the extra days to good use and spent our time swimming at the hotel pool and relaxing. The stress still managed to run me down, and I fell physically ill like I had for my high school graduation. My dad was delivered from the hospital across the state two days before my wedding. I spent the day with him, taking him out to lunch and to pick up his tux and rented shoes for the wedding. It was a difficult day, but I don't remember how much was from being with him and how much was from being sick and exhausted and wishing I could be asleep. I remember him mostly being nice, but it was still unexpectedly hard spending the day with him in person. He knew I was sick, but he wanted me to accompany him to his haircut too. I didn't say no. I was afraid I'd make him mad at me. This seems to have been a major theme throughout my life up to that point.
I was taken aback when I saw my mother at the wedding. One of her younger brothers had brought her and was pushing her in a wheelchair. She had lost about 80 lbs from starving herself and sleeping all day in the months leading up to and surrounding her divorce, and she said she had trouble walking (as detailed in More Motherly Antics). What the doctors called muscle atrophy from her months of staying in bed -- cured with some regular exercise over time, they assured her -- she insisted was an undiagnosed degenerative disease that would soon leave her bedbound like my dad. Hence the wheelchair. She wore an old knit pair of pants and top that she used to wear to the laundromat when I was younger. Her hair was greasy, not just at the roots but all the way through, as though she hadn't washed it in weeks. She wore no shoes. She looked twenty years older than the last time I'd seen her, she was wild-eyed, and I also had a sort of visceral fear reaction to her at that point from the years of random screaming phone calls and voice mails.
I shut away all my thoughts and put on my happy mask. My in-laws were there in their evening finery, along with the wedding party and almost everyone else. I knew my mother stood out. I knew my in-laws, who had never met her before, would ask Michael what was wrong with her. If anyone had asked me, I would have smiled sadly and said in a quiet, rueful voice, "She's severely mentally ill. She refuses any kind of treatment. It's really good to see her though," and silently dared anyone to judge me. I was the gracious, happy bride, dammit. No one asked though. I think they could tell.
I hugged my mother and thanked her for coming. I treated her the way a happy, gracious bride would treat her loving mother. It was a part in a play. She smiled and told me I looked beautiful. If there was more to the exchange than that, I don't remember it. My uncle wheeled her away while I greeted other guests. I don't know what my uncle thought of that day. I remember he wore jeans as he always had and he didn't smile, not even in the photos. He was never an overly cheerful guy, but he used to smile and laugh with family. I don't know if my mother had poisoned him against me as she had promised to do with her parents or if he just didn't want to be there. I also know now that he had a cocaine problem, in addition to his diagnosed mental illness. He died the next year of a heart attack. He was barely fifty.
My dad got lost on the way to the wedding. The ceremony and reception were held in our hometown, but I hadn't lived there since I was a teenager, so I didn't know driving directions particularly well. My dad had lived there almost his entire life, but he got lost, so he called me from his van, screaming to give him directions from his current, unknown location. I remember standing in the parking lot in my wedding gown and veil, fighting back tears, trying to orient myself in such a way that I could somehow help him and make him stop yelling at me. I thrust my phone at the wedding planner and begged her to help. Wedding planners are amazing. I assume she was able to give my dad directions or at least talk him through his period of lostness (our town isn't that big, he would have found the venue eventually), but the most important thing she did was deflect the screaming from me while I composed myself.
Most of my extended family members didn't attend, even tables full of cousins and their children who had RSVPed "yes." I don't know why. Maybe they do that with all weddings. A few of my favorite cousins came though -- Uncle Charles's children -- even one who had to travel to be there. They even gave us wedding gifts. I was very touched and happy to see them.
None of the contingency plans surrounding my mother ended up being necessary. She behaved perfectly. No fake heart attacks, no loud pronouncements of who would be a more appropriate match for her daughter, as she had made at my college graduation. As my husband and I stood outside the reception hall waiting for the wedding planner to cue us for our grand entrance as a married couple, my mother and her brother were leaving. She has a long history of leaving events early, but not usually quite that early. She took me aside and said something nice. I don't remember what it was. "Beautiful ceremony," maybe. She was crying, and I'm not sure why. That's the part I remember. Maybe they were happy tears, but she was never the type for those, and it seemed she was crying hard. My thought at the time was that she was upset I'd foiled her attempt to make me look like a terrible daughter who didn't take enough care of her mother to ensure she was bathed and properly dressed. Maybe I don't give her enough credit. Or maybe she was too high to be that self-aware. She did appear to be high. I said something nice back, and then they left. I never spoke to either of them again.
The reception was beautiful. I accomplished my two goals for the day, and I even had a good time dancing and talking with my friends and family. I also have photographic evidence of the last time I saw my mother. No one can convince me she wasn't wild-eyed or that I'm remembering it all wrong. I have the pictures to prove it, and my closest friends were witnesses. No more gaslighting me that she is really okay or that the real problems are all my own. For all these reasons, I consider my wedding a win.
*Not his real name.