Almost two weekends ago, I married my goddaughter.
This is neither a confession of near-incest nor a rant for same-sex marriage, although I certainly support the latter and unquestionably oppose the former. Far more benignly, I was the officiant when Laura married Brian at a loving, outdoor ceremony in the rustic splendor of the Berkshire Mountains. For them, it was a life-changing – life-beginning – event, one that they had planned precisely and executed perfectly. For me, it was a delicious surprise – a life-affirming moment that reinforced the equal value of two otherwise conflicting pillars of our society: ancient ritual, and the modern right to challenge it.
I’m here to endorse both. In reverse order.
First, the defiance – in this case, a gentle push against the norm that is reflected in the personae of two extraordinary young people. While both Laura and Brian are certifiable flower children — sensitive, eco-friendly earthlings who would rather be barefoot and hang out with their dogs than don high heels and a tie to tie the knot – they are also totally grounded professionals, committed to their careers and their passions with astonishing equanimity. When they asked me to officiate at their wedding, it was less about rebellion than comfort; less about the logistics of uniting a Jew and a Christian in a secular way (plenty of clergy could have done that) than about their wish to make it happen with someone they knew and trusted. According to Brian, it was the first instance in their planning when “tradition, ritual or any ‘ism’ immediately lost out to our wants.”
Turns out, they’re not alone. The numbers are small, but plenty of articles and anecdotal evidence confirm the growing interest in non-traditional marriages. That is, marriages performed by people who are not rabbis, priests, ministers, judges or otherwise ordained by church or law school. Thanks to the Internet, the trail from justice of the peace to member (or friend) of the family is just a click away.
My accreditation came from the couple’s home state – specifically, the Massachusetts governor’s office, which supplied the application online and then asked me only to explain (in two lines) why I wanted to be certified; to give the full and proper names of the bride and groom, and the date and site of the event; and to attach a letter of reference. Honestly, a total stranger could have vetted me, that’s how closely they checked. But the point was admirably clear: if the couple wants you to do this, it’s fine with us. A few weeks and $25 later, I got my certificate of solemnization, making me the wedding’s official solemnizer, an archaic term that I’ve been dining out on for months.
Laura and Brian didn’t care what I was called, as long as it was happening. Like many modern couples, they just wanted to do it their way; to control, for this biggest moment of their lives, the ceremony that would cement their union.
But make no mistake, they also wanted the ceremony.
And that’s the other part of my revelation. For all our desire and need to operate outside the box, for all our aversion to authority and (cue rolling of eyes) custom, we seem not only to want it, but to need it, especially on such a significant day.
And so I prepared, mindful of their request to keep it non-denominational and brief. Please, Lynn, very brief. I thought about how honored I’d been to be named Laura’s godmother 33 years earlier, and how I hadn’t known exactly what it meant. Historically, godparents were in charge of the child’s religious education. But Laura’s parents took care of that, and so my job evolved into providing her lots of presents, and a few trips with just the two of us. It was a fine way to grow close. But now I understood yet another meaning of godmother. It meant, I joked at the ceremony, that I got to play God, or goddess, on this critical day of their lives. I got to make it happen. And while I claim no special insight into marriage, and certainly not the wisdom of Athena, I’ve had something even better: a marriage defined by unconditional love. Which, after all the inevitable tears and tensions of any relationship, really, really helps keep it together.
I don’t mean to suggest that five minutes online compares with years of study at divinity school or on the bench, or that one individual’s happy experience trumps the caring and concern of a lifetime of dealing with congregations. I’m not the right solemnizer for everyone, which is a good thing, since I was authorized for that date and that place and those two individuals only. If you want my services, you’re too late. But on that particular Saturday evening, in nature’s church, the faith of the bride and groom in their family, their friends, their planet, and, yes, the ritual of the ages, were deeply moving. I’ve made a lot of speeches before many audiences. This one was especially rapt.
I said a few words about each, shared a few thoughts about marriage, included a special poem or two to make it more eloquent. Then they recited the vows they’d written themselves – more independence, but the same wonderful sacrament – and exchanged rings. And when I solemnized – pronounced them husband and wife – Brian stepped on the glass (don’t ask; it was their choice) and looked at me pleadingly: Now can I kiss her?
The sun shone a halo around Laura’s garlanded head, the brook babbled, the birds sang, the towering maples rustled ever so slightly, and the parents of both wept with deep happiness. So did the solemnizer.
It was done. They were one.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned that neither had heard much of what I’d said, that they were probably staring at me from anxiety and exhaustion; and that only when I promised I’d email them the document with the text did they relax. Sort of. Laura kept saying there was something more we had to do, something else to sign. Wait! She ran to the car and retrieved the official document from the clerk’s office. I filled in the blanks with black ink and signed my name, and finally, she totally and fully exhaled.
Authority matters. Ceremony, too. But both need the fresh blood of new ideas. Weddings have always been family affairs, with brides carrying on traditions by borrowing something to carry down the aisle or by wearing something old in addition to that beautiful dress.
Today the whole community may be asked to replace the church – witnessing, weeping, cheering, and occasionally officiating at even the most individualistic ceremony. It’s not either/or. I was a solemnizer for just 24 hours, but I’ll be a gift-giving godmother forever. Both make my resumé richer. And by choosing both – balancing the requirements of society with what they wanted – Laura and Brian have, I hope, secured their happiness for generations to come. If you can wear a white dress in the middle of the woods, you can probably do anything.
Author and journalist Lynn Sherr’s latest book is SWIM: Why We Love the Water