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June 16, 1990

In honor of celebrating 21 years of happy marriage with my sweet husband, Tim, I thought I’d post the story of our wedding. Talk about a comedy of errors! But something went right since we’ve lasted this long together.

I wrote this a few years ago and then set it aside and never did anything with it, and it’s a little rough and rambling. If I had all day, I’d edit it, but umm, I don’t. So here it is in its raw form for anyone who cares to read it and have a laugh.

(And if you want to read more adventures with Sarah & Tim, you can read about our flash flood adventure while we celebrated our 20th last June here.)

On the afternoon of my wedding day I watched my friend Maria sitting in the meadow – on the very spot that we were scheduled to utter our vows in 30 minutes – busily stitching together my wedding dress. The multiple pieces of deep green silk were by this time mostly assembled, skirt and bodice were attached with only the bell-like cap sleeves remaining, but Maria furrowed her brow as she carefully sewed on the zipper. Mistake number one: hiring a friend to make your wedding dress.

Later, I stood on the grassy knoll gazing into the warm brown eyes of my soon-to-be husband. As the chords from my sister’s guitar warbled into the still afternoon air, we clasped hands and sang a Sufi love song with the assembled guests. As we drew another breath to sing the chorus, Tim’s eyes slid over the crowd.

“Where’s my Mom going?” he hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

I looked up to see Mary Ellen’s white bouffant bobbing with each angry shake of her head as she stalked up the makeshift aisle towards the parking lot. We both stared, song forgotten, as she disappeared from sight. Flies buzzed around the small cloud of dust her hasty retreat had stirred up.

“Should I go after her?” Tim muttered, as I smiled out at the crowd and sang a line from the song along with the group.

Sage smoke billowed from the altar –a folding table adorned with a colorful cloth, candles, flowers, quartz crystals, statues and shells – and I barely heard the words of Melanie, my psychic teacher and chosen wedding officiater, as the song ended and she began to bless our union. Although we’d prepped his mom about what to expect, explaining that we’d chosen to be married outdoors rather than in a church, it appeared that our alternative ceremony was a little too offbeat for her Catholic sensibilities.

I scanned the faces trying to locate my father, who had recently been born again. Finally I spotted him standing to the side of the crowd, eyes rolled up to the heavens, silently mouthing prayers for our forgiveness. Melanie raised her velvet-robed arms in invocation while crystals sparkled behind her, catching the last threads of afternoon sun. A gentle breeze blew rose petals across the altar.

There we awkwardly stood, trying to ignore our disapproving parents, I in my simple green silk dress and Tim in a poorly fitted suit made of grey Irish tweed. I’d never seen him in a suit before, and it looked a little incongruous with his long black ponytail trailing behind. Unmatched folding chairs held guests wearing party dresses and pressed pants, while others sprawled out on the grass in tie dye t-shirts and shorts. The scores of children who hadn’t plopped themselves in the front seats chased each other, screeching, through the crowd.

Although it’s coming up on 20 years, I still run into acquaintances who wax poetic over what fun they had at our wedding. “That was the party of the decade,” they might exclaim, while I roll my eyes.

It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time – this unconventional wedding plan. After spending my early 20’s living for months at a time on a commune in the remote mountains of Northern California, growing my own food, running around with my toddler on my back as I hauled water to hand wash the diapers, I considered myself a free spirit. When the time came to plan my wedding, the traditional ingredients – white dresses, churches, and waxy bouquets from the florist just weren’t part of my vision. But inside my hippie rebel self existed a kernel of conventionality, vestiges of the little girl who dreamed of an elaborate wedding while dressing Barbie dolls in frothy white gowns.

And so hatched the plan for a hybrid hippie wedding. We’d have bridesmaids and groomsmen, I’d walk down an aisle, we’d have a receiving line and we’d feed each other wedding cake. But we’d hire our seamstress friends to sew our wedding outfits and our psychic and her husband to officiate at the wedding – how fitting that a happily married couple should pronounce us man and wife, we thought. We’d get married outdoors, in the cathedral of Mother Nature. My 6-year-old daughter would be the flower girl, and his 7-year-old nephew carry the ring down the aisle on a pillow – but we’d let him dress in a bear suit, since he misunderstood when we told him he could be the ring bearer and thought that the job involved dressing as a bear.

It never occurred to me that I would need ushers at an informal outdoor wedding. That is, until I stood at the altar and realized that the first six rows of folding chairs were occupied by squirming little kids, some of whom I didn’t even recognize. I spotted my 85-year-old grandfather and his wife who’d been relegated to seats several rows back. Hatless in the relentless June sun, my grandfather smiled resolutely as he held up his cherished video camera. Beside him, his wife Marge frowned, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on her heavily made-up brow as she tapped her high-heeled shoe into the hard-packed dirt. Her elaborate hairdo already showed signs of unraveling in the unruly breezes.

Oops, Mistake Number Two – no matter how informal a wedding, have a plan for your loved ones to get ringside seats.

We’d both agreed that we wanted our wedding to be a grand celebration, a party that would take its place in the annals of party history. It would be a chance to celebrate with our hundreds of friends and their children, and to introduce our alternative lifestyle and unique Northern California community to our families, who hailed from the East Coast (mine – snooty and status-conscious,) and Southern Minnesota (his – good Midwestern farming stock.)

I had never heard of a Wedding Planner, had no clue that weddings were supposed to feature specific “colors,” and I didn’t have the slightest inkling of how to go about organizing such a celebration. Since my mother had passed away several years before, and my disapproving father lived on the opposite coast, I was on my own. Our first task was to find a venue – where would we hold this unique event? As lapsed Catholics, neither of us wanted a church. No. We preferred the cathedral of the great Outdoors. Since we lived in one of the most beautiful regions on the planet, we had a plethora of places from which to choose – from ancient redwood groves to rocky cliffs jutting out over the frothing Pacific.

Other considerations had to be factored in, however. Since Tim grew up with ten siblings his extended family numbered close to the triple digits. And I wanted to invite the cousins, aunts and uncles scattered around the country that I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. And we had A LOT of friends. In short, we needed a place that could contain a crowd of gargantuan proportions. Additionally, we decided, this party could not be limited to a mere few hours, and the amount of champagne and other alcoholic libations we planned to supply might preclude our guests from driving anywhere. A camp-out wedding posed the ideal solution. But, where?

With the help of some well-meaning friends, we found the perfect location nestled in the nearby mountains and fir trees, just out of the coastal fog that threatened to put a chill damper on our June wedding. ‘Three Creeks’ operated as a Macrobiotic Camp and featured a kitchen, plenty of room for tent sites, and some outlying cabins. A country motel just five miles down the highway could house my elderly grandfather and other relatives who threw up their hands in horror at the mere mention of camping.

The dress presented another dilemma. Although I neither cared to wear, nor could afford, a traditional white wedding gown, I didn’t want to don an off-the-rack formal dress from Gunny Sax either. I hit upon the idea of hiring my old friend, Maria Moondance, to sew a dress of my own design. Eleven years older than I, Maria had always been someone I looked up to. A single mother of three, she had carved a niche and a living for herself by creating the “Oregon Hoody Shirt,” a soft velour garment embroidered with her trademark “feather stitch.” Maria made a living selling her work at crafts fairs, she made dresses, tunics, and trousers in addition to the top-selling hoody shirt. Sewing everything by hand, she supported her three boys and lived a life of creativity, adventure, and spirit in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. I’d shared a house with Maria for about a year when my daughter was a baby. During that year she taught me much about spontaneity, about motherhood, and about alternative lifestyles. She tried to teach me sewing as well, but my fumbling fingers refused to perfect the featherstitch.

So back to my first mistake: it involved choosing a dress pattern that included a fitted bodice – an element that was not featured in any of the garments Maria made. Or perhaps my mistake was forgetting what an unbridled free spirit my friend was. Never bound by rules and conventions, Maria did not even pretend to play the game of mainstream society. While I owned a business and attempted to walk the fine line between the straight world, and my unconventional community, Maria was firmly ensconced in the counterculture. At the time of my wedding she lived about 300 miles away and e-mail had yet to be invented. We communicated about the dress over the phone. I chose a deep green raw silk and we mailed swatches back and forth. When I mailed her the pattern I had chosen, she neglected to mention any concerns about its design – that is until about two weeks before the wedding.

To compare our wedding budget to a shoestring would be generous – it more closely resembled an almost transparent strand of beading thread. Parental contributions consisted of a $500 donation from my father, who was already shuddering at the thought of an outdoor California wedding. Since neither of us had well-paying jobs, we had to get extremely creative in our planning. We turned to our friends who were happy to volunteer their services in lieu of gifts – catering service, flowers, photography, music, a keg of home-brewed beer, and of course the dress.

Mistake Number Three (and a word of caution for brides-to-be):  Do not depend on free services for your wedding! It took about half a decade for me to appreciate the humor in the series of wedding snafus that ensued.

After visiting a few local jewelers, we both decided that expensive rings were a waste of money. Tim insisted he would never wear his ring after the ceremony since, as a landscaper, he worked outside in the dirt all day long. We purchased simple, inexpensive rings, mine in sterling silver with my favorite semi-precious stone – an amethyst – and his a plain silver band that I think set us back all of $8.00. I spent the next five years cursing that decision since Tim, contrary to his imaginings, never took that ring off. Every time I looked at his finger I saw one of those tabs on a beer can.

The first inkling of the imminent dress disaster came when Maria called two nights before the wedding to report she was stuck in Grants Pass, Oregon, with a broken down car and barely any money. I had arranged for her to arrive several days in advance when I realized that she needed to do a fitting for the bodice. I wanted plenty of time for dress fittings and to complete the sewing. In my daydreams I even imagined my former mentor helping with all the last-minute details in the wedding arrangements. But another crisis had prevented her timely departure (how could I have forgotten that Maria always flew by the seat of her pants and such crises dogged her every move?)

Now this car breakdown threatened to destroy my brilliant strategy. How could I get married without a dress?

“Can’t you find a ride!?” I entreated. “What about the bus?”

Neither of us owned a credit card so the options were slim. Meanwhile, out-of-town relatives were arriving and booking into local hotels. Visions of spending my wedding morning at the Mall searching for a suitable outfit flashed through my mind.

Friday, the eve of the wedding, arrived and still no Maria. My hands finally stopped wringing when she called that afternoon to say she was on her way. I left for the rehearsal dinner determined to enjoy the evening and to ignore the prospect that I might be forced to walk down the aisle in my slip. I managed to pretend the crisis didn’t exist as our relatives toasted their way through the dinner, and Tim even got some giggles out of me when he pointed out the surreptitious efforts of my aunt to spike her own and my grandfather’s drinks with little airplane bottles of gin.

When we pulled into our driveway at around 11 p.m. I almost cheered at the sight of Maria’s battered beige station wagon. She’d made it! But as we entered the house, babbling and laughing with the warmth of the wine, Maria took one look at the handsome face and thick silver hair of Tim’s older brother, Steve, and immediately turned her full attention to the pursuit. Oh no! I had forgotten my friend’s weakness for good-looking men.

“Maria!” I pleaded, “The dress!” I looked over at the clock as the hands neared midnight. Sixteen hours until the ceremony. Reluctantly she dragged herself away from Steve’s charming smile, picked up her sewing bag, and followed me into the bedroom.

My eyes widened with disbelieving horror when I saw what she pulled from the bag. My wedding dress was an assortment of pieces!

“Don’t worry,” Maria shrugged unconcernedly, and winked at me. “I’m fast. I’ll get it done, you’ll see!”

My heart sank even further as I slipped the bodice of the dress over my head. It didn’t fit!

“No problem, no problem,” she reassured me in her trilling tones. “That’s why I had to wait to finish it – I couldn’t put it all together until I knew it would fit.” With a maddening slow concentration, she began to pin the fabric around my torso.

Although my eyes drooped with the exhaustion of long days of wedding preparation, combined with the evening of entertaining relatives over rich food and copious glasses of wine, I needed to stay awake for more and more fittings until the bodice fitted my frame with grace. I finally crawled into bed at 3:30 a.m., setting the alarm for 7 and wondering if that would give me enough time to get everything together in the morning.

On the morning of my wedding day I poured coffee, smiled, and played the good hostess to the droves of visiting friends and in-laws who had chosen to stay at our house. All the while I wondered when the hell Maria would get up and finish my dress. A short time later I left her sipping organic tea from a ceramic mug and chatting up Steve, my stomach twisting with the memory of our rather disconcerting conversation.

“What time is the wedding, anyway,” she had asked.

“Four o’clock,” I responded, looking meaningfully at the clock.

“Oh, four o’clock? We’re fine then,” she tossed her braid and let out a little trilling laugh while glancing over to see if Steve was looking. ”These things never start on time.”

My protestations – that this was a little different than a regular party that our relatives expected a wedding to start when the invitation indicated – didn’t make a dent to her serene smile.

After winding through the mountain roads for 45 minutes, I arrived at Three Creeks around noon. I parked by the kitchen cabin where our caterer friends were at work in the preparation of the wedding feast. Upon opening the door I was greeted with a cacophony of cheers, hoots and howls, laughter and drum rolls. Steam roiled from the great pots on the stove and I looked from face to glowing face in utter confusion. The yells and cheering continued, rising to a deafening roar. Comprehension dawned when I spotted the empty bottle of Bombay Sapphire flanked by more empty bottles of tonic water. The party had begun. Without the bride. It was just past noon and the catering crew was blasted.

Much, much later (the dress finally complete and hastily slipped on at about 5:45 p.m.– after every guest had gotten an eyeful of Maria hard at work on its construction), I started down the aisle, arm in arm with my father while electric organ music filled the air. The assembled guests erupted into cheers, whistles, hoots and applause. Somehow I didn’t think this was a normal response to such a solemn moment. I dared not look left nor right as I concentrated on keeping my steps even with my father’s and we slowly advanced down the pathway we’d just recently cleared. I kicked a stick out of the way as surreptitiously as possible, while my father coached me under his breath in the proper stepping technique.

“My goodness!” My aunt told me as she shook my hand in the receiving line while waving a mosquito away, “That is the curviest road I’ve ever driven on! I didn’t know if my stomach was going to make it.” I smiled weakly as I turned to the next guest who slurred his congratulations.

It wasn’t until our slightly charred meal was being served that I discovered the reason for the cheers and catcalls during my procession down the aisle. It turned out that as Maria stitched away at the dress in full view of the guests, the crowd became impatient, and when they saw the happy state of the caterers they began to demand some refreshment of their own. Obligingly, Carlos tapped the keg, and someone else pulled out the first case of champagne. By the time we cut the cake, only one case of the bubbly beverage remained to carry us through the rest of the evening.

By the time Tim’s brother Kevin tapped his glass and gave his long-winded toast as best man, I’d sipped on a few glasses myself and was beginning to feel better. Tim’s mom had reappeared and my dad seemed to be tolerating the proliferation of tie dyes rather well. It even seemed kind of cute when I stood with Tim to cut the cake and realized that we were surrounded three deep by the excited faces of dozens of children. I could barely spot my own daughter’s face in the crowd, but it was all okay.

Later when the band started up, Mary Ellen even led a line of dancers in the bunny hop in what seemed to be a peace offering gesture. But as the light waned and dusk settled on the meadow, the band members began glancing nervously at one another. No one had remembered to bring the lights. The sound guy usually took care of it, but he didn’t come because he got a paying gig at the last minute.

My throat constricted as the darkness gathered and I realized that yet another disaster was imminent. But laughter rang through the evening air and no one seemed to notice or care. Full night fell and the crowd continued to dance and cavort in the blackness, as the stars began to twinkle one by one.

March, 2011