Confessions of a wedding soloist
The great feminist revolution notwithstanding, weddings remain the sole province of women. I know. I've watched weddings stealthily for years—hidden behind great palm fronds, tucked furtively into the shadows cast by huge pipe organs, or concealed in an out-of-the-way corner of a choir loft.
I solo at weddings. I have for years. No one sees weddings like I do. Not the minister, who acts as the quarterback; not the photographer, who's constantly searching out his own angles; not even the janitor, who's worried about balloon-sized stains of cherry punch on his fellowship hall carpet. I perform, usually twice—in all those years and all those church weddings, I've become, like it or not, something of a scholar.
And let me tell you, weddings belong to women. I've seen ceremonies stall for ten excruciating minutes for a hoop skirt that wouldn't hang or a veil that messed hair or a train that wouldn't flow like a perfect southern breeze. I've watched nervous organists run through Purcell's "Trumpet Voluntary" five and six times, their fingers at wits end over the keys, their vacant eyes desperately searching over a gaggle of craned necks for a cloud of white at the back of the church.
And with all those solos, I don't know that I've ever seen anything but a beautiful bride, no matter how late she appears, no matter how silly the ring bearers who precede her up the aisle, no matter what kind of theatrics the flower girls pull—cry or laugh or balk. I've seen entire crowds of relatives and friends forget the antic petal-strewers in a flash once the bride in all her splendor moves up the aisle on her father's arm, the groom waiting eagerly at the altar.
I've never been exactly sure why women cry at that moment, even though I know the feeling because, sometimes, I choke it back myself. Part of it is joy, I'm sure, at the happiness of the day—at the ritual, the public intimacy, the spotlight beaming on two lovers' confession of love. All over the church, women cry. I see them. Mothers especially.
But sometimes I think the tears are borne from sadness, too, a sadness we all feel at life's transience. This wonderful moment, everybody knows, will not last; and we cry—women, and men too, if only inside—because we know there is, for these two lovers in front of us, so much left to learn. Life will never again be quite this ceremonially perfect.
Which is not to say that weddings are always perfect. I've watched several husbands-to-be faint into sodden lumps in the arms of their agonized brides. I've seen them lean backwards slowly, then fall heavily as a mountain pine. I've seem them drop to their knees as if shot, then slowly gather their strength, their eyes struggling with their own shame in semi-delirium.
But I've never seen a bride fall—not once, even though I've heard it happens. Brides don't fall because they know it's their day. They wouldn't miss it for the world.
It's usually the groom who weakens. I once sang something from Simon and Garfunkel at a wedding where both bride and groom had arranged to memorize their own homegrown vows. At practice the night before, neither of them could remember a word of those vows—but then, wedding rehearsals always deteriorate into madness. We assumed they'd do fine the next day. But the next afternoon, when the preacher looked at the groom and gave him the signal, the groom's eyes fishtailed through an empty mind, and there were no words, nowhere.
"Brian!" the bride said. Already her eyes were watery.
He shrugged his shoulders.
She wasn't aware of the microphone. "Just make something up," she whispered to everyone.
So he did. He stammered, looked around, pulled at his cuff. His bride bit her lip. The preacher nodded again, rifling through his inside pocket as if to locate an antidote.
"Debby," he said, fidgeting slightly, "I love you more than anything in the world." (Slightly cliched, I thought, but well meant.) "I want you to marry me," he said, and his eyes rolled as if he'd recognized the redundancy the very moment it had escaped his lips. "I mean, you know what I mean. I mean, I can't remember exactly what I'm supposed to say here but I won't ever be happy without you in my life. I know that. Geez, do I know that. And I want it to be forever, too. You know that too."
Once he got into it, he went on for five minutes. I thought they'd probably cut my solo.
"I guess I said it all," he said finally. "I really mean it all too—I do." He said it right into her eyes, and the whole crowd sniffled with abandon.
Of course, the bride had no choice but to do some improvising of her own, and the only person left exasperated was the preacher, who wondered whether what they'd said had touched all the theological bases. I was pretty sure he would discourage "homegrown" vows in the future.
When it was over, the groom kissed the bride so ferociously that I wondered whether he'd stifle his passion sufficiently to cut the wedding cake later on.
In this wedding, as in most weddings, the bride did most of the planning. But the groom helped her pick out the music. I gathered that he fancied himself somewhat of a classical musician, though he could have fooled me by his choices. Through the years, I've sung more pop schlock than you could find on some malt shop's old fifties juke box.
Years ago, it was "Because," complete with a dramatic gesture or two that put half the audience into a swoon. After that came Peter Stuckey's "Wedding Song," with lyrics no one understood and a melody that camped so long on one note any monotone with even limited stage presence could have accomplished what I did.
I sang that song once as the bride and groom knelt together before her father, the preacher. She'd been a corker herself, as I remember, something of a headache from age seven already; and she was marrying her husband in a condition that made kneeling somewhat difficult—a condition her father, I'm sure, would have preferred she'd avoided.
I stood there and sang that folk music to the accompaniment of the groom's hippie brother, who tried desperately to pick out the air on an acoustic guitar set embarrassingly close to a mike. As the last bit of melody came from the strings, I heard a strange, foreign kind of staccato ticking. I was standing beside the preacher, in front of the couple, who were eyeing each other in a way that only wedding couples can, even if, by their actions, they've chosen to scramble somewhat the acceptable order of events in their lives.
I looked closely at the two of them—at their hands, their eyes, the way they shaped their lips into determined smiles—and I heard another tick.
I glanced at the preacher, and I realized that with both hands holding the Bible before him, he couldn't stanch the tears that ran down his cheeks and fell, one after another, on the pages of the text.
When his daughter saw him, she looked up and winked.
The preacher tightened his lips against his teeth, and he nodded a wiry but very gracious smile.
I'm not sure the word ever focused in either of their minds at that moment, but I saw their exchanged glances as perhaps the most vivid portrait of forgiveness I'd ever seen.
The groom, with the help of her father, got the bride to her feet, while I escaped behind the plants at the back of the stage. Then the preacher signaled for the rings from the best man, pointed at his son-in-law-to-be and at his daughter's hand, and started in on the vows.
"Wrong hand, dummy," his daughter said, and the whole church giggled. Some, I'm sure, cried again.
"The Lord's Prayer" followed the ceremony.
On other occasions I've sung I've never seen anything but a beautiful bride. Barbara Streisand and "Banis Angelicus," six versions at least of "The Song of Ruth," and "Endless Love" more often than I care to count.
I hate to admit it, but to most of the people at a wedding it probably doesn't matter what I sing. So I just sing what the bride wants. And if the song doesn't really belong in church—well, I just don't pronounce the words too well. Most people aren't paying attention to the text anyway, so who cares? I'm only background. I'm setting. I'm not musack really, but most people seem to think of whatever I sing as nothing more or less than flowers.
I've seen dozens of weddings, literally dozens. And I've learned to watch them closely for what they reveal about us. But I'm not so pretentious as you might think. I've got other, ulterior motives—motives that have evolved through the years. I've become a wedding scholar because I know that I must remember everything. Once I get home—whether it's late afternoon or evening—I know my wife will want to know every last detail. You see, weddings belong to women.
So I tell her. I indulge her in a play-by-play. I try to remember the flowers, the pattern of embroidery on the dress, the accomplishment of the organist, the way the couple lit the candles. I tell her everything I can remember. I replay the looks on the faces of the parents. I find new ways to describe the hallowed first kiss.
And when I've related everything, she breathes in deeply, takes my hand in hers, and smiles a woman's wonderful wedding smile.
I love that.