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Nashville Scene Marriage Matters

Subtext in a simple wedding ring

By Margaret Renkl

JANUARY 19, 1999:  This Christmas, after 10 years of marriage, my husband gave me a wedding band. Technically speaking, I've already got a wedding ring--the one he put on my finger in 1988 in an ugly little chapel in Birmingham, Alabama. It's a lovely thing, really, circled with infinitesimal diamonds and emeralds. I wear it, as I promised at our wedding, as a sign of my husband's love and fidelity. But as an emblem of my own married state, the ring is problematic: it just doesn't look much like a wedding ring.

This dissimilarity to the traditional gold band was no accident. When we got married in 1988, I was almost 27 years old, but I hadn't yet recovered from the dismal influence of graduate school. Like many liberals who believe themselves to be intellectuals, I'd spent a lot of time in the listless, worried air of academia, and the only mode of discourse available to me, after so long, was irony. The real irony endemic to college English departments is that long-term immersion in the great lyric poems does not, as one might expect, incline a person to lyric outbursts of love and faith; graduate students of English tend to focus instead on intradepartmental treachery and ironic distance from what they learn to call "the text."

In any case, marriage seemed an outmoded idea--easily entered and almost as easily exited--and in our own case the only two compelling arguments in favor of the institution were: One, respect for our parents' feelings and, two, fear of being fired from our high-school teaching jobs. I'd signed a contract that obligated me to serve as a "role model" to my students. I couldn't imagine that living with my boyfriend would exactly fit the job description. I genuinely and certainly intended to spend the rest of my life with the man I had chosen--the adorable, witty, intelligent, and deeply kind man I had miraculously found in, of all places, a college English department--but marriage? What was the point?

These were not, however, feelings that my intended and I spent a lot of time discussing. We were both pushing 30, after all, and we were in love. We both came from deeply religious, Southern Catholic families, and we were teaching in the same sort of conservative school. Long before we ever mentioned the word, we understood very well that we were moving inexorably toward marriage. But because we were liberal academics, and because we were broke, there was no engagement ring. Nor was there any romantic proposal scene. We simply sat one night on the hood of a Ford Pinto and decided we might as well get married. Sometime. Maybe next year, maybe the year after that.

Neither of us was particularly interested in the mechanisms by which such a plan would eventually come true. We mostly left the wedding stuff to my mother. But Mom insisted I make at least some decisions, and before long the whole affair began to seem like far more trouble than it was worth. Every time some question would arise--live flowers, or candied, for the top of the wedding cake?--I would implore my fianc to call the whole thing off. If pressed, I could admit to certain advantages of marriage itself, but I had no desire for the traditional trappings of marriage: the flowers, the diamonds, the lace. "Let's elope," I kept saying. "Let's just go down to the courthouse and find some judge to marry us."

"No way," he always answered. "Remember Romeo and Juliet. We've got to go into this marriage with the old people on our side."

So I played along, but without much grace. I chose an unwedding-ring-like wedding ring. I agreed to wear my mother's beautiful dress but not the voluminous petticoats she had worn herself, and I referred to it derisively as "the bride costume," as though I were planning a Halloween party. I balked at walking down the aisle on my father's arm, refusing to be proffered to the groom like some gaily wrapped gift. I refused to be married in the cavernous airplane hangar of a church I had grown up attending--too much cold white marble, too much frosted glass, too many empty pews. The thought of clomping down half a mile of echoing marble, dressed in high heels and a ridiculous gown, while several hundred people stared--the whole scene struck me as an embarrassing and depressing way to begin a marriage.

This was not a feeling either of our families could grasp. At a prenuptial party the night before the wedding, my husband's father kept pointing to the dark, lumbering church, which seats 700, and asking, "Now why isn't the wedding going to be in there, son, where everyone would have a place to sit?"

In the end, we married in the tiny chapel of the parish rectory, with just our immediate families in attendance. No queue of bridesmaids, no photographer, no organ, no giant bouquet of flowers. By bridal-magazine standards, I'm not sure it even counted as a wedding. While 200 people waited for us in the nearby reception hall, we took our vows in private; our families sat on folding chairs and sang hymns to guitar music provided by our oldest friends in the world, the only two friends we invited--one from my husband's high-school days, and one from my own. It was a lovely ceremony, from our point of view, and it suited us.

Ann, that old high-school friend of mine, got married herself last week, and unlike me, she did her wedding up grand. For her wedding, there were 10 priests on the altar, including one bishop, plus a Methodist minister and four altar servers. There were fully 22 members of the wedding party. Absolutely radiant in the traditional way of brides, Ann walked down the aisle in the church we grew up in together. That day the old airplane hangar was packed with smiling people, its rafters filled with singing voices, and nothing about it seemed hollow or cold. Accompanied by both of her parents, Ann was a gift all right, but not just to her groom. She was a gift to all of us there.

I think I've learned something in the last 10 years about what weddings, and wedding rings, really mean. People don't have to be married to love each other completely and irrevocably-- I still believe that, just as I understand that many marriages have no love in them at all. But I'm no longer sure Hillary Clinton was right when she argued that "the only people who matter in a marriage are the two who are in it."

In a way, what weddings tell us is that we're all in it. When people stand together before God and all the people they love (as well as a bunch more their parents feel obligated to invite), they're giving us their trust and they're seeking our blessing. They're asking the world to help them keep loving each other, to nudge them back toward each other when they're disgusted or furious or bored, to help them stay together long enough to fall in love again.

Which is why I love my new wedding band--that simple, old-fashioned symbol. It conveys to everyone, immediately, a huge part of who I am. Unlike my original wedding ring, which I wear too, this one bears an inscription. It's a quotation from John Donne, playful and romantic, the kind of inscription and the kind of ring I was too young to understand when I was a bride.


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