Romance, Realism Join Hands at Altar

LOVE stories come in all shapes and sizes and ages. The best of them often take everyone by surprise, including the principals. On a warm Thursday evening early in June, a bride-to-be and her mother are sitting in their kitchen, telling a neighbor about the wedding that is to take place on Saturday. The ceremony will be simple, they say, and the guest list limited to family and a few friends. After the reception the newlyweds, who met on a golf course last year, will fly to Scotland for a golfing honeymoon.

It is the bride's first marriage, and as she flips through an album of photos taken during their courtship, her eyes shine. "At 65, I finally made it," she says with a laugh, her voice filled with happiness and amazement. Her 92-year-old mother and the neighbor share her laughter - and her joy.

Two days later, the occasion is everything a June wedding should be. Outside the red brick church, rhododendrons bloom and birds sing - a feathered choir adding its celebratory song to the event. Inside, sunlight filters through stained-glass windows, bathing the sanctuary in soft light. As the organ swells with the joyous strains of Beethoven's Ninth, the bride and groom make their way to the altar, pausing here and there as she embraces a guest or throws a kiss. Cameras flash, and eyes get misty over t

he unexpected union of this widower and this career woman, both now retired.

"We're delighted for both of you," the priest tells the couple. "You bring a richness of heart, and a goodness of spirit." He offers a prayer ("May the Lord protect and defend you"), and they exchange vows ("I, Robert, take thee Mary ), becoming one of nearly 2 1/2 million couples who are expected to marry in the United States this year.

June is the month of weddings and new beginnings. It is also a time when marriage-watchers raise a perennial question: What is the state of the institution in the 1990s?

Although silver-haired, first-time brides and grandfatherly grooms remain a demographic rarity, many couples are waiting longer to marry. The typical bride today is close to 24 years old and grooms are just over 26, according to the US Census Bureau.

Statistics offer other hopeful signs of a new seriousness about matrimony. During the past five years, the marriage rate has edged up modestly, and the divorce rate has dropped slightly. Ceremonies themselves are becoming more formal, as if circling back to the nuptial patterns of the '50s, when Mary's friends and contemporaries were tying the knot.

During the decades in between, marriage threatened to go informal to the point of dissolving. In the '60s, richly beaded bridal gowns with long trains gave way to flimsy sundresses and bare feet as hip couples improvised their vows at sunrise on the beach or said "I do" in the park with flutes trilling in the bushes.

In the '70s, "I do" threatened to become "I don as anthropologist Margaret Mead and others predicted that marriage was an ill-fitting and soon-to-be-obsolete institution. Serial marriage, open marriage, or no marriage - these were the new choices for conspicuously liberated men and women.

In the '80s, marriage became an even more suspicious venture. Sociologists predicted the end of the nuclear family. And wary dual-income couples, expecting the worst, refused to walk down the aisle until they had signed a prenuptial contract spelling out everything from who pays the bills to who makes the bed.

Yet none of this is in the air when a latter-day Romeo and his spirited Juliet stand before his grandchildren and her nieces and nephews on a Saturday afternoon in June, promising each other to "be true to you in good times and in bad" and to "love you and honor you all the days of my life." While theirs may be an out-of-the-ordinary love story, their commitment may be more typical of the '90s than it seems. Somehow the doomsayersBrave New World" scenarios have faded.

Love and marriage have never been predictable. But "something old romanticism - seems to be making a contract with "something new realism - and marching to the altar for one more June. Hope, it appears, springs eternal, not only for the new brides and grooms, but for onlookers with their own weddings to recall across the decades of change.

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