An authentic farm wedding, after all

It was still winter when Charlie's daughter Gwen and her fianc, Jason, asked for a simple May wedding on the farm, using the roofed but open-sided hay shed as a chapel and reception space.

The shed was still half-filled with hay. On one side, under a broad roof extension, the cows fed from hay racks; on the other, beneath another protective overhang, we parked our tractors. Stacks of lumber, a couple dozen cinder blocks, assorted junk, and bucketfuls of dust and hay chaff came to occupy the gradually emptied spaces as the bales were fed and winter wore on. Looking the place over in early February, it was hard to imagine anything festive happening there, let alone a wedding. We sighed and decided to think about it again come March. Meanwhile, we promised Gwen and Jason the farm would be theirs and ready come May 8.

By early March, the neat stacks of hay were nearly gone, and every inch of the shed called for some kind of reparative action: clearing, cleaning, patching, or smoothing. As for prettifying, Gwen and Jason wanted nothing artificial, nothing that was not in keeping with the farm. We sighed again and hoped for inspiration from April.

It came one day after we'd fed the cows the last bale of hay. Our Australian-born friend Gillian came by, and in her direct down-under way told us to get cracking. She and I pushed brooms, and Charlie began blocking out a raised stage for Gwen's nuptials. The dogs stretched out on the cracked concrete floor, offering one-eyed attention, but little other encouragement.

With the ceremonial platform framed out and the floor free of clutter and swept, things looked a bit more promising. But gazing out through the feeding racks at the darkly fertile slope below, we realized there was one thing we couldn't do much about. This was the place where our cows had congregated all winter. And it looked, well, like a place cows have clustered and fed all winter. There was no getting around that. But the view beyond the fertile crescent to the greening pastures and budding trees, ah, now that was something!

By late April, family and friends began seriously pitching in. Gwen's sister Stephanie and I mixed concrete, and together we troweled it into and over cracks and crevices, creating a smooth if patchily undulating floor, and getting some good visits in besides. Gillian came back to help paint the steps to the bridal stage. Our good friend Joan offered flowers to plant around the outhouse, bringing them by one day with a deli lunch for us. Then she and her husband, John, raked untold pounds of river gravel into the muddy ruts our tractors had left around the hay shed.

With the wedding less than a week away, we finished the basics and turned to details. Charlie hammered together pews. I repainted the outhouse. Gwen's sister Carrie, just arrived from Michigan, scrubbed the farmhouse top to bottom.

The dogwoods bloomed, and after milking on the morning of the ceremony we went into the woods, gathering flowered branches to decorate the shed's rough wood posts. After lunch, Charlie and I led the Belgians up from their back-pasture leisure for harnessing and hitching to a hay wagon-turned-wedding float.

And then the moment came. The big shed began to fill with people dressed for spring and celebration.

Later, Charlie would say that it was only as he walked Gwen down the faintly bumpy aisle that he knew it had happened: The storage barn had, with the help of many hands, become a wedding chapel, however bucolic its aura. As planned, the processional took place without music, leaving acoustical space for the birds, the hens, and a distant bull keeping track of his lazily scattered cows.

Everything was unfolding just as Gwen and Jason had wanted it to.

Charlie took his seat, and Roberto, the minister, began talking to us all about the vows about to be exchanged. Roberto's voice is without pomp, rich and earthy, yet deeply sonorous, too. It is a voice fit for a Roman forum and equally at home on a working farm. We all warmed to its rolling tones, as he began addressing the couple.

And then, this wondrous voice lost purchase as, horror of horrors, the milk truck rumbled up the road. Charlie and I exchanged desperate glances. In all our mad frenzy to prepare and present the farm for the accession, we had neglected to do one simple thing - that is, to ask the milk-pickup driver not to arrive during this one appointed half-hour on Saturday. His unwitting timing could not have been more perfectly targeted to intrude, and a few words were lost to the tanker's raucous entry to the barn drive.

This is not just a big vehicle. It is possibly the loudest tank truck in all creation. Its engines roar, its gears grind, its brakes squeal. There's no missing its every-other-day arrival, or its subsequent departure with our dairy herd's liquid harvest.

Roberto ushered Jason through his vows as the milk was pumped from the cooling tank into the truck, a relatively quiet interlude. Then he spoke to Gwen - Charlie's youngest daughter, radiant and aglow on her father's hand-built platform - and she began to respond in turn. At that precise moment the milk truck roared back to life and pulled out onto Bethel Lane.

NOT to be outdone, Gwen sang out her vows with a clear intent to be heard, come what may. Just as she finished, triumphant and more beautiful than ever, the still-clueless driver blasted the horn in greeting and farewell - a customary gesture we had heretofore halfway appreciated. Later, as Gwen cut the wedding cake, the cows began to gather, curious at the commotion in their winter dinette. It was getting to be milking time, and the pulse of the farm beat on, wedding or no.

In retrospect, even the milk truck suited the occasion, loudly honoring Gwen and Jason's desire for an authentic farm ambience to their wedding. We might have done without the horn.

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