One couple, two weddings, no llamas

This is the story of one couple, two weddings, and no llamas. Or how conflicting cultures and conventions can come together.

James asked me to marry him beneath Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece in Belgium - we were alone with one of the most beautiful things ever fashioned by human hands. Light poured in through the cathedral's arched windows; bells rang in the square outside.

"I had angels literally fluttering in the painting over my head," I told my friends. "What could I say but 'yes'?" I showed them a picture of the two of us outside St. Bravos - we were grinning like fools.

The setting had been perfect. Now came the less-than-perfect part: planning the wedding. My instinct was to elope. I'd been wanting to go to Mongolia, ride a pony like a Hun. Why not get married there? Exchange vows on a steppe?

James suggested I think of something a little closer to home. "It would kill my mother if we eloped," he said.

"How about South America?" I said. "It's close." I entertained a brief fantasy of hiking up an Andean mountain and getting married in a field of mist and llamas.

James's family is rather traditional. His mother is British, and his father comes from a long line of Southerners who know what regiment their predecessors fought in during the Revolution.

When I suggested to his mother that we were thinking of something "small, simple and nontraditional" (i.e., 10 people, Peru, and no dress), she said, "Well, you wouldn't want one of those weddings on a hill somewhere in your blue jeans! It's your wedding day! Wouldn't it be wonderful if my family could come from England?"

My own mother was fine with llamas. She was ready to don a poncho and head for the border. My father was another story. He is Indian and, though he's not especially traditional, getting his little girl married "right" was a big deal. Not getting married according to Hindu custom would say that I was ignoring my heritage.

A traditional Hindu ceremony would give my father a rare joy. But to me, walking around a fire in 25 pounds of silk and jewelry was only slightly less ludicrous than being swathed in taffeta and a veil.

James and I briefly entertained the idea of a hybrid Hindu-Christian wedding, but the logistics kept tripping us up. A fire in a church? An elephant-headed god next to a cross? And what would I wear? For a Hindu, white is the color of death.

My family was in Hawaii and India; James's relations were in England, the Southern United States, and the Midwest. We had settled in Boston - and were considering a move to Mars.

I'm certain that if your relationship can survive wedding planning, it can probably survive whatever else life has in store for you. No arguments we've had before or since have exceeded the ferocity with which my husband-to-be and I argued over white versus ecru invitations.

There are two schools of thought on weddings. One says that your wedding day is your day. It should be exactly as you wish. A wedding planner I spoke with said she had just planned a wedding in which everyone came in drag and another in which the groom arrived in a clown suit.

A cross-dressing clown wedding would likely shorten the mortal lifespans of both our parents, but I took her point. She was saying that a wedding expresses the lives and personalities of two individuals.

The other school of thought is that weddings are about the families and communities out of which two individuals have come. In practical terms, this meant no llamas; you are expressing something deeper than your own whims and tastes.

I had never thought about wedding symbolism. If I had, I'd have favored the first view. But I'd never been faced with bringing two cultures, two communities, and several competing understandings of life into one family. We were having to create a moment in which two very different people showed how their dissimilarities could be accommodated and respected.

Confused, I got in the car and drove north. I got lost, roamed some corner of the Canadian wilderness, and arrived back in Boston knowing two things: For this wedding to be meaningful to me, it had to be outside, and I would keep the name I was born with. Beyond that, I was willing to negotiate. Suddenly it felt entirely appropriate that our wedding should reflect the communities that had shaped us..

It was not all smooth sailing from this point on. But on the whole, we all felt generous and fortunate, not embattled. I do not suggest that this is the right decision for everyone, but it was right for me.

In a single day, my mother-in-law called to say her relatives were coming all the way from England, and my father called to say the whole Indian community in Hawaii (some 300 strong) would attend - including India's ambassador to the US.

I laughed at the absurdity of it, and knew it was all perfect.

In the end, we had two weddings: a Christian ceremony in Boston, a Hindu one in Hawaii, and no llamas. Our families and close friends attended both.

My English mother-in-law danced her heart out with my Punjabi aunties, and my father donned a morning coat and walked me down an outdoor aisle beside a lily pond. Jazz, classical, and Bangra music blared. We all grinned like fools, and my husband and I stood back and marveled at our beautiful, unlikely family.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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