Over the next few weeks, as I began wedding preparations, my mother said she'd like a running tally. I took this to mean my parents were OK with paying for the bulk of the wedding, as long as the costs didn't balloon out of control. I liked this arrangement, because I didn't want to tap into my retirement savings to pay for my entire wedding. I was going to pay some of the expenses myself—my outfit, the photographer, and the liquor (Jack's mother bought him a suit)—so I thought it was fair to ask my parents for the rest, as long as I consulted with them.
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So when I found a klezmer band that would cost $2,500, I decided to run it by my mother. My father answered. "Is Mom there?" I said.
"She's out folk dancing," he said.
"Oh," I said. "I just interviewed this band we want to hire."
"You can talk to me about it."
This was the point where I should have said no and hung up. She was out folk dancing, which meant he was watching crime shows and messing around on the computer. Nights like this he didn't eat dinner and got hypoglycemic. This was no time to talk money. Even though I knew this I got nervous, and because I was nervous, I kept talking.
"Well, we listened to a few of their tapes and they're really incredible," I said. "They cost $2,500, and I was thinking we'd pay for half." He was quiet.
"I'm so glad you brought this up," he said. "I think you've gotten the impression Mom and I want to pay for the whole wedding when that's not the case. I don't believe in the tradition of the bride's family paying. I think it's outdated and unfair."
"Who paid for your wedding?" My mother's parents had paid for the entire thing, a swank affair for 200 people back in 1969.
"That was a different era!" he shouted. "I've thought this over and we're willing to pay up to a certain amount or a certain percentage, whichever is lower."
"Whichever is lower?"
"I envision this as a shared expense, some combination of you, us, and Jack's family."
"But they're already doing the rehearsal dinner, which is like five grand! And Jack and I are paying for the photos and the liquor!"
"I understand that," my dad said. "But there's no reason the burden should fall on Mom and me just for the sake of tradition. Let me think this over and email you some breakdowns."
What was my father's problem? Did he think Jack's father and stepmother were richer than they really were? Did my father know I made more money than Jack? Was he worried I was going to support Jack for the rest of my life and afraid to be complicit in that, even symbolically, by paying for most of the wedding? Would any of this be happening if I'd married someone Jewish?
I checked my inbox. There was an email that looked like an algebraic equation, outlining three different ways of dividing the total budget between them, Jack's family, and us. It contained phrases like "where Y=60 percent of total."
When Jack came home I was totally distraught. "It's OK," he said. "Let's do it all ourselves. I can't pay you anything now, but I will pay you back, I promise. We'll do it at City Hall and go out to dinner, immediate family only. I'd prefer a small wedding anyway."
"I'm an exhibitionist!" I said. "I'm not going to do my wedding vows for an audience of 15. That's fewer people than I had at my Barnes & Noble reading!"
The phone rang. It was my mother. "You know that conversation you had with Dad?" she said.
"Forget it. We'll do the whole thing."
"I don't understand. What happened?"
My father was on the line. "Mom came home and brought me to my senses. I said to her, 'How did you manage to diffuse such a tense situation so easily?' She said, 'The same way I've been doing it for 33 years. It's called husband management.'" He got all choked up when she said, "husband management," like he'd realized how lucky he was to be married to someone who knew what to do with him.
The day of the wedding, my father put on a suit and a carnation and with his slicked-back hair and gray beard, looked like a real father of the bride. We even danced together, even though he doesn't like to dance, and we made quiet small talk while everyone watched us, although most of it was about whether the band was going to go into overtime.
Two days after the wedding, after Jack and I were back in Brooklyn, I got an email from my father. I was nervous to open it, because the subject heading was "Misc."
It opened with a long and somewhat corny poem about the joys of marriage, with metaphors like "mountains and valleys." I wasn't sure if he'd written it or found it on the Internet. Underneath it, he wrote, "I'd have to say that one of the greatest 'values' of your wedding day was how much I learned about Jack…to his enormous credit! Maybe I wasn't observant enough, or other things got in the way of my realizing sooner what a truly wonderful match you are for each other. Anyhow, you certainly 'have our blessing,' by which I mean that we think that your making a life together is a wonderful thing, and we're glad we can learn from both of you over the coming years. Now, about this 'baby thing'…" After that, he put the sign for a wink. It's the only time an emoticon ever made me cry.
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*Name has been changed.
Adapted from an essay by Amy Sohn that appears in Altared, published by Vintage Books.