“And you know what? No drunken punch-up over the keg! Who knew weddings could be so joyful?”

We’d recently returned from a family wedding in Arizona and I was discussing our trip with a friend, another Australian expat. She laughed. She understood some of the cultural differences that we as Australians shared. It also reminded me of when my husband had first proposed to me.

He’s a New Yorker and so he firmly believes in finding parking on the street. Paying for parking in a garage is a sign of weakness. A space is to be hunted and won. As my partner and I were circling the block for about the third time looking for an open spot, I slowed as I spotted the taillights of a car about to pull out. I readied to pounce on the open space when he said quite casually “Would you like to get married?”

“I don’t know – I mean, I’ve always thought of weddings as really stressful.” I said quite distractedly.

I’d successfully maneuvered the car into the spot and was enjoying my moment of victory when I noticed my partner’s silence. One thing I’d learned early in our relationship is that “Silence” was not “Golden” with Italian-Americans. Something clearly was wrong.

“Was that a proposal?” I asked.

“Well you did really kill the moment,” he said.

“Well you really picked your moment!” was my response.

It did get me thinking a lot over the next few weeks about my feelings on marriage. Aside from never imaging marrying a man as a real possibility, there were all of the associated feelings that went along with that. As the youngest of six children I was born into an already established world order and so was always just going along with whatever the plan was. In such a large family no one ever asked for my opinion and I was quite content as the constant observer of our family.

Weddings were a big event requiring me to spend a lot of time in department stores with my mother and sisters while they looked through large binders of dress patterns deciding on dress styles. Once a pattern was decided upon we would move on to the haberdashery department to look at fabrics. I grew up in a world where dresses were always made. For really special occasions, like a wedding, a dressmaker was engaged, usually one particular woman in our neighborhood whose sewing room was a converted spare bedroom. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the dressmaker’s sewing room and being given the task of picking up dropped pins, all the while marveling at the mysteries of fittings. There was so much care and thought put into creating these formal outfits.
Weddings were an event in my neighbourhood. People would gather outside the home of the bride to see her as she left the family home for the last time in a convoy of decorated cars heading to the church and her new life.

All of the women looked so beautiful to me and the men by their sides so handsome in their suits, clean-shaven with their hair Brylcreemed to glossy perfection. At the church there was the well rehearsed procession of the bridal party down the aisle, the ritual handing over of the bride to the groom by her father and the vows ending with the joyful chaos of confetti raining down on the happy couple on the church steps.

The drama erupted at the reception as the beer flowed freely and tempers flared. Long held grudges fueled by grog turned to heated words then hurling fists. It always ended the same with the men looking sheepish in their sweaty, disheveled clothing and the women in their finery in floods of tears –typically my dad was in the middle of it all. The veneer of respectability peeled away to reveal the dysfunction concealed beneath. The tears of the wedding for me were not tears of joy but rather tears of anger and humiliation.

At a cousin’s wedding in Arizona I was moved by how much meaning filled the air. Vows were exchanged with love and sincerity; speeches were loving and thoughtfully composed. I watched tearfully as the bride danced with her father – a tradition I’d seen recreated at every wedding but this time the experience was so captivating. The bride held her father’s teary gaze throughout their lone waltz, beaming at this man who’d loved her so deeply and cherished her in their life together. She seemed to be reflecting back at him all those years of tender care. We were witnesses to this rite as they said goodbye to their old life together.

I was seeing the happiness of the celebration, the joy of those who really loved the couple being expressed and began considering that we too could enjoy that.