To Have And To Hold

I am standing in front of my closet. It is 5 am, and I’m trying to decide what to wear. I riffle through the possibilities: the black and blue jacquard satin dress —  skirt too short and tight over my stomach, a definite no; the lime green vintage voile, a bit too young, too mutton dressed as lamb; perhaps the grey angled floaty shift with its angled hemline? Nothing seems quite right. With only a couple of hours to go, I have no clue what to wear. What does one wear to a wedding that one won’t be attending?

We had not dared to believe that this wedding would go ahead.  Three previous attempts had been thwarted by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fast U-turns on lockdown policies. The third attempt was cancelled just 18 hours before the ceremony. The bride and groom had already checked into the hotel; the bride had picked up her bouquet from the florists, and believing that the third time was a charm, I had sent my husband to the SAQ to pick up a bottle of champagne. The couple knew that in the grand scheme of things, this was a minor setback; no one had died, no one was sick. Nonetheless, it was devastating; the bride was inconsolable. There was nothing I could say. I refrained from repeating my words from the previous two cancellations: “you will have such a story to tell your grandkids”. Instead, all I managed was, “in years to come, my version of the story will be..I was just disinfecting the bottle of champagne in the sunroom when you texted… No Wedding”!

So, this, the fourth time, I set my alarm for 4:45 am. I had promised the bride I would be there with her as she dressed for her big day. As soon as I woke up, I texted. She replied instantly with a video chat line, and I was in the room with her in my pyjamas, the photographer standing on the hotel bed, and her friend in the bathroom, make-up in hand. They were running late. It’s hard to help out from 5,350 Km away, so I left them to it with all my love and wishes for a beautiful day.

Photo credit –Stephanie-green

This wasn’t the first wedding we couldn’t attend. We had been invited to my research fellow’s wedding in Vancouver last May. That time it was live-streamed via Facebook. I placed a bunch of daffodils by the laptop, and we stood weepy-eyed as we watched the ceremony unfold in Stanley Park. And then our nephew married in Germany and shared the briefest of clips of himself exchanging rings with his fiancé.

In normal times, clearly, I would have thought about what to wear sooner, and shopped for the perfect dress. Something classy, not too showy, but sufficiently striking that it declared “mother of the groom” to anyone who didn’t know. Instead, I considered a hat. I’ve always imagined myself in one of those oversized confections. Perhaps not quite the monstrosities worn by the ladies at Ascot, but large enough to keep would-be huggers at bay and hide the occasional tear. No hats in the closet. A couple of fascinators that I’d crafted for other weddings out of bits and bobs in my lingerie drawer. “Knicker-tit” creations, we had termed them.

It’s surprising how good a pair of underwear stretched over a bra pad, glued in place, with the addition of the odd feather or satin bow can look.

I decided against any headgear and consulted with my husband, who was similarly standing in front of his closet contemplating a sports jackets and the clan tie. Together we settled on wearing our Ukrainian shirts with jeans; it seemed a more appropriate attire for our plan. Into a backpack went the bottle of champagne, with a couple of crystal champagne flutes tucked into woolen socks. Just as we were lacing up our boots, our son video-called us. There they were, the bride and groom sitting in an empty room in Hackney Town Hall. Almost 1 pm UK time, and 7 am for us. They seemed to be very relaxed, quietly waiting for the arrival of the three friends they were permitted and the officiant. They promised to call later, and so we set off.

What do you do when you can’t attend the wedding? With so few people permitted in the venue, the idea of live streaming was unrealistic. Instead, it felt right to hold that precious time by walking through the hills. We finished lacing our boots, clipped the leash on the dog, and set off.

It was a beautiful April morning, warm enough that we didn’t need jackets. We fell into a quiet rhythm along the path, and it was easy to hold the bride and groom in our hearts as we walked.

The dog, excited to be out early, with not one but two companions, zipped back and forth between us.

There were tears behind my eyes, not of sadness, but a swelling of joy. We were proud that they had decided to go ahead with the wedding, not to put their lives on hold, but rather to move forwards, one foot in front of the other.

Dom, our son, never lived in Wakefield; we moved here long after he left home, but it has always been a special place for him. He was a coach for the Mont St. Marie ski team for several years, passing through Wakefield most weekends for a clandestine stop at the bakery. We climbed, thinking about how much he loves the hills, how he used to stop his “athletes” on the slopes and tell them to look around in gratitude for the sheer beauty of the place. We remembered how a ski patroller once reprimanded him at Camp Fortune for sitting on a ledge on the hill to watch the sunset. A couple of Christmases ago, he taught his bride, Vik, to ski at Vorlage, and I know he would have taken the time to carve a pattern of perfect turns under the chair lift as a thank you to the hill.

We thought about stopping at the summit to pop the champagne, but that didn’t seem quite right, and with no food in our stomachs, it might not have been the best idea. So we walked on, down the other side of the hill, and across to the community trail. It seemed to me that as we walked, the voices of our son’s ancestors joined us. Our shirts summoned my husband’s mother’s family: Hutsuls who originated from the Carpathian mountains, strong peasants, lured to Canada to farm the prairies. The pine trees spoke of the Scottish highlands where the Mackenzie clan, my husband’s father’s family, originated. And the gentle slopes brought my father from the Welsh hills to walk by my side. There may not have been many bodies in Hackney Town Hall, but many spirits were holding my son and his bride close.

We treated ourselves to a take-out of coffee and smoked-salmon bagels from the Blue Barn and followed the road to the river. There, my mother was waiting, the only grandparent our son ever met. She walked beside us for a while. We remembered the many times she had strolled along the river, hand in hand with her grandson.

At the water’s edge, we settled down on the rocks and finally popped the champagne. The cork flew far out over the river, beyond any hope of retrieval. We raised our glasses to toast the bride and groom, Dom and Vik, and, as if they knew, they Face-timed us. They were back in their hotel room with their friends, excited to see us down by the river. We flipped the screen to show their friends the water and the bridge, and so they could recount their best river story.

The first time our now daughter-in-law visited Wakefield, we drove them and the canoe upriver and put them in around Farrelton. It was a beautiful day, the river was calm but fairly high, and when they reached the covered bridge, despite being a very experienced paddler, our son couldn’t prevent the canoe from capsizing. Etched in my brain is a picture of them both thoroughly drenched, walking home up the road carrying the canoe and paddles, laughing their heads off. It was then that I knew, whatever challenges life will throw at them, they will pull together. They are a team.

with thanks to Stephaniegreen, a London, UK based alternative photographer for the wedding images.