After 20 years of marriage, our author ponders the meaning of "I do."
By Stephanie Hunt
It’s Saturday afternoon, and the folding chairs sit waiting, orderly, at attention. Two hundred or so of them have been carefully arranged, fanning out from the base of a live oak tree. The tree, with its bold trunk and sprawling branches, is altar and dome, chapel and canopy. Almost every weekend from spring through fall, weddings unfold here. Amidst knobby roots and sweet shade, in the sunset-facing corner of this lovely waterfront park, antiquated pronouns, and high-voltage verbs spark between couples—pledge, promise, take, cherish, thee, wed.
I live just 250 yards away from this favorite wedding spot in the popular destination-wedding city of Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a romantic location—an expansive lawn rimmed with marsh grass and palms, a large reception hall with double wraparound piazzas overlooking the harbor, and shrimp boats off in the distance. During the week, the halls play host to community meetings and senior bingo while dogs and kids with kites romp on the lawn. But almost every Saturday, as caterers, florists and rental companies begin unloading vans, the site is transformed into this week’s vision of nuptial paradise. Sometimes the efforts are elaborate, with lighted tents, harps, and candle-lit lanterns dangling from the tree. Most often, however, it’s fairly basic—just the unostentatious folding chairs gathered round the old oak tree, and prayers for no bugs, no rain and an enchanted sunset.
Traffic, cars packed in like sardines in neighbor’s yards, and the occasional late night bass thumping of the East Coast Party Band are the downside, but overall I love living in peering distance of this matrimony Mecca. I love walking by and hearing faint bits of Vivaldi and Pachelbel drifting on the breeze. I smile as I catch bridesmaids tugging at fussy dresses, or watch a bride nervously take her father’s arm. At the playground across the street, where my children and I often end up on weekend afternoons, the molded plastic pirate ship makes an excellent lookout deck for dreamy-eyed little girls who worship organza princess brides. On post-wedding days, we’ll snag leftover toile bows or silk ribbons tied to banisters to add to dress-up collections. Dumpster diving is also tempting; last week I drove by and noticed gladiolas from a discarded centerpiece poking out from the trash. This week the salvaged blossoms are still perky in my kitchen.
Yet mostly I appreciate the less tangible benefits of being an in-the-wings wedding watcher. These passing glimpses of major milestones in the lives of people I do not know become magical touch points in my own. I laugh each time I’m headed home with a car full of groceries and cranky kids and see a waiting limo or antique jalopy with “Just Married” scrawled in shaving cream on the rear window. Just married indeed. That’s me. That’s many of us. Welcome to the “just” club.
This past week I celebrated having just been married for 20 years. That’s seven years longer than my own parents, who were just married for an unlucky 13. Only recently my marriage was just old enough to vote, go to war, buy beer.
“Just” is a nimble little four-letter word. Just four letters, or four just letters. It can somersault between adverb and adjective, and with the slightest change in inflection alter the meaning of a phrase, just like that. Which is what happens for me as I drive by the latest neighborhood hitching and wink at the getaway car. They are just married, as am I, two decades later.
The newlyweds claim the “very recently, within a brief preceding period” definition in the shorter version of the Oxford English Dictionary. But as one more seasoned, or perhaps more weathered, in matrimony, I am drawn to some of just’s other meanings: “impartial in one’s dealings; faithful and honorable in one’s social relations,” or “having reasonable or adequate grounds, well-founded.” A faithful, well-founded marriage—that’s something I don’t mind shooting for. (Then there’s also the Dan and Marilyn Quayle definition of “just,” as in “so as to fit exactly, in a close-fitting way.”) But if you wade through the obscure notations and all the possible meanings in the veritable OED, the most compelling, I think, are the last. For the adjective “just,” the finale reads: “Corresponding exactly, equal, even, level. Full, proper, complete.” And in the adverb column: “Neither more nor less than, simply, absolutely, actually, really. Truly, indeed.”
To be just married, to be equal, level, complete. To be just married, absolutely, truly, indeed. To be passing by, running errands as bouquets and birdseed fly, to be pushing my daughter on a swing and glance over as a bride and groom seal things with a kiss, is to happen upon the momentous in midst of the mundane. Which is what, it seems to me, being just married or just being married is all about. Neither more nor less, marriage is a milestone of tiny increments. The “I do’s” are daily, less momentous than moment-by-moment.
The folding chairs go up and come down Saturday after Saturday. Weddings are routine around here. The extraordinary becomes routine, and, if the marriage survives, the routine becomes extraordinary. Which, perhaps, is, “just” as it should be.
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was Missionary Reposition.
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