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FIRST PERSON

Not the Wedding She'd Imagined, but . . .

August 11, 1994|JO GIESE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Glads knew I was about to elope before I did.

Prescient there was going to be a husband in the house and his top dog status would be undermined, the night before Douglas and I eloped a sad Glads, my cocker spaniel, went outside and vomited.

The bride-to-be wasn't sick in the yard, but I wasn't sleeping, either. In our case eloping didn't mean scrambling down a ladder on a moonlit night, but I didn't believe in sneaking off, tying the knot without family ties.

Others feel negatively toward elopement for a different reason: Weddings represent $32 billion in annual retail sales and the "power wedding," as Bride's magazine calls it, with the big floor show, is the going favorite. With no serious money required, elopement constitutes a definite loss to the national economy, especially since etiquette experts don't agree on whether elopers even deserve presents: Ann Landers says yes; Miss Manners, no.

So why had Douglas been dialing a stranger named Steve, a minister whose ad in the Yellow Pages read "Your place or mine"?

In the past year, a favorite patient of Douglas' had died, a friend's daughter had also died and a friend my age had breast cancer. These tragedies hurled us to the realization that if something should happen, we'd be financially better off married. To our surprise, we would begin by talking taxes and end up courting ecstasy.

On the morning of the last day of summer, the day we thought we might run off, while Douglas played phone tag with the minister, I walked down our front slope to clip roses for a bridal bouquet, just in case.

On the way back up, I hosed a stubborn puddle of cocker spaniel vomit off the walkway. Was that any way to start off what might be my wedding day? Yes. Pink roses and dog regurgitation reflect life as it is: bliss and barf, barf and bliss.

Discarding the leaves from the roses, I stood at the kitchen sink, and saw myself: a 46-year-old woman arranging her own wedding flowers. Was it a mistake to not include my sister to help with the flowers and to hold my hand? Especially since she was the person who had first sensed what Douglas meant to me.

"How'd you know?" I'd asked.

"Because you gave him your garage door opener."

Something else needs explaining. Two years before, on the coattails of my sister's wedding in Aspen, Douglas had proposed and I'd accepted. We'd invited all our dearest friends, hired a caterer. At the last minute, when the guitarist asked about our song, we chickened out.

Not wanting to appear so foolish again, this time we were telling no one.

Faced with a sink full of roses, I found a piece of rubber tubing, the kind that protects pipes from chill, and fitted the stems inside. My winterized bridal bouquet was a talisman: The summer salad days of a marriage are easy; it's against the chilly winter days (for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health), that newlyweds need protection.

When Douglas finally reached the minister, we had to scramble to make it to the church, or in our case, our local public park.

I changed quickly from my bathrobe into a white linen dress. (Looking at a photo taken that day, my brother-in-law, would say, "She knew she was getting married. Her dress was ironed.") Wearing an ordinary dress as my bridal gown was so unlike the younger version of myself, who, swept away by the Big First Wedding, had decked herself out in 19th-Century Victorian lace.

The minister provided one witness, his wife, Christine, who, to my disappointment, was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Since we needed two witnesses, Christine approached a woman sunbathing on the grass. Smelling of coconut oil, she said, "Sure. I was married once too."

I expected Steve to usher us inside the privacy of a nearby gazebo. Instead, standing out in the open on a public sidewalk, in front of God and business people on their lunch hours, Steve turned to Douglas and me and, without any further to-do, opened a notebook and started reading a computer printout wedding ceremony.

Steve was only a mail-order minister (his decree arrived in the mail from Universal Life Church), and his wife was wearing short shorts, and our other witness was a barefoot sunbather, but midway through the 200-word ceremony, about the place where Steve asked, "Doug, do you pledge to tenderly care for Jo?" something holy happened, one of life's rare transcendental moments that is food for the heart.

The photo Christine snapped captured the depth of emotion that took us by surprise: We are holding hands, Douglas, white-knuckled, his shock of white hair blowing in the breeze; me, clutching my winterized bouquet; every nerve ending alive, we were smiling and crying at the same time.

Touched by its accidental grace, I discovered elopement can be the Zen equivalent of distilling a private experience, extracting it down to its essence, and packing it with power.

For us, elopement became the ultimate power wedding.

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