On the first night of my honeymoon my husband of 24 hours and I were welcomed to our hotel room with a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, vouchers for a free champagne toast at the hotel bar, and a note congratulating us on our marriage.
On the second night we returned to our room to discover a fresh plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, two new champagne vouchers, and a note wishing us a happy anniversary. Evidently, time flies when you’re married.
I offer this anecdote as a meager excuse for why I’m only just getting around to writing the 10th and final “Sara Plans Her Wedding,” the bookend on a series of columns I wrote in U.S. 1 in the months leading up to my 2013 wedding. With 592 days of married life behind me, I offer a post-mortem, of sorts, of what went right, what went wrong, and what I would have done differently.
Here’s what did happen: Sara-the-editor married Dan-the-computer programmer on a Saturday afternoon in early August, 2013. It rained in the morning, but the skies cleared and the temperature was pleasant by the time our outdoor cocktail hour started.
Lesson 1: Make sure your caterer has someone else’s phone number. When all was said and done, my husband checked his cellphone for the first time in 12 hours and discovered several frantic messages from the catering director that they would be setting up inside because of the weather. Ultimately happy hour went on outdoors, as planned.
We held a non-religious ceremony at the Princeton University Chapel. We brought in an officiant; the university provided an organist. Both of my parents walked me down the aisle as Andre Campra’s “Rigaudon” played. Dan had never seen my dress and had not seen me on our wedding day. The logistical inconvenience that posed was slight compared to his priceless expression when I walked in.
Lesson 2: Practice smiling, especially if you face a long walk down the aisle. By the time I got to the altar, my jaw was shaking — not from nerves or emotion, but because my cheek muscles felt like they were about to burst — and that was just the beginning of a long day with cameras at every turn.)
Despite our intention to clear out quickly after the ceremony — so that we could finish with photos before the reception started — we lingered a moment too long on the chapel steps and were forced into an unplanned receiving line.
This was fortuitous, as was successfully finishing our photoshoot in time to attend a good portion of our reception, held at the Institute for Advanced Study. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served in the birch garden adjoining the dining hall. We had a jazz pianist outside, and a DJ took over once the guests moved inside. We offered guests a choice of filet mignon, salmon, or a mushroom-based vegetarian dish, and served bent spoon cupcakes in lieu of a wedding cake.
Lessons 3 and 4: Everyone, including people you’ve never seen before and didn’t realize were related to you, understandably wants to spend time with the bride and groom. For this reason, don’t waste much time eating. We were lucky to get the chance to greet most people in the receiving line and others during cocktail hour. After making the fatal mistake of sitting through the entire salad course, we only made it through about half of the 18 tables before people had finished dinner and dispersed to start dancing. On a related note, start with people you know won’t stay to the bitter end. We skipped the tables where our friends were sitting knowing that we’d be dancing with them and seeing them after the reception.
Because we both like kids and because many of my husband’s cousins have young children, we planned all along to invite kids to the ceremony and reception. We’re glad we did — there are some adorable and hilarious photos of kids dancing and playing — but we’re also glad that we planned some alternate entertainment for them. With help from some friends and our brothers, we constructed a three-hole mini-golf course that we set up in a space next to the dining area. Kids (and grown-ups) could expend their pent-up energy there while their parents were free to enjoy themselves without having to hire a babysitter.
Lesson 5: If you like kids, bring them along, but make sure there is something to keep them entertained.
The DJ played until 11 p.m., staying mostly faithful to our “do” and “do not play” lists — no Justin Bieber at this party. The night ended with Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Friends had attached Pabst Blue Ribbon cans to the back of our car, most of which fell off before we got out of the parking lot. We checked in at our wedding night destination, the Peacock Inn, where my parents had spent their wedding night 31 years earlier. I traded heels for flip-flops and we headed out again to our impromptu after party at the Nassau Inn.
Lesson 6: Make sure you’ve packed everything you need for the night of and morning after your wedding. After packing up our room the next morning, my husband discovered that he had no shoes other than the formal pair he had worn with his suit. He ended up wearing the hotel’s slippers to my parents’ house for our informal morning-after brunch. I spent nearly an hour rinsing out layers of hairspray and extracting several dozen bobby pins from my hair, but realized that I didn’t have so much as a rubber band to tie my hair back normally later.
By all accounts, our wedding day went as well as, if not better than we could have expected. But there are still aspects of the planning and the day itself we would do differently, given a second chance.
One of the first things I did after getting engaged was head eagerly to my first — and last — bridal show. The show did not provide inspiration for our reception or identify any vendors we wanted to use, but it did result in the distribution of my e-mail address to a wide variety of wedding-related businesses.
It may be that it seems time has flown because my inbox has reminded me daily of my wedding-planning days. I naively believed that when questionnaires asked for both my e-mail address and my wedding date, they would know when to stop the barrage of spam. I was wrong. My wedding/junk folder contains 1,548 e-mails, 481 of which have arrived since my wedding day.
Lesson 7: Don’t give anyone your e-mail address unless you plan on doing business with them.
We were engaged for roughly 15 months before the wedding. Of those, it was the last six to eight when most of the planning happened: save-the-dates, invitations, menus, flowers, seating charts, table cloth designs, party favors, and place cards, among others on a fairly exhausting list of major and minor things people don’t think about unless they’re planning a big event.
One thing not on that list for most people is buying a house, and for good reason: that in itself is a time-consuming and stressful process. No one told us this, probably because it should go without saying, so we closed on our first house a little over three months before the wedding. On the night of my bridal shower, my husband was frantically moving the last of our things out of the apartment we had shared for the previous three years. Two weeks before wedding, we were negotiating the Brooklyn Queens Expressway with a U-Haul truck full of furniture from the Long Island home of my late grandparents. And we arrived home from our relaxing honeymoon to a mess of boxes not yet unpacked and furniture not quite in its proper place.
Lesson 8: Take it one major life event at a time.
The major life event I should have been focused on exclusively was the wedding, and the advice I received from most of the happily married people I know — to soak it all in because the day would be the best of your life and would be over in a flash — was so true, and so hard to heed in the moment. To that end, we wish that we’d had a professional videographer. My grandfather made a recording of the ceremony in which much of the sound is muffled by a fan whirring near his seat. My brother — who makes a living working on sound for film and television — has had the raw footage for almost all 592 days we’ve been married. We have yet to see, or hear, any of it.
On a related note, we should have sprung for the extra $300 or so to use the university’s sound system in the chapel. Our officiant had a microphone of her own, and we could hear just fine, but we learned later that many in the audience could not.
Lesson 9: Pay for quality.
More importantly, though, a videographer could also have captured moments at the reception not adequately memorialized by still images. For my first dance with my father I had picked “As Time Goes By” — an homage to his favorite movie, “Casablanca.” Citing our years of father-daughter bonding over our mutual love of baseball, my father had suggested we dance to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Citing how ridiculous that would be, I refused. But I also spoke to our DJ and arranged for the song to come on toward the end of “As Time Goes By.” The surprise ending was a big hit.
The toasts given by my father, my grandfather, the maid of honor, and the best man should have been recorded for posterity. My father had guests laughing as he compared my wedding with the one portrayed in “Father of the Bride” (both the Spencer Tracy original and Steve Martin’s remake). For what it’s worth, I had never seen either movie at the time and may have had the least idea of anyone what was so funny. I believe I also received some mockery for not knowing who Spencer Tracy was in the first place.
My grandfather drew laughter and applause as he feigned horror at the notion that his eldest granddaughter had lived with her husband before they were married. This “news” may have come as an actual shock to some in attendance, but with no video I’ll likely never know if there were any truly horrified faces in the crowd.
Toward the end of the night, I did the traditional bouquet toss (to the tune of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). The group of single ladies was a mix of ones who reached for the flowers and ones who backed off hoping the bouquet didn’t come their way. As luck would have it, the one who caught it — a friend of ours from college — was the next to get engaged.
She will face her own set of wedding planning challenges, no doubt compounded by a recent move to Europe for work. I wish her, and anyone else planning a wedding, good luck, and hope they have fun with the process.
Lesson 10: Don’t let anyone else tell you how to plan and celebrate your wedding. It’s your day, so make the most of it. Your anniversary will be here before you know it.