Like many little girls of her generation, my daughter Robyn was enthralled with dressing up and playing make believe. She was raised with Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, and a hundred other princesses in the Age of Disney.
She loved velvet and pink tulle and silver crowns embossed with plastic jewels which filled our homemade Tickle Trunk (If you didn’t grow up watching Mr. Dressup, the link is for you) along with other clothes from the second hand store.
One day, when she was nine or ten, she asked me if we could have a fancy dinner.
“A what?” I asked, with raised eyebrows.
“You know—It’s when we all dress up for dinner, and then we dance in the living room.”
I shrugged, not knowing what the significance of this might be. “I guess so,” I said. Her little sister vibrated and squealed with excitement. They ran off to put on their fanciest dresses and left me in the kitchen to stare at the pot of spaghetti boiling on the stove.
What could I do to fancy up spaghetti? I grated real cheese.
I put candles on the table and rifled through my closet for a dress. When Dad arrived home, the girls informed him—their feet tapping, hands on fancy hips—that he was to get dressed up and make his way to our little eat-in kitchen, tout de suite.
His look of fatigue changed to confusion, and then obedience. He took the stairs two at a time and returned in a suit and tie.
After dinner, I think we moved the coffee table out of the way and jumped around to the Shrek soundtrack.
Thus began a family tradition of occasional Fancy Dinners, until my daughter not only outgrew them, but announced that the practice was embarrassing, and furthermore, she never wanted anyone to know that it was ever her suggestion. (So don’t tell her I told you.)
A similar bald announcement came a decade and a half later, when an engaged Robyn was to be married on my front lawn, six days hence.
She and her fiancé had been engaged for a few months, and the original plan had been to have a smallish wedding in Dorchester, New Brunswick, at the Lady Smith Manor. We had been part of a charitable group that owned the building when she was young, and she spent most of her first twelve years there. To her, it felt like home. The new owner is currently renovating the 10,000 square foot Georgian building as a wedding venue, and Robyn’s wedding in October would have been the sentimental first of many fancy events. She had even put a large down payment on an expensive gown, which was to arrive in June.
But COVID-19 hit, like a truck in the broad side of a building. They had hung on to the hope that their October date would still work out, until the New Brunswick government closed the borders. The groom’s entire family live out of province, including his parents. There was just too much uncertainty. Robyn and her beloved didn’t want to have a big wedding without them, and they didn’t want to wait another year to start their lives together.
They decided to elope.
Our pastor, who is also a long-time family friend, agreed to marry them on our front steps, on a Sunday night in May, chosen because it was the one sunny day between the forecast of several rainy days. People could drive up and watch from their cars, or stand on the boulevard. From their front porches the neighbours could share the big event.
“On my front lawn?” Once again, my eyebrows flew up. Once again, I agreed to an unusual event, but to me the stakes were much higher.
My front lawn was a yellow, barren, spring scandal. Patches of mud and rocks. Acidic soil that would only accommodate moss. The oak and Norway maples lining our boulevard were still asleep. And our modest home was nothing to look at. Decades old vinyl siding and ancient windows and a broken screen door and a crumbling front step.
How could I make it wedding-worthy in only a few days?
With lipstick and rouge on an old face, that’s how.
New paint, and cedar mulch, and crushed stone, and potted spring flowers, and candles, and a makeshift arch (provided by my sister-in-law), of birch saplings strung with lights. And wooden benches, and chocolate cupcakes for visitors, and a small wedding cake.
It wasn’t the English garden I would have wished for, but it was as nice as it could be under the circumstances. The night before the wedding, when we were putting on the final touches, a man and his wife passed by on their evening walk. “Are you having a birthday party?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “My daughter is getting married tomorrow.”
“Do you have any music?” He was tall and slim and I’d seen him before, out walking his dog. I knew he lived in the neighbourhood.
When I said no, he offered to come at ten to seven and play his bagpipes, so that my daughter had music to walk up the sidewalk with her dad.
And just like that, it became a community wedding. She bought a dress at a second hand store for ten dollars, and her aunt fashioned a shrug out of an old angora sweater. She also pulled some flowers together from bouquets purchased at Costco.
Facebook Live made it possible for friends and family to tune in from wherever they lived. I think this is fitting, given that all three of my children have grown up in the Selfie Age, an era where people are used to preening for pictures and video and posting them all publicly. They are a generation of kids who know how to pose, who expect to be watched. It’s no wonder that Robyn grew up to study filmmaking, when so much of her life was on film.
After the papers were signed and the cake was cut and people scurried away, we had one more fancy dinner together, as a “pandemic bubble” family. Chicken and potatoes and wedding cake for dessert. There were candles on the table and sparkling white wine. They danced their first dance in the living room. And then we kissed them, prayed for them, wished them well, and sent them home. Simple and sweet, just like our lives.
I cried that Sunday. And exhausted from a whirlwind week, I slept on Monday. The viral pandemic had ruined everyone’s plans. This was not the event my daughter had hoped for. And yet, in the midst of it, we let go of all the trappings of luxury and convenience, to focus on what’s really important.
If you’re lucky, life brings some full circle moments.