Not everything about the changes made to our lives by the pandemic has been bad. We’ve seen more of the children who are living at home than we have for years, which is (mostly) very nice. Shielding has meant a longer period at home with Rachel (eldest) than we’ve had since primary school. Those children who had been planning to move out, probably to London, have chosen to stay and work from home instead, which wasn’t even a possibility before. Our eldest son Peter was already established in London, so he has stayed there, and he’s the one we have really missed. Edmund (youngest boy) had been living in London, but working from home meant that he and our future daughter-in-law Una (I say proudly) decided that they wanted to be on their own, rather than a shared flat, and needed more space than was easy to afford in London. So Edmund and Una moved to our town, which meant that we could see them occasionally for walks in the park and even an occasional picnic in the garden. We weren’t allowed to see them very often, or at all close, but at least they were in the same town as we were, and we could wave. Then in October of last year, they decided to get engaged, and since then until very recently have been trying to negotiate getting married.
For our family, this is the first wedding in that generation, so our only point of comparison is our own wedding, which feels even further away than you might think, not just because it happened nearly forty years ago, but also because the pandemic has made so much of the preparation difficult or impossible. Nothing has turned out quite as might have been expected; lots of things could have still gone wrong up until the last minute (what if the bride or groom needed to self isolate? What if a new variant were discovered locally in the next week?), but Margaret (youngest, and our romance expert) declared a while back that the only way to manage was to regard it as a ‘war wedding’, and I think she was quite right. Make your plans as carefully as you can, seize the moment, and hope for the best.
When my husband and I got married, back in the Middle Ages, we were also both the first in our relative families to do so, and I think this does actually help, because you don’t feel any need to follow anyone else’s pattern. We wanted a simple wedding, in my home parish church, with a party in the garden afterwards at my parents’ house (my home since I was about eighteen months old), about a mile away. Like Edmund and Una, we’d got engaged in the autumn. Our plan had been to get married in July, because the sweetpeas would be out, and there were no family birthdays, and the weather should have been fairly reliable. But we moved it forward to May, because being engaged was not a particularly enjoyable stage to be at, my father said he still had time to put in lots of bulbs so I could have narcissus instead of sweetpeas, and we’d already waited long enough. The weather was a bit iffy, it was a day of sunshine and sudden brief showers, and people flowed in and out between the house and the garden according to how warm it was. There are muddy stains on the hem of my wedding dress, but it looked fine on the photographs.
Edmund and Una’s first job was to find a time when weddings were allowed, not easy in the last twelve months; and a church happy to have them. Una is not a Catholic but had a strong relationship with the Anglican church near their last flat, though she had no links here. Luckily, guardian angels had been working overtime, and our children had gone to the Anglican school just up the road, whose church spire is visible from our back garden (and we can hear the bongs of the clock even inside the house if the wind is in the right direction). Rachel and Peter were already too old, but I think John and Edmund both had four years there (we were on a home posting) and the two little girls went there later too, after we’d been abroad for a few years. So we had been to this church for Harvest Festivals, carol concerts, ends of term and various other things, but we had never expected to find ourselves at Edmund’s wedding there!
The date had to be on and off for a bit, because of lockdowns coming in and then being relaxed. Edmund and Una behaved with exemplary grace and patience, and finally, fixing a date halfway through April began to look like a definite possibility. We didn’t know how many people would be allowed, or what the rules would be, so we waited for them to take the lead in telling us what they wanted. They were reading any Government advice documents that came out with a magnifying glass in one hand and a fine tooth comb in the other. Numbers were clearly going to be extremely limited, but they just wanted to get married.
We got very excited when it looked as though it would be possible to have the tiny group of guests in the garden here after the wedding. Edmund and Una were having trouble finding a venue either open or prepared to let them do it as they wanted. They were diffident about asking to use the garden, and I hadn’t realised till then that Edmund didn’t know that that was the sort of thing that we had done for our wedding. I’ll have to try and dig out some pictures and notes for him one day when he’s actually allowed back into the ancestral home, I think there’s a file under my bed. This is one of the things that I found very different from our day : weddings are such a consumer item nowadays that there are professionals everywhere who want to do one particular aspect of the event their special way. That isn’t what we would have wanted, and neither did Edmund and Una. Our garden was coming up trumps at just the right time, full of primroses and with the bluebells just about to come in, even though none of us had known anything about it, or planted anything specially, as my father had done for me; but it turned out that you could not have even a tiny gathering in a garden. If there are more than two households, it has to be a venue and a sit-down meal.
So that is what happened, but the numbers were tiny. We felt embarrassed because even just with brothers, sisters and parents, we made up a full half of what’s allowed, which meant that friends had to be squeezed into Una’s half and not all her family could come. Apart from that, we had to explain to all my brothers and sisters, Edmund’s godparents, old family friends and more that they weren’t invited. I am glad that we have no grandparents left on this side, because I think that would have been an incredibly difficult conversation. However, this is one area where the war-wedding trope comes into play, because everyone knows that there are rules and restrictions, even if they aren’t sure of the latest version. For some couples, this may even be a blessing in disguise, as you have a cast-iron excuse for not asking difficult relations, and no one can take it personally.
How things have changed, though, in ecumenical terms. All my father’s siblings “married out” to non-Catholics, which meant that my grandparents and my parents, as good Catholics, were told not to attend the weddings. This caused very bad feeling, and my mother was still apologising for this to my cousins, more than fifty years later. In my generation, only I “married in”, but there was no question about anybody not going to any of the weddings; and now here we were rejoicing and helping to set up a wedding in the local Anglican church. We couldn’t have any hymns, but we could have music for the beginning and end, and I was allowed to sing a psalm at the signing of the register. I was not sure whether to worry more about being croaky because of not singing for months and months, or being croaky because my precious boy was getting married. It was fine.
We will have to sort things out with the Catholics later. Ideally, Edmund would have liked one of our local priests to be there at this wedding, but the logistics were too complicated – a whole extra person. I hope that we might be able to organise a blessing or something later in the year, when Edmund and Una are planning a wedding party for all those who can’t be allowed to come to this one. We need the rules to change and larger gatherings to be allowed, so there’s no date for that yet. For that party, we will be the ones travelling, and Una’s family will be on home turf.
And after the wedding? Edmund and Una went back to their flat and a peaceful evening, because travelling is still so difficult. After ours, we left by train to Shrewsbury, because we were going to North Wales for our honeymoon, and no trains ran then in North Wales on a Sunday, so we spent the weekend in Shrewsbury trying to remove all the confetti that had been smuggled into the socks in our rucksacks, and rub off the silver paint saying “Just married”.
It was a lovely day and a lovely wedding for them, intimate and gentle. The speeches were short and delightful. I don’t think anyone felt that anything at all was missing, and being able to have the entire party round one table was an enormous pleasure. The bigger party will be great too, in due course, but on Saturday there was so much “laughter and the love of friends” round our one table that Edmund and Una will have joyful memories of their wedding day for the rest of their lives.