On Valentine’s Day this year I flew to Tallahassee, a place I’d never expected to visit, to attend the wedding of my first cousin once removed. Mine is the kind of family, with some vaguely southern roots, that keeps track of relationships like this.
The father of the bride, my first cousin Peter, is closer in age to my children than he is to me. My two St. Louis aunts had the large Catholic families which were the norm in the fifties in some circles, six and seven kids like stair-steps, and this cousin was at the tail end of his nuclear family. I had 18 first cousins altogether (one died young), and I know the older ones who are closer to my age better. But Peter visited the Bay Area when his older daughter was a Science Fair contestant here, and we got to know the bride, Laura, his younger daughter, when she and a friend visited Berkeley one summer while they were students.
The wedding became the catalyst for a family reunion of sorts. Her father’s four surviving siblings (plus a sizable representation of spouses, offspring and grandkids) showed up in Tallahassee. The older ones I remembered fondly from childhood, before our families moved away from St. Louis, and I enjoyed getting to know the younger ones and their descendants better. I was pleased to discover that they’re very nice people, all of them, good politics, sense of humor, smart, the whole nine yards of how you might hope distant relatives would turn out to be.
The ceremony was low-key but elegant, in the family garden, with a buffet for about 100 guests in the house afterwards. In the best contemporary tradition, the officiant was a friend of the family and the service was eclectic, readings drawn from a variety of sources, music by an Irish wedding band.
Oh, and did I mention that this was a two-bride wedding? The second bride was the other young woman who’d visited us in Berkeley a few years ago with our cousin who had now become her partner.
The brides wore matching simple white frocks and carried flowers. A full assortment of family members from both sides and of various ages, all the way down to little kids carrying rings and scattering flowers, preceded them down an aisle improvised between rows of rented folding chairs. My bride cousin’s dad walked her down the aisle, and the other bride was escorted by two fathers, one on each arm, her birth father and her stepfather, both of whom she clearly loved.
All in all, it was a regular up-to-code modern wedding, with many elements in common with my own daughters’ weddings in the last couple of decades. It included one custom which I’d first seen when my daughter who’d been to a Quaker college got married. The two spouses signed a marriage contract which was then signed by all the assembled guests as witnesses, symbolizing the role of marriage as part of a community.
Evidently this is the Quaker tradition, but it’s also consistent with what I’d been taught as a child in my Catholic school, as I imagine my cousins were too: that marriage is an agreement between two spouses, with the priest only a witness. In my childhood catechism the role of the state in legalizing marriage was minimized, an analysis which is reflected in many European countries when couples often have two ceremonies, one at city hall and the other in church.
Florida is not one of the states which has legalized same-sex marriage, so the two women planned to register their legal status in Washington, D.C., where they live. But it was clear to all assembled that this Florida ceremony was the real deal, the occasion where they promised in full view of family and friends to love and support one another no matter what.
Why did so many of us choose to make the trek to Tallahassee in the middle of February, not an easy feat since the airlines have abandoned small markets like this, making the trip both difficult and expensive? Besides our affection for the people involved, I suspect many of us were motivated by the still unusual situation of the marriage of two women. I think we wanted to bear witness to our appreciation of the social value of marriages like these.
I myself was especially moved by remembering that when Laura's aunt, my cousin Elsa, the oldest in her family, got married in St. Louis in 1964, one of her bridesmaids was an African-American college classmate, and a great-aunt turned on her heels at the church door when she saw that there was “a colored girl” in the wedding party. That’s not the kind of people we are in our family now. Times have changed since Loving v. Virginia, and we hope to see the same kind of change for brides (or grooms) like these.
But even when the community assembles to ratify a marriage, people are still denied the legal benefits that they’re entitled to, as this week’s Supreme Court arguments illustrated. Justice Ginsburg’s description of civil unions as second rate “skim milk” in the absence of true marriage is sure to become a classic—and everyone deserves the cream too.
The first reading at my cousin’s wedding, which seems to have become a popular text at many gay weddings, was the Massachusetts Supreme court decision legalizing same sex marriages. I've just learned that the author was Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, the wife of legendary New York Times columnist Tony Lewis, whose seminar on legal journalism I was privileged to attend when he did a stint at UC Berkeley. I don’t know if fine writing is contagious between spouses, but I’m sure she benefited from the association—it’s a beautifully written document. Lewis died this week—what a shame that he’s missing this week’s fascinating discussions.
Later my cousin Peter, the father of one bride, read a passage from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”Perhaps half of the guests had been baptized as Catholics, certainly the cousins in my generation. Not many, it seemed, were still churchgoers—two brothers in the next generation had converted to Judaism when they married, and it seemed that most of the rest of us don’t find much to admire in the current church.
The Archbishop of San Francisco this week articulated why we’ve given up on the Catholic Church when he led the prayers of those who had assembled in Washington to oppose gay marriage. Last week before he went there he spoke to ABC7 about his ideas on the topic:
If he wonders why the churches in his diocese are not as full during Holy Week as they were in my St. Louis childhood, or why young women like Laura are marrying without benefit of clergy, he might re-read First Corinthians.
And perhaps when he’s tempted to give advice to gay people on what's bad for children, he should reflect on the many transgressions against children by Catholic clergy which are now coming to light, and heed Jesus’s advice in the Sermon on the Mount:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.And how was the wedding? We all had a wonderful time.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.