Adventures in Wedding Planning

My daughter is getting married. This is a joyous time for our family, but as anyone who has planned a wedding knows, it is also stressful. So many decisions to make, so many people to please, so many opinions and so many preconceived ideas – how could it not be fraught? And, it brings back memories of my own wedding.

It was 1982 – an eventful year I have chronicled on this blog (here). Before Gary left for medical school in Pittsburgh, we wanted to get a few of the wedding essentials nailed down. We started by thinking about a venue. I had visions of a ceremony outside on a lush hillside, the sun shining down on us, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of my bouquet. We’d be dressed in relatively informal attire. Maybe I wouldn’t even wear a gown. That was my fantasy; I was introduced to reality quickly.

If we were going to be married by a rabbi and have a wedding in the sunshine, we would have to do it on a Sunday. A rabbi would need to wait for Sabbath (Saturday) to end before performing the ceremony. We both had large families with many coming from out of town, Sunday would be inconvenient.

We both wanted the ceremony to be officiated by a rabbi – I doubt Gary would have considered another option. In my ignorance, I did not realize that we would need to wait until after sunset to walk down the aisle on Saturday. Maybe we could have found a Reform rabbi who could conduct the ceremony earlier in the evening, but that was not going to fly with Gary’s family. It seemed to be the consensus of our families that the wedding should be on a Saturday night.

With Gary starting medical school that fall, we began planning for the following summer, the summer of 1983. Sunset was quite late. I learned that we couldn’t gather our guests until 9:30 pm!! Not only would it not be an afternoon wedding, it would be after midnight before Gary and I finally said our vows!

My education in wedding matters continued as we visited venues. We liked Terrace on the Park, which was located on the grounds of the old World’s Fair in Queens. The ballroom was at the top of a tower, high above Flushing Meadows Park. It had great views. It didn’t serve kosher food. This was the next lesson in my learning process. My family would be fine with that, but the Bakst family needed it to be certified kosher. I had never heard of a mashgiach before, but I learned that we needed to hire one to oversee all the food preparation to ensure that the rules of kashruth were observed.

Our venue options were getting narrower – we looked at a couple of synagogues that had large social halls. Each one offered a unique feature. It seemed that showcasing the bride in some way was part of their shpiel. For example, one salesperson enthusiastically described how they had a pedestal on which the bride could stand while it rotated – the audience could appreciate her beauty from every angle. I shook my head in disbelief – I had no desire to pose like a cake topper.

Eventually we visited the Seaview Jewish Center, where the salesperson made his pitch for my dramatic entrance. They had a curtain behind which the bride would wait before walking down the aisle, her body lit in silhouette so guests could anticipate with bated breath the reveal. I told him that I was not interested. Once we got past that, the venue offered a number of advantages. It was kosher, conveniently located in Canarsie, not far from my house, the ceremony and reception would be in the same building, and they presented a reasonably priced package deal. It even included a band. Sign us up! My parents put down a deposit and we had a date – June 11, 1983

The next wrinkle came when Gary got to medical school and found out his semester didn’t end until June 30th. Uh-oh! After a brief spasm of panic, I called the Seaview Jewish Center, and, to our great relief, July 30th was still available. We made the switch.

Our planning continued. Now I needed to look for a dress. At that stage of my life, I was as fit  as I had ever been. I could sometimes get into a size ten, though 12s were more reliable. Mom and I went into the city to the famous bridal building. This was a place in the garment district in Manhattan where designers had their showrooms. For a limited time on the weekend, they would open their doors to shoppers. You could try on samples and order a dress at greatly reduced prices. Everyone talked about what a great deal it was for a high-quality gown.

I was nervous about trying on dresses, of course. I had trouble imagining myself as a bride. I perused the magazines, looking at the styles, the hair-dos, and none of it looked like me. The dresses I saw were flouncy and tiered, with a lot of lace – more fitting for a Southern belle than a Brooklyn tomboy. But, Mom and I had heard so much about the bridal building, and we didn’t know of many alternatives, so off we went.

We arrived at 1385 Broadway, to what looked like a standard-issue office building. We checked the directory in the lobby and picked a few places to visit. We went to three or four showrooms on different floors – each with the same result. The largest sample size they offered was a six. I couldn’t even get my arms into it, much less the rest of my body! One of the salesgirls suggested that I hold it up in front of me to see if I liked it. One place had a dress in a size 20 that I could actually put on. It looked like a giant white tablecloth. I wanted to cry.

Needless to say, our outing was a disaster. We gave up. I don’t know who felt worse, Mom or me. Mom said we would find a dress somewhere else. We got on the subway and went back to Canarsie, my worst ideas about my body confirmed. Even though I was in the best shape of my life, I still couldn’t try on a dress.

Mom asked around and learned that Laura Ashley, a designer who made dresses more my style, had a line of wedding gowns. The following weekend Dad drove us to the shop in Manhattan. I had never gone into a clothing store on Madison Avenue. I was doubtful as I climbed the stairs. Alas, we hit pay dirt! There, in the lovely store that smelled like lavender, on the sales rack (!) was a dress, just my style and just my size. It was a simple white cotton Swiss polka dot gown with a v-neck, short sleeves, fitted to the waist. It had minimal frills, no train, just touches of ruffle on the bodice and sleeve. It was as if it was made just for me and it was only a little over $100 (about $260 today). What a relief!

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There were other hiccups in the rest of the planning process, but I had some nice surprises, too. I loved our invitations. We picked a heavyweight white paper with cranberry colored ink. The envelope was cranberry with white lining. Mom and I took an adult ed calligraphy class at South Shore High School specifically so I could address the envelopes. I took to calligraphy. I was able to reproduce the pen strokes that the teacher demonstrated. It was a great project for me.

In a way planning a wedding is a test of the relationship. Can you disagree in a constructive way and come to a resolution? Can both parties compromise? Do you share the same values? The answer for us was yes. I communicated this thought to Leah as she and Ben began their journey. They are off to a great start!

One final observation: Based on my experience shopping for a mother-of-the-groom dress several years ago, and going with Leah for her dress more recently, I believe stores offer a wider range of sample sizes. Hopefully no one has to repeat my experience at the bridal building!

When We Went to Medical School

Sometimes I slip and say, “when we went to medical school.” Of course, I know that I didn’t go. In fact, when I would meet Gary on campus, we would take a short cut that went through the anatomy lab. I kept my eyes tightly closed, held my breath and he guided me through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cut out for blood, guts or formaldehyde. But, I still feel like I went through it. Maybe because it was so intense. Maybe because our lives were totally consumed and structured by the demands of Gary’s schedule. Whatever the reason, now and again the phrase still slips out.

When I joined Gary in Pittsburgh, one of the things I was struck by, and people will be pleased to know this, was how seriously Gary and his fellow students took their learning. I don’t know if it is like this in other medical schools, but at Pitt, with a few exceptions, students were committed to learning all of the material. There was concern about grades, too, but the focus was actually on learning. They took their responsibility very seriously. Not only were they studying for a given test, they were trying to retain the knowledge beyond that test. Certainly, this was true for Gary and his circle of friends.

This was a contrast from my experience in graduate school, where my fellow students at Columbia were present and worked hard, but didn’t display that level of commitment, not even close. The med school students saw a connection between what they were learning and the quality of care they would later provide patients. I found it very reassuring.

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These were some of the thick books Gary lugged around.

The first two years of medical school were comprised of traditional classes. Gary lugged huge, thick texts on biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to and from the apartment – sometimes to one of the libraries on campus, more often downstairs to a room in our building. Ruskin Hall, where we lived, had a lounge on the first floor that was good for studying. There was a long wooden table with sturdy chairs and some more comfortable chairs against the walls. It was never terribly crowded, but there were always some people studying there. When he wasn’t in class or lab, that’s where I’d find Gary. It became a routine: every evening around 8:00 I’d bring him a cup of Maxwell House International Suisse Mocha (the instant mix). We’d touch base for a minute or two and then I’d go back up to the apartment, watch t.v. or read and go to sleep. I didn’t know what time Gary came up.

It could be lonely for me. Other than Gary, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. It took a few months for me to find a job, but even after finding one, it was hard to make friends. I was an outsider at work, being so young, a New Yorker and Jewish (I wrote about that here and here). My colleagues were married, with children and in a different place in their lives. Though it was fine for work, for the most part, I couldn’t make a connection that went beyond a celebratory drink during the holidays.

We did have a circle of friends from Gary’s class, which included some women. I did become friends with one who was in a similar situation, she worked while her husband went to med school. She was a copy editor at a publishing company. But her life took a major turn when she got pregnant and had a baby during the second year of medical school. We remained friendly, and we socialized as couples, but she, understandably, was preoccupied.

I tried some different things to network and branch out. I joined a group called Women in Community Development and edited their newsletter. I enrolled to get my PhD in Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh and took a few classes, while working full time. I joined a gym near work. None of those efforts led to the kind of connection I wanted. Looking back, I think my loneliness and sadness were more about my general melancholia, not yet treated with medication.

I muddled through, trying to be as supportive of Gary as possible, while simultaneously leaning on him to fulfill all of my emotional needs (perhaps a contradiction in terms). The third year of medical school brought new and different challenges. Gary began rotations in the hospitals, each one exposing him to another specialty. Most med students, early on, made a choice: medicine or surgery. There were many specialties within each of those two branches, but the two areas called upon different skill sets. Surgeons tended to be action-oriented, take-charge, fix-it kind of people. Internal medicine drew problem-solvers, relationship-focused, detail-oriented folks. There was some trash talk between the two groups, with those choosing medicine disparagingly referred to as ‘fleas.’ I don’t recall a pejorative assigned to surgeons, but the general idea was that they wanted to operate first, ask questions later.

Gary chose medicine, not surprisingly. As a result, the medicine rotation loomed large for him. He was determined to ace it. It was the longest rotation, lasting almost three months, taking him to different hospitals with a long stint at the VA. The hours were brutal. Gary would leave the apartment at 6:00 am and get home around 9:00 pm, if not later, and then he would read/study. I don’t recall him having weekends off, and if he did, they were spent studying. There was just so much to learn.

One night, tired of eating dinner alone and feeling resentful, I asked Gary if he had to keep these hours. “Can’t you cut back a bit? Does everyone do what you’re doing?” Gary carefully explained to me that this was time-limited, the rotation would end. He felt he needed to go all out because it would be important for future choices. If he wanted to get a residency placement of his choosing, the better he did in this rotation, the more options he would have. I didn’t know it then, but this argument would become a recurring theme in the first ten years of our marriage: me questioning whether Gary’s long hours were necessary. This time I told him I understood, and tried to suck it up.

I don’t know how he did it, I barely made it through the ordeal. I have this unfortunate tendency when in a dark period to feel like it will never end. I find it a challenge to see light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, that isn’t a quality Gary shares – he certainly wasn’t seeing much light, literally or figuratively. It was the fall, he left in the dark and came home in the dark and spent most of his time in the dim fluorescent light of hospital wards.

Finally, the rotation came to an end. I arrived home from work and found Gary already in the apartment. This was a major step forward, he was never home before me. I hung up my coat, went to the bathroom and came out to greet him. He was standing by the kitchen sink, taking a glass of water, but looking quizzically at me.

“What?” I asked, feeling like I must’ve missed something. Turned out I had.

“Did you go into the bathroom?”

“Yes, why?”

“Go in there again.”

I was perplexed but I did as he asked. I looked up and taped to the mirror was a piece of paper. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, though I do try to avoid mirrors. I recognized the format – it was the end of rotation evaluation. Gary got honors in Medicine! I screeched and jumped up and down. I threw my arms around him. We danced around the apartment. I later learned that Gary was one of only four students (out of 140) to achieve that distinction. Gary was well on his way to leaving his ‘imposter syndrome’ behind, and hopefully getting a choice residency when he graduated.

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The form that was taped to the mirror.