When my husband’s sister called to announce her engagement several summers ago, he and I both got on the phone to congratulate her. Then we hung up and looked at each other, feeling a little sick.
We were happy for Anne. We’d never heard her sound so joyous, and we liked the groom-to-be a lot. The problem was that she wanted us to bring our kids — all three, including the newly walking baby who considered his car seat an evil device created by Mommy de Sade to keep him from exploring the fabulous world.
There are myriad reasons not to bring children to a long-distance wedding. The drive alone is a mammoth undertaking, especially when the destination is a decidedly un-kid-friendly historic inn. Factor in several rounds of dress-up events guaranteed to drive children to act up, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Wouldn’t it be better, I suggested to Haywood, to go alone and remember what it feels like to sleep in a bed without little bodies wedged in between us? To renew our own marriage vows while seated in a pew at the ceremony itself, instead of taking turns hanging around with three fussy children in the church vestibule? And if our trusted babysitter wasn’t free, wouldn’t it be all right for just Haywood to go and allow the bride to consider herself lucky that her wedding video wasn’t spoiled by a temper tantrum?
But the bride didn’t want a single person in her beloved family to miss her once-in-a-lifetime celebration. I don’t know how it is in other families, but in ours, if my husband’s baby sister wants her whole family present on her day of days, then by heaven her whole family she shall have.
I wish I could report that the car trip wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. But all I can say is that I’m glad no videocam was rolling in our van as I fed Smarties to 1-year-old Joe, one at a time, for several hours: His eight existing teeth may rot before the others come in, but at least he downgraded from howling to whimpering with candy in his mouth. And the security cameras at the fast-food place where we ate lunch probably caught him vomiting Smarties all over his fries, but no one in the family will ever see that one.
It didn’t help that we were driving in a daylong rainstorm during peak construction season. What should have been a merely hellacious seven-hour drive became an excruciating nine-hour one. At its nadir, our car was sitting motionless on the interstate, engulfed in the diesel fumes of idling 18-wheelers, when a trucker leaned out his window and yelled that there was an accident up ahead and it could be hours before the road cleared.
In that instant I began to hate the man I’d married — for his bright cheer-up talk ("Well, at least we can unbuckle and stretch, kids"), his stupid little highway games ("I spy something red and very loud, and it’s not your baby brother"), and his persistent conviction that as soon as we were safely in the bosom of our loving family, it would all be worth it. I wanted to gather all three knapsacks full of Viewmaster reels, coloring books, and lollipops into one bundle of familial responsibility and hurl it at his head.
I didn’t do it. Miraculously, it stopped raining soon after that. The car started to move, and 7-year-old Sam invented a peekaboo game that made Joe and Henry, 3, laugh.
When we arrived, the relatives embraced us, held the boys at arm’s length and said how beautiful they were, then hugged us all some more.
In the end, the older couple down the hall from us in the inn were very understanding when Henry walked into their room by mistake and screamed in terror. Sam didn’t fuss when he had to wear a tie. And the wedding was so brief that even Joe made it through without a peep.
But it was during the picture taking that I understood why we’d come. For one shot, the bride was surrounded by her nieces and nephews. One of Henry’s kneesocks was pooled around his ankle, and Anne was holding Joe’s hand to keep it away from his nose. As children clambered over the great silk froth of her dress, she looked radiant.
A wedding is the beginning of a new life for the bride and groom, but it’s also the beginning of new families. The one the couple hope to have together someday, and the extended family that promises to support them.
That’s why I’m glad we went. One day I hope my kids see that being in a family means sharing life-changing celebrations; it means sticking together in hard times (including car rides with a screaming baby); it means making not only photographs but also memories of people who love one another no matter what. And when one of them is getting married and the others seem too far away, or too busy, or too ensnared in their own lives to make the trip, I want them to come anyway. Because they’re brothers, I want them to come.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor.