Just a 30 minute drive north of Metropolitan Nashville will take you to a place where fine southern heritage meets plain white trash. That place is Kentucky, where I grew up. In Kentucky, you can get married at the age of 16 with your parent’s signature, just like a permission slip for a field trip. You can’t vote, join the army, or buy cigarettes or alcohol, but by golly you can file joint tax returns. Who wants to waste money on a wedding rehearsal when you have a perfectly good prom coming up in April? By the time I was 18, I had been in three weddings, not as a flower girl, but as a bridesmaid. I’ve actually never been a flower girl, despite my requests. I was already my full adult height in second grade.
As an educated southern woman in her early thirties, being unmarried without children makes me stand out worse than a beer belly in a beauty pageant. My friends and family can’t imagine why I have restrained myself from the magic of matrimony all these years. I have a delightful boyfriend of 10 years whom I live with and co-parent two pugs. I love the idea of having a huge party with an open bar where all my acquaintances buy me gifts from a pre-selected registry. As far as I can tell, I don’t have issues with intimacy, commitment, or changing my bizarre last name. Despite all this, I’ve just never felt compelled, nor motivated to make an honest woman of myself. Maybe it’s my own counter-culture movement against my home state where legislation will chronologically grant you a marriage license before a driver’s license. Where the people you choose to be in your wedding party have a curfew, and are counting down the days till they get their braces off. I was in more weddings in high school than I have been in all the years since, and that’s saying a lot since I was in a sorority.
It all started when my aunt, who was only nine years older than me, got engaged. The whole family pitched in to throw her a simple wedding on a shoestring budget. We made all the food, bought our dresses secondhand, hosted the wedding at our house, and my mom and I were the bridesmaids. I was 12. We worked hard to make everything look as perfect as it did in Leisure Arts and other craft magazines, and there wasn’t a single snag until I went upstairs to get ready for the big event.
I started my period for the very first time just minutes before the ceremony. I decided to keep it a secret and threw away all the evidence, including my undies. That’s loyalty to the bride. I didn’t want to take any attention away from her, even for my first menstruation. My sanitary supplies were limited to what I could sneak from my mom’s stash, so I was basically wearing a diaper underneath my bridesmaid’s dress. I felt my maxi pad crinkle and crunch under the green polyester dress as I stiffly marched down the aisle. I felt so grown up. My aunt, who was raised like a sister to me was getting married, I was ovulating, and my mom let me get my haircut in layers for the first time. With my confidence and eyeliner, 12-year-old me could have gotten served at a bar.
My next stroll down the aisle was for a friend at the small Christian school I attended for two years. It was the year 2000 and we made it through Y2K with all our appendages, so anything was possible. All threats of the apocalypse were silenced after the clocks struck midnight and the world’s computers refrained from resetting to 1900. We climbed out of our underground bunkers and carried on with life. My friend graduated high school that year, and was getting married to her manager at Wendy’s where she worked. I’m not making fun of them, they’re still together, have three sons, and a wonderful life together. She even told me recently she was happy she got married, but looking back she didn’t know why the hell her parents went along with it.
This wedding took place in our church/school/building we used for everything. None of us had much money– we worked part-time after school for minimum wage. We had our dresses made by the most efficient seamstress in three counties, a Mennonite lady. You can milk a goat without breaking a seam in your dress, but they don’t pay much attention to the frilly details. You want a bow? You don’t need a bow. We do ankle length, and turtleneck. You don’t want to look like Mary Magdalene do you? This was pre-Pinterest and our town didn’t even have a JoAnn Fabrics, so patterns were limited. We either got our shoes at Wal-Mart or went barefoot. Being barefoot in Kentucky isn’t only a stereotype but a way of life. If you couldn’t run over gravel full speed without shoes, you’d never survive childhood.
The bride to be was raised even more religiously than I was. We were Southern Baptists, and premarital sex was a ticket straight to hell. We had both participated in a purity banquet, a ritual where we promised our parents not to have sex until marriage. As proof, we wore rings inscribed “True Love Waits”, and our parents were given skeleton keys as a symbol that they held the key to the lock on our chastity belts. Figurative, but still creepy. All this insured there would be no snarky remarks about the color of your wedding dress. No cream or eggshell for purity gals, you earned every thread of that bright white dress.
The third time I was an underage bridesmaid was for a friend in the same grade. She was actually one of the youngest in our class and we practically grew up together. Her mom signed the permission slip since she was still 17. She wasn’t hiding a pregnancy, under a purity vow, or even dying of cancer, she just wanted to be a wife.
She asked me to be her maid of honor. I had no idea what that meant. I was in high school and worked at Piggly Wiggly. Someone mentioned the Maid of Honor plans the Bachelorette party. Hmmm, I thought: Let me ask my mom if I can have people over. She said I can only have three girls over but we can order pizza. Also don’t wake up my dad, he works third shift. We didn’t have a stripper but would have had no choice about male nudity when my 5-year-old brother barged in and showed everyone his Vienna sausage. He was quite proud of it, like guys instinctively are. If she didn’t like that idea, maybe I could wait outside a gas station and ask an adult to buy us wine coolers. The town we lived in was completely dry, so I would have had to go to the next city over, and I wasn’t allowed to drive on the highway at night!
The day of the ceremony, I did my best to hide how I felt about the girl I made mud pies with as a kid getting legally bound to someone. We were still kids, but our state lawmakers didn’t find anything weird about not being able to drink during your own wedding toast. At the ceremony, traditional accompaniment like the Wedding March was replaced by NSYNC, Mariah Carey, and Shania Twain. Those were the hottest singers then and if they couldn’t express her feelings that day, who could? The happy newlyweds rode off into the sunset on a John Deere Gator, because we were teenagers in Kentucky, and that was badass.
The only logical place to go on a teen honeymoon is back home with your parents. How romantic to carry your new wife over the threshold of your home, AKA her old bedroom. What if they shared a bedroom with a sibling? Turn up the volume on your Discman so we can consummate this thang. Then we’ll move out all the Precious Moments figurines to make room for our wedding china.
A year later, my friend’s marriage had ended and I was home from college for the summer. As we caught up on everything from divorce to the freshman 15, I realized she had matured far beyond me. A year of college didn’t teach me what she learned about life in her first month of marriage. We celebrated our reunion by riding roller coasters at Six Flags. The last time I saw her was at our 10 year high school reunion. She surprised me when she showed up with a new husband, pictures of her adorable kids, and a very pregnant belly. Thankfully her current husband was nice enough to get the old wedding photos out of storage so I could have them as visual aids for this story.
I’m still thick as thieves with all three of these wonderful women, and I know they would do anything for me, including put on a bridesmaid’s dress, if it ever came to that. We’re all a bit older and wiser now and all agree we wouldn’t go back and change a thing. If I’ve learned anything from them, it’s that following your heart isn’t the worst thing you can do. Sure, divorces are messy, and it’s a real pain to get all new monogrammed stuff when you go back to your maiden name, but it’s nothing compared to the regret you would feel of never knowing if it could have worked. As for me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel old enough to drink at my own wedding. But until then, I’m registered at Target.