My twin brother William and I turn 50 this winter. He has lived in New England for about as long as I have lived in the Midwest. He occasionally participates in Jewish holidays and I seldom do. He decided to buy a house around the same time I did: His would be in Massachusetts and mine would be in Milwaukee.
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I live here in Minnesota now. More than twelve years ago, I fell in love and I was in the throes of what to call this new relationship: “Girlfriend” sounded so high-school. “Lover” sounded so one-dimensional, and “fiancée” sounded too formal. So I settled on “Sweetie.” We’re both fairly religious, and after one of us finally proposed to the other, we went through a sort of Quaker pre-marital counseling process so we could get married there.
Quaker weddings are distinctive and memorable. There is no paid clergy in the front of the room to preside over the marriage. The couple and all the guests sit in a meditative silence, in a large circle or semi-circle, just as in Quaker worship. When the couple is ready, they stand and share their vows with one another in front of everyone.
In a Quaker wedding, after exchanging the vows and rings–if there are any–the couple sign a large piece of parchment that has their vows handwritten, often in calligraphy, and a respected member of the community or a dear friend of the couple’s reads aloud the full text of the marriage certificate to everyone assembled. The text usually ends with a statement like, “And we, being present, share the couple’s joy and here now, set our hands.”
Just below that statement are dozens and dozens of spaces: a place for each guest to sign the marriage certificate and affirm his or her own joy of such a special time, a blessed union.
Of course, many guests at a Quaker wedding or marriage ceremony have never attended one before, so along with any flowery–or plain–invitation that is sent, there is a description of what to expect, including signing the marriage certificate.
My parents came from New Jersey for the wedding, of course. And my brothers came from the east and west coast, too. But when my parents sat in our living room with us the day before the wedding itself, my mother said, “We can’t sign the marriage certificate. We can’t say we share in the joy you two have.” And my father said, “You’ve told us that you’re not planning on having children, so why do you have to get married?”
This wasn’t the first time my parents expressed concern or confusion over the fact that their 37-year-old daughter was marrying a woman. But I was surprised by what came out of my mouth that afternoon:
“Dad, do you mean to tell me that if William were to fall in love with a woman, and they told you they were going to get married but weren’t planning to have kids, you would tell them that you didn’t think they should get married?”
He put his hand to his chin and stroked it a moment, rethinking what he had said. “No, I don’t think that’s what I would tell William. I guess I have to rethink this.”
It’s more than twelve years after that conversation in our living room. Now my parents frequently call from their New England retirement home, to ask about our Thanksgiving plans to see them and William and his not-so-new sweetheart, a woman. Sometimes my folks ask how the marriage amendment work is going.
Given their own journey to understand that the foundation of marriage is love and commitment, and how closely they are watching to see if Minnesota’s marriage amendment will be rejected, I’d say the work to defeat the amendment that would limit the freedom to marry is going pretty well.
It is more than okay to love who you love: the freedom to marry the person you love is a freedom that belongs to everyone.