Here’s a secret. I’ve never told any of my girlfriends this, for obvious reasons. But I’m going to share it with you. Whenever I meet the family of someone I’m dating, my brain automatically superimposes a caption under the mother’s face: “Your girlfriend 20 years from now.” This is terrifying in a skin-crawling way, like that scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Donald Sutherland opens his mouth and alien sounds come out. Mostly, it’s just plain wrong, unfair to mother and daughter, and certainly inaccurate, but I can’t help it.
You’ve probably done something similar: You extrapolate, because you’re wondering what your future will hold if you commit to your partner long-term. You want to know what values they have grown up with. Because their parents’ approach to relationships might inﬂuence your relationship.
That’s important for this story, which is part wedding story, part Meet the Parents, part mystery. And every good mystery starts with a phone request and a femme fatale. One night last summer, my girlfriend, Jade, called. “My mom says you’re invited to her wedding,” she said. (I was surprised: I had only met her mother once before, and I knew—because Jade had told me—that her mother never liked any of Jade’s boyfriends.) “But there’s one condition: You have to write her vows.”
I laughed, thinking she was joking.
Before we go on, some context. First, Jade Werner and I met while working in Japan. Meeting someone overseas, where there are only a handful of people who speak the same language as you, means you get to know each other quickly—you talk a lot. But it also means you know little about the way your partner lives their life back home: who their friends are, what their family is like.
Second, Jade and I were at the very beginning of a long-distance relationship. We had dated for six months in Japan under the implicit assumption that we would eventually be parting ways. But we connected in a way that’s rare even when you’re surrounded by people who speak the same language. As the end of our life in Japan drew near, we realized—with some surprise—that we really wanted to make “us” work. Still, Jade was going home to Seattle, and I was going home to Toronto. We didn’t know when we’d be able to live in the same city again. What we had originally assumed would be a wonderful but short-lived overseas affair had evolved into something more serious—and more difﬁcult.
Third, you should know that my girlfriend has an odd sense of humour, one that is shared by her whole family. The modus operandi seems to be “Nothing is sacred”—or, more to the point, “There are lots of things that people hold sacred, and those things should be mocked!” Like love.
Fast-forward to Jade’s mom’s wedding. Shortly after I arrived in Seattle for the wedding, Jade approached me. “My sister and I have been asked to do a reading during the ceremony. We’re thinking Dave Barry.” And she looked at me expectantly. I smiled. Sure, Dave Barry. He’s funny. Sometimes I like to read him when I’m sitting on the toilet. Why not?
Jade’s mother, Lily, didn’t seem to mind the choice at all. But then, she’s a bit of an enigma. Probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, at 50 she looks 20 years younger. (The only other time I met Lily, she was visiting Jade in Japan, and tackled jet lag by getting up at 6 a.m. the morning after her 14-hour ﬂight to run 10 kilometres.) She talks quickly; her wit is released in rapid-ﬁre bursts. Within minutes of entering her house, she asked me about my ﬂight, updated me on preparations (if anything went wrong, she could always get it right the next time she got remarried, she laughed) and asked if I had written her vows yet. Bob, the groom, who had been working on his for weeks, admonished her. “No, Lily, you can’t get Mark to write your vows.” But I wrote professionally, she answered, I’d be better at it. She told me she’d check in with me in a few days.
The culture of individual families can vary wildly. In the Werner household, jokes ﬂy like volleys across the kitchen, mowing down artiﬁce and pretext. Your job as the innocent bystander wasn’t to dodge the bullets or be coddled—no reassuring wink followed these attacks. Your job was to keep up.
Still, part of me wondered about the humour. Wondered whether Lily was serious. Whether, the night before the wedding, I would be up late deﬁning the union of two people I didn’t really know. I was determined to ﬁgure it out. It became an obsession. This cavalier attitude toward matrimony had moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, but was also, I began to understand, vaguely threatening to me. Because I had chosen a very difﬁcult route—a long-distance relationship without knowing when we’d be able to live in the same city again—with a member of this strange clan.
It became extremely important that I puzzle out what it meant when Jade and her sister mocked the Paulo Coelho quote chosen by the minister for its earnestness. Or why Bob and Lily referred to the planting of the rhododendron in the middle of their upcoming ceremony as symbolic of their ability “to accomplish a task without killing each other” instead of simply calling it a symbol of their love, like most people would. I needed motive.
But as much as I played detective and postulated theories, I couldn’t make the evidence stick. One night, Jade and I were out with Jade’s friend Erin. When Jade left for the washroom, I asked: “Seriously. You know Jade’s mother better than I do. Is she kidding about me doing this?” And Erin shook her head and said sagely: “That’s the thing with the Werners. You’ll never know.” She took my hand and ﬁxed me with a stare. “Never.”
In the end, I didn’t end up writing Lily’s vows. The night before the wedding, when Jade asked her mom if she’d ﬁnished, Lily answered breezily that if I wouldn’t do it, she’d ﬁnd something on the internet. For all that the wedding ceremony was non-traditional, it hit all the requisite notes. The ﬂower girl was just as cute and bashful as she was supposed to be. Jade and her sister acted out the Dave Barry skit to much laughter. (They followed it up nicely with a reading from Gabriel García Márquez.) Lily read her vows and looked radiant the whole way through. It didn’t matter if they were lifted from the net. Bob still cried.
I stopped trying to ﬁgure it out. Erin was right: I’ll never know whether Lily was serious. But it did force me to ask myself whether Jade and I were serious. At a pivotal point in our relationship, we had to look past the words to how we felt.
There is a famous Sherlock Holmes quote that says, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Marriage is improbable. Love is improbable. The jokes about me writing the vows, about the next marriage, and about Bob and Lily killing each other—they all cut through sentimentality’s tendency to hyperbole. What you’re left with is love. And whatever remains, in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the truth.
Jade and I now live together. It has been amazing, and we want to keep living together for a long time.
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