There are certain times when whole families get together. They usually involve funerals, marriages, and christenings; occasionally at Christmas, or perhaps a memorable birthday, or wedding anniversary. These are the times when you realise how old you are getting, your age reflected in the development of others; children grown up, former teens now accompanied by their own children. Some don’t make it, perhaps because of illness, quarrels, or the sheer distance involved. Others are reliable, always there, whatever the occasion. Despite the sense that you are driven by obligation rather than by desire, when it all comes together, it can often be rewarding and enjoyable, to be a part of that gathering.
This last weekend, we went to a wedding. It was the wedding of a nephew, on Julie’s ‘side’ of our family. Strange how we always use that term, ‘side’, when we talk of occasions. The seating is on the side of the bride, or groom, and the tables allocated to one side, or the other. When you tell others that you are heading off to such a function, they will invariably ask ‘Is it on your side, or Julie’s?’ In an ideal world, the thought of sides would be irrelevant. Once you are married, you become a family, so ideally, all sides would be the same. But it doesn’t work that way. It is tradition, and we don’t mess with that.
Because we have chosen to live in Norfolk, travelling over one hundred miles to a wedding requires a lot of forward planning. Hotel room booked long in advance, for the night before, as well as the night of. We would not want to have to rush down the motorway, already dressed in our best outfits, to arrive stressed and crumpled, with moments to spare. Dog-sitter for Ollie, that is essential, as few weddings can possibly be dog-friendly, it just isn’t practical. Julie had to have a new outfit, and the decision went to the wire, as it only arrived a few hours before departure. I found a hole in my trouser leg, when pressing my suit the day before. I must have sat on something sharp, the last time it was worn. Luckily, I had another one to wear, so that saved an eleventh hour trip to a menswear shop. Friday afternoon travel on the M25 around London is never much fun, but we had a reasonable journey, our luck held.
The hotel was part of a large upmarket chain, nestled in acres of country park, close to the Berkshire borders. This meant that we at least knew what to expect, in the shape of a serviceable room, facilities like an indoor pool (which of course, we did not use), a health centre (gym), and lots of conference rooms, large bars and restaurants, as well as many places to sit and relax outside too. The downside to this type of hotel is the feeling that you could be almost anywhere in the UK, and the bar prices, which are higher than those in Central London. Luggage dumped, and room given a cursory inspection, we met some family in the bar, the groom’s parents, and their siblings. As the bride originally hails from Hungary, there was the unusual element of some Hungarian guests, who spoke little or no English. This did not prove to be a problem, as good times need no translation.
At breakfast the next morning, familiar faces begin to appear. Flowers are delivered, and function rooms busy with preparation. Being a large hotel, other meetings and regular events are taking place on the same day, but luckily, ‘ours’ is the only wedding. Once dressed for the occasion, we wander down to the meeting area. This is where we can marvel at how grown up those youngsters are, see babies for the first time, or remark on the development of toddlers. Older faces appear, still going strong, and very pleased to see us. The family factor kicks in, and it starts to feel normal again, and the feeling is a good one. News is caught up on, new partners are met and introduced, ailments and medications discussed at length. We ask about absences, but are reassured that they are coming later, ‘just for the evening’. We can easily pick out those on the other ‘side’, as we don’t recognise the faces. We ask who they are, and we are given mini-histories, of work colleagues, Hungarian attachments, and sisters of so-and-so.
The ambiance is good, and everyone has made the effort to dress up, and to look nice. the bridal party is colour-themed, and smart as whips in their morning dress suits. Children cavort excitedly in the grounds, or rush around the meeting room at high speed, only they knowing what they are up to, and where they are going. For children, there are no ‘sides’, it is enough to be of a similar age and size, for immediate acceptance into the group. After this short period of milling around, we are led off by a uniformed toastmaster, to the room where the actual ceremony is to take place. The change in the law that allowed same site marriage is much welcomed. No more double journies, from church or registry office, across to a hall, or other venue. It is all in one place, and just a short walk. The room is decorated in the spirit of such an occasion. Chairs draped in pink and white, delicate lighting, and just the right degree of solemnity.
The legal service goes smoothly. The bride appears, a picture of loveliness, accompanied by her bridesmaids, and some tiny flower girls, who of course, are impossibly cute and endearing. Words and rings are exchanged, some tears are shed, and the registrar announces that they are man and wife. Certificates are signed, and handed over for safe keeping to the bride’s father. We are all happy, and pleased to be part of the celebration, to see the couple looking so joyous. Our family has grown by a few more, and we embrace the new arrivals. The good weather continues, and despite a persistent breeze, photos are taken in the attractive grounds, all done again in the time-honoured fashion, with the different sides in separate shots. The photo session culminates in one huge group picture, the photographer having gained the high ground of an upstairs window, to fit us all in. Time for the meal and speeches.
Moving the large group into the function room, the toastmaster announces the arrival of the bride and groom, using their married name of course. We are sat with family, at allocated tables, name-cards and attractive favours marking our places. The meal is most welcome, and of a very high standard. The speeches follow, and they are unusually good, avoiding cliches and Internet suggestions, instead concentrating on love, friendship, and family. More tears are shed, and eyes are moistened all over. Everyone in the room is beginning to feel that connection, that involvement in the life and growth of this family. The rare opportunity to gather together has been well-rewarded, and is celebrated again later, in the party that follows. Evening arrivals are few, but welcomed into the fold, and they soon experience the good atmosphere that we have enjoyed all day. Some of the guests have to leave early. For various reasons, they will miss the livelier celebrations to come, and they are seen off, and waved goodbye.
The party was good of course. Some of us sat out the dancing, chatting, and continuing to catch up with others. Some danced all night, and others sought the cooler air outside on the terrace. At midnight, the last dance was enjoyed by all, and then the groom literally carried off his bride, to the delight of all the revellers. The rest broke up slowly, heading off to hotel rooms, waiting taxis, or their own transport in the car park. Those of us lucky enough to be in the same hotel had the chance to meet again at breakfast, and to have a longer farewell.
This is what families do, what they are about. The cares of the past year are put to one side. Old enmities are forgotten, and sides become meaningless. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of. We should cherish it more.