It wasn’t the journey most people follow. But it was the perfect path for us.
By TRACY COLLINS ORTLIEB JULY 29, 2019
By the time my husband Michael and I got engaged, we already had two children, a home, shared health insurance, and a joint bank account. And by the time we got married, three more years had passed. But considering how unconventional things have always been between us, perhaps it was inevitable that our road to matrimony would likewise be unorthodox and eccentric, testing the limits of space and time and the patience of everyone around us.
Michael and I met at a bar where I was drinking with a former boyfriend, and he sought my ex’s permission to ask me out. The early days of our relationship were kinetic and umbilical: either I at his apartment or he at the waterfront cabin I rented, laughing and talking, slap-dashing impromptu meals, our bodies tangled together.
Less than four months later, we became pregnant—the first among our friends to have children, including the married couples. Then, I became a dedicated stay-at-home mother, the only one among our dual-income parent peers.
When Michael first asked my perspective on marriage after two daughters and two years of being together, I solemnly called it “the death of all possibility.”
Healthy marriages were hardly what Michael and I saw growing up: He was a child of divorce, and my mother and stepfather had spent decades in a brittle, contemptuous union. And while that translated to Michael previously cycling through a new relationship every six months, I’d racked up three prior fiancés—lovely men to whom I’d been utterly incapable of promising “ever after.”
After my initial description of marriage, I expected Michael to respond with the grave seriousness the answer commanded. But instead, he audaciously laughed at me, then said, “Marriage is whatever we want it to be. It is possibility.” How could I not marry him?
Six months later, I told Michael I wanted an engagement ringfor my 40th birthday, which seemed folly considering that we were doing far more than just playing house. But the stakes felt higher now: We had children, assets, shared family. What if something happened to one of us and the other wasn’t permitted to make medical decisions? Worse, what if marriage really was the fount of possibility that Michael foretold, a future we’d denied ourselves?
His proposal was—shockingly for us—traditional: surrounded by family, close friends, and our curious toddler daughters. There was a bended knee, a conflict-free diamond band, a “yes,” and a round of applause. It was a delightful nod to convention, the first and last on our long journey down the proverbial aisle.
Soon, a date and vague location were set: the following October, Seattle, under blue skies and flaming leaves. We considered the converted bathhouse of a nearby beach, a popular venue with floor-to-ceiling views of the Puget Sound sunset. It was perfect—so perfect that it was booked out a year in advance. So were the two other sites we seriously considered.
Moving our wedding date quickly became a necessity. Reluctantly, we jointly agreed to let our circle know; for the most part, the news was met with a shrug. “You two are late for everything,” one friend told us. “Of course your wedding would be late too.”
Despite the delay, the research never stopped: Every few months, we would tour another venue, our small daughters in tow. Bridal magazines were halfheartedly perused and then left littered on the coffee table. I’d enter a dress shop, without my mother, and finger gowns in a spectrum of whites, but never actually try any on. I couldn’t blame my mother for not coming along—besides the fact that she wasn’t the gown-shopping-with-daughter sort, I couldn’t even give her a definitive wedding date.
In addition, the costs of even a small-ish wedding compounded each time we attempted to make planning traction: catering and alcohol, rentals and music, flowers and table settings, invitations and party favors, all on top of venue fees starting at tens of thousands of dollars. We calculated the variables—always a staggering number that would have been better spent on a family holiday or a bigger home. The financing of a proper wedding, even a wedding we so badly wanted, would be a major investment in a single day of our lives, a point in direct opposition to our views about money and value.
On top of these factors, our family and friends were scattered across the world. The odds were decidedly slim of gathering all our dearest in our corner of the globe on the same day. And, like many couples, Michael and I would also have to factor in “problematic” relations, i.e., toxic or unstable family members who would only make our wedding a showcase for their most troubling behavior. Needless to say, considering the seating chart became a daunting and debilitating task.
We consulted good friends about their own weddings, from intimate affairs to lavish ones to the modest-yet-raucous-good-times in the middle. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of worrying about a million details just to ensure you’re making everyone happy,” one friend said. In other words, it was not about the sacredness of their vows, but about throwing the perfect party.
One afternoon, we visited a stunning venue—a sculpture garden overlooking the Puget Sound. It was sophisticated, clean-lined, and modern, with a farm-to-table menu. It was precisely us. It was also $25,000 for the venue alone.
At that point, it had been three years since our engagement—three years spent weighing the emotional and literal costs of staging a wedding that spoke to our coupledom and values. Yet, there we were, not a step closer to matrimony than when we began.
That night, over a romantic Italian dinner, Michael and I talked about our inability to plan the thing we wanted most. “Every time we get close to a major planning decision, you pull back, and then we don’t follow through,” he said. “What if you want to be married, you just don’t want to have a traditional wedding?”
His statement illuminated all those dark years of indecision and stalling. We wanted all of the trappings of a wedding, but free of worry about things going wrong at a big event, our day instead spent contemplating the commitment we were about to make. All we wanted was a lovely ceremony in a breathtaking location—a proper wedding for no one but us.
After years without progress, I had our destination elopement booked in days: venue, photographer, flowers, cake, officiant, hair and makeup, two close friends to serve as witnesses, and a sitter for the girls. A couture seamstress was at work creating my dress; passports were renewed and steps were taken for a foreign marriage license. The final cost would be a mere fraction of our prior wedding options.
Just three months after that fateful dinner, Michael and I were married on a windswept British Columbia clifftop, sunshine glinting across the cobalt Strait of Juan de Fuca, our flower-girl daughters barefoot and giggling. The day pulsed with love, peace, and homecoming. In every regard, it was exactly the wedding we had truly wanted.
Courtesy of Tracy Collins Ortlieb
That evening, we made some phone calls to friends and family who weren’t there. Mostly, they were deeply sorry to have missed it, but also altogether understanding of our decision and thrilled for us. (The minimal backlash came, unsurprisingly, from those few we had most worried about inviting.) There was also the subsequent Facebook announcement linking to the elopement website Michael designed, featuring photos of our ceremony, an explanation, and details for the curious.
The years it had taken us to go from engagement to postponement to “I do” had been an unforeseen blessing. In that time, Michael and I managed to meticulously shape our shared values around marriage, milestones, and money. We also determined the boundaries of our union in relation to others’ expectations and desires.
Seven years later, there is nothing about our marriage I would change: not our wildly prolonged timeline nor our late-hour elopement, and definitely not our vows that were sworn upon a clifftop as wild, romantic, unspoiled, and sacred as our commitment.
Published in BestLife