On a shoestring

In the midst of war in Kosovo, my brother's marriage sanctifies the exchange of love and light in a flurry of bubbles and rose petals.

Published April 15, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

Six months ago my younger brother Stevo asked his girlfriend Jamie to marry him, and she said yes. They chose March 27, 1999, for their wedding date, and then they asked all these other people to serve in the big splashy roles -- Maid of Honor (Jamie's sister, Leaza), Best Man (my big brother John), ring bearers (Sam, and John's little boy, Tyler), the priest (our friend Bill Rankin). Now, even though Stevo and I are extremely close, I was just fine about not being chosen as a bridesmaid or even a ring bearer. At first. Then I announced that I really wanted to be the flower girl, and that if they didn't let me, I would ruin their wedding.

So they did.

All of their friends and relatives chipped in and signed on for potluck and various responsibilities, and of course, as the day approached, lots of little things went wrong and were forgotten or overlooked. Then war broke out in Europe and people felt a sense of grief and darkness in the world, and in our families tensions flared, and we prayed for good weather and an end to the war. But by March 27, Kosovo was human misery beyond all imagining, and all you could do was send money and pray.

But we all showed up because this is the secret of life, and part of the secret of life is also that it does not make much sense. You feel joy that two kind people have offered each other sanctuary; stunned by images of evil and suffering; relief that good people love you, self-centered mess that you are; animal confusion about our part in destroying lives we are trying to save; and happy happy happy to be flower girl.

On the morning of the wedding I sent money to Doctors Without Borders, and then I put on my party dress, got Sam ready, put a satin lei on Sadie, who was flower dog, and headed to the Stinson Beach home of our friend Mary Turnbull.

The wind was howling when we first showed up. Bright flags snapped in the breeze, and it was so cold at noon that those of us in the wedding party who had assembled early for a rehearsal secretly believed that the day was ruined, that this was a nightmare, cold and awful, and our skin was going to turn purple.

Or at any rate, this is what I secretly believed. No one else actually seemed to feel the day was doomed; everyone else was game, because they knew that along with everything else, weddings are also about mishaps and confusion, and that the other stuff -- the love, the bravery -- would overcome.

And besides, Stevo, in a Hawaiian shirt and a long green garland of leaves draped around his neck, was giving off enough sun to single-handedly illuminate the day. He is nearly 40, 6 foot 4, with dark wavy hair, blue gray eyes, a long nose like Dad's. He has seen Sam nearly every day since Sam's birth. And so for nine years he and Sam have been playing and drawing and chasing each other, playing catch and quibbling and wrestling and building things. Sam calls him "Uncle." I call him "Brotherman." Sam and I sort of feel that we own him, and so it amazes me that neither of us feels jealous of Jamie. We just love her, and she loves us. She thinks we're great.

She is a little younger than Stevo, creamy and dignified and lovely, also tall and big-boned. They have both been sober since the mid-'80s, after years of being lost. When they are together, they look like poster children for a well-run lost and found.

It was to be a luau of sorts, an above-ground luau. A lu-up. Hawaiian kabobs were marinating in the classic English garden in the backyard. Side dishes amassed in the dining room, and chairs were set up on the beach in front of the house. The people in the wedding party wore beautiful orchid leis, and everyone else wore silk leis: purple, pink, red, white, yellow. They were wacky and gloriously tasteless, like paper party hats.

Jamie got ready in a bedroom while Stevo greeted the arriving guests, and wherever he went, light seemed to pour off of him. He was so happy that he looked 15 years younger, as if he had gone backward in time to catch up to the exuberant young self he had once been, before our father died, before a breathtakingly incongruous hitch in the army, before he spiraled down. Sam kept tugging on him, begging him to come to the beach and play, but Stevo gently explained that he couldn't just now, and Sam glowered.

I milled around saying "hello" to people, carrying a large ostentatious basket of rose petals, the largest basket any flower girl in the history of life has ever carried. I also distributed bubbles to all the guests, to blow whenever the spirit moved them. The bubbles came in little plastic containers, some in the shape of churches with stained-glass stickers, some with plastic doves on top. My older brother's wife had helped my mother pick out an elegant Hawaiian dress, and she sat regally in a chair in the sand, waiting for the wedding to begin.

There were just 70 guests in all, a melting pot of people, a whole sample of the world, all in their bright silk leis. I knew almost everyone there. We talked about Jamie and Stevo, and we talked about the war. No one knew quite what to feel, only that Kissinger was against our intervention, so one could safely assume that we had to intervene. Then we talked about the day's hope and joy, the magic. A wedding is not just about marrying each other, but also each other's family and friends. All these regular folks bring their best selves together to launch you, to celebrate the miracle of community, of two, of more.

The winds blew harder and harder, and then minutes before the wedding was to begin, they parted, like the Red Sea. Calm split the winds down the middle, pushed them apart like a muscleman. When we in the wedding began our procession to the altar, we stepped into a balmy glade. The two boys went first, wearing matching Hawaiian shirts in soft browns. Jamie's sister Leaza followed, and then me, the Minnie Pearl of all flower girls, with Sadie beside me. Then, finally, Jamie stepped into the sun.

She had made her own dress, and it was like something from a 1940's tea dance, all lace and rosettes, with wonderful shoes, ivory Mary Janes. She walked slowly out toward where Stevo stood with my brother and Bill Rankin, the ring bearers, Leaza and me. The wedding march played on a boom box. The Pacific Ocean shimmered, and the long green foothills of the Bolinas ridge held up the rear, and Jamie walked along on her brother's arm, diaphanous.

In the confusion of the gale winds and my bubble distribution program, we'd sort of forgotten to have a rehearsal, and I suddenly realized as Jamie walked toward us that I couldn't remember what flower girls actually do. I suppose this is why couples usually choose flower girls with memories; flower girls who do not gobble down gingko biloba like peanuts. But I found myself basking in Jamie's brideyness and suddenly flung a handful of rose petals at her with bliss and abandon, like the little guy on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show. She smiled, so I threw another handful at her. She went to stand near Stevo, who somehow managed to looked proud, beatific and goofy all at once. Bill Rankin cleared his throat to begin.

He has a big forehead and big eyes and a great and slightly odd presence, like a smart old kid with a sense of wonder and an almost rabbinic wisdom. He read the marriage service from the Episcopal prayer book, and talked to Stevo and Jamie about the depth and seriousness of the step they were taking. Then he spoke to the rest of us for a minute, as if we were in the classroom of life and he was preaching on what in fact we really did need to remember. We are here to love one another, and to work for peace and justice. He said that group narcissism is just as toxic as individual narcissism, and you couldn't help but think of Kosovo; and he said that to marry someone was our best hope of moving away from both. I stared out at the blue green sea, at the mare's tail waves of spray, and I saw scenes of war like cloud shadows you see on the ocean from an airplane. I snuck glances at Stevo and Jamie, who looked shy and young, and I thought about the goodness they were adding to life's grutty drinking water today.

The two young ring bearers in their aloha shirts looked sweet and attentive and didn't wiggle or make faces; they were just right there with their ring pillows, doing their jobs. Sam glanced over at me every so often with his long sideways look, slightly wistful, and I saw how worried he was about losing a bit of his proprietary claim on his uncle. Friends read from the Bible, the 13th chapter of Corinthians, which is the "New York, New York," of the New Testament, and the 65th psalm, which ends, "The pastures are filled with flocks of sheep, and the valleys are carpeted with grain. All the world shouts with joy and sings."

And at this point people began blowing bubbles.

The cascade of iridescence blew like musical notes of light from all these friends and relatives right into the heart of the service, as if they were breathing out their good wishes right onto the couple. Here you gather together the people who are as close to you as possible, and you offer yourself to God and to your beloved, and you mark it in some way that sets it apart, with leis, say, and garlands. Then the people who love you blow bubbles right to you, frivolous and spiritual at the same time, evanescent and silly, light and spirit made visible.

Then Stevo and Jamie kissed, and we cheered, and our cheer was a love song. I threw the last of my petals at Jamie as she and Stevo passed on their way to a receiving line, and everyone clustered toward them because the day was so happy that everyone wanted to play with the lightheartedness a little longer, like the bubbles people were still blowing, before it all got weighted down in rich food. Sam was first to reach the couple in line, and he tugged on Stevo's garland of leaves, and said, "OK, now can you play?" Stevo smiled, bent down to say to him softly, "Did you bring a ball?" and made plans to meet him on the beach a while later.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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