Essay

What I Will—& Won’t—Regret About My Pandemic Wedding

For one writer, the DIY wedding she had was nothing like the one she planned. Here, she looks back on what was lost—and won.

by:
October 10, 2020
Photo by Alex Egan

I didn’t grow up imagining what my wedding would look like. But I did always assume I would get married.

I was lucky enough to have had a happy, fairly conventional childhood. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York in a traditional family of four, with parents who’ve now been married for 36 years. From my limited perspective, that’s just what adults did: they got married.

When I met Tom, or rather met him again, I was nearing 30 and starting to lose faith in my assumption about getting married. After four years of many, many failed attempts at forming a romantic relationship out of the desperate game that is dating in New York City, I was starting to feel like I was never going to find a boyfriend, much less a husband.

Tom and I had worked together for three years at Scientific American magazine, but had only occasionally exchanged small talk by the coffee machine. A few weeks after my last day at the company, I returned one final time, a little reluctantly, for the office holiday party. I ran into Tom almost immediately, by the bar, and when we took the train home together that evening, he asked for my number and a date.

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Top Comment:
“Oh, I love this essay! Congratulations to you and Tom! I've been married twice now - the first wedding was rather traditional and unmemorable, TBH. The fun one to my current spouse was unconventional and informal. We held it at a neighborhood wine bar, kept the guest list to about 35 (pre-pandemic!), had a mutual friend write and officiate the ceremony, and did all the food ourselves (thanks Costco, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods cheese counter!). Our cake was delicious and unfancy, from a local deli. We had a great time, as did our guests - people still refer to it as a wedding they actually enjoyed. I love the truly personal touches a DIY wedding enables. Sure, the pictures may not be as polished, but the memories are so much more vivid. Again, congratulations! ”
— SarahBunny
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Later on, he’d tell me he had never attended a holiday party in the four years he’d worked at the magazine—until that one.

A little more than four years later, a few days after Valentine’s Day in 2019, Tom proposed to me in the living room of the apartment we share in Washington Heights. Two months ago, we were married, and although it was the very date we had set a year ago, our wedding looked nothing like the one we had planned.


I got started on planning our wedding almost immediately after we got engaged (I’m a type A Virgo who googles for a living). Tom didn’t care too much about the minutiae, but we agreed easily on the bigger things. We knew we wanted to get married in upstate New York; Tom had spent every weekend of his childhood in a town about two hours west of where I grew up. We knew we wanted a band—we both love music, and two of the best weddings we had ever been to had live bands. (At one, the bride’s ex-boyfriend joined the band for a 10-minute trumpet solo.) And we knew we wanted a venue that allowed our guests to stay on-site with us.

When we started planning our wedding, one of the first things that was recommended to us by several people was a book. A Practical Wedding Planner had tons of good advice, but the part that really stood out was its warning about an industry that was “built on selling you a pretty wedding,” along with its caveat that “pretty contributes very little to the actual experience of the day.”

I tried to follow its advice, but I couldn't help myself.

I hired a hair and makeup artist; I cared a lot about the flowers and the photographer; I spent extra money on bright coral napkins that few would notice and none would remember; and I came very, very close to spending three times the dress budget on my wedding gown. I also really, really cared about what the venue looked like.

It took three months, hours of googling, and hundreds of emails to find our wedding venue, but when we did, I knew it was the one. Atop a high, rolling hill in the middle of a valley, with sweeping views of the Berkshire Mountains on one side and the Catskill Mountains on the other, sat the reception pavilion. A large, modern structure, it was built using asymmetrically patterned wooden slats in clean, Scandinavian-inspired lines that threw geometric dapples of sunlight. Behind the pavilion, past a clearing in the woods—perfect for a partially shaded ceremony under string lights—wound a leaf-covered path lined with tiny wooden cabins, each with a floor-to-ceiling window facing the woods. Beyond the cabins, the woods met a wide open sky above a field of wildflowers and a sparkling shale stone quarry turned into a manmade pond. It was perfect.

Once we booked the venue, the rest of the wedding fell into place: We hired a photographer whose photos had a dark, almost moody tint that made each image look like it was about to turn sepia; a local florist with an instinctive talent for the seasonal wildflowers of my Pinterest dreams; and an Italian red-sauce restaurant to cater a reception dinner of braised short ribs and eggplant lasagna. By Thanksgiving of last year, with eight months to go until our wedding in July, our wedding had been planned down to (almost) every last detail.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine caring so deeply about any of it—the dress that I would never wear, the little cabins our friends and family wouldn’t stay in, or the live version of our song that we wouldn’t dance to. Because with everything else going on in the world right now, there are many, many, many things worse than a canceled wedding.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine caring so deeply about any of it—the dress that I would never wear, the little cabins our friends and family wouldn’t stay in, or the live version of our song that we wouldn’t dance to.

When I used to think about the wedding day ahead of me, long before I had ever even considered the implications of the word “pandemic,” I’d sometimes, even in public, burst into tears. But it wasn’t about the flowers or the dress or the jaw-dropping mountain views. It was imagining myself standing facing the man I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to–and almost didn’t–meet and fall in love with. That we had both ended up in this unbelievable place where we were ready to commit to loving each other for the rest of our lives—that’s what made me cry in anticipation of the “perfect” wedding we had planned. It’s also what made me cry throughout the “imperfect” wedding we had instead.


We officially canceled on our 130 guests in May. Once we finally stopped planning for our wedding, we were free to start thinking about our marriage instead. After more than five years together, most of which were spent grappling with unforeseen health issues of mine, it felt like Tom and I had already been waiting a long time to move forward with our lives together. We decided to get married this July anyway.

Luckily, my parents had moved to a picturesque lake house right after my father retired a few years ago—so we had our wedding venue with a view. My mother had been our officiant all along, and by that time had also become ordained as a minister online. We had picked out our wedding bands months ago, so all we had to do was ship them upstate. And there was no three-month wait to obtain a marriage license in the small town of Athens, New York. Luckiest of all, our immediate families were healthy and could safely gather together on the day.

It helped that my mother is a natural host. In the week leading up to our wedding date, she prepped her sermon for the “ceremony,” made cold potato and green bean salads for the “reception” dinner, and baked quiches with hash-brown crusts for the “goodbye brunch.” She bought filet mignon steaks and bone-in chicken thighs for my dad to marinate and grill to serve with the salads, pink champagne and our favorite white wines for a post-ceremony toast, and a pop-up canopy to stand in as a makeshift arbor on the dock.

On the day of, we put the finishing touches on the decor: Trader Joe’s flowers and candles for the dinner table and my mom’s flowerpots for the dock. We decorated the canopy with plastic flowers and streamers from the dollar store and strung a “Just Married” sign and empty Spindrift cans (from all the seltzer we’d been drinking during quarantine) to the back of my parents’ boat.

We prepped a welcome snack of cheese popcorn and lemonade swirled with strawberry purée, plus a charcuterie and cheese platter and olives for the “cocktail hour.” Tom’s family arrived in the late afternoon with a three-layer wedding cake made by his mother (vanilla for Tom and gluten-free for me) topped with a cake topper passed down from her own parents. And we had coral linen napkins, except now decorated by my mother with little wooden heart-shaped signs bearing our names and wedding date.

We played the song “I Need My Girl” by The National, as planned, as I walked down the aisle, arm-in-arm with Tom. We didn’t have a professional photographer, but my mom’s oldest and closest friend volunteered to wear a mask and take photos of us on her phone. I wasn’t wearing the gown I had spent weeks looking for, and I didn’t have professional hair or makeup, but I felt pretty all the same. And I cried just as hard—with unrestrained happiness.

On the day of, we put the finishing touches on the decor: Trader Joe’s flowers and candles for the dinner table and my mom’s flowerpots for the dock. We decorated the canopy with plastic flowers and streamers from the dollar store and strung a “Just Married” sign and empty Spindrift cans (from all the seltzer we’d been drinking during quarantine) to the back of my parents’ boat.

After the ceremony, we drank pink champagne from plastic cups as we spun around the lake on the boat, the streamers and tin cans glinting in the setting sun. Our close friends made a guest appearance via Zoom and “clinked” glasses and cheered for us. We had dinner way too late when no one was hungry and it was too dark out because we had been having too much fun drinking wine and eating entirely too much cheese. The pink fake flowers we had bought to decorate the dinner table unexpectedly flashed garish colored lights as we ate, which was funny, and made us feel a little like we were in a nightclub. We hadn’t planned on having a cake at our wedding, but we ended up with a homemade one that we shoved in each other’s faces at the end of the night, even though we had always said that it was a cliché thing to do. Tom’s family made unexpected toasts, and I cried again. And when everyone had gone to bed, Tom and I sat outside together, my head on his shoulder, letting it all sink in.

It still takes me a minute to remember to call the celebration we had this year “our wedding,” because it was so different from what we had planned, but our family members who were there remind us that it was our wedding, our real wedding.

I can’t honestly say this wedding turned out to be everything we didn’t know we actually wanted, or that it was better than the wedding we had spent all of those months planning. But I can say it was memorable, plenty pretty, and abundantly joyful.

I know I probably won’t care 10, 20, or 30 years from now about not getting to wear a dress with a train or walk down an aisle lined with wildflowers, but I think I’ll always feel a little bit of loss over the dance party we didn’t have with friends or that we didn't get to exchange our vows in front of more of our loved ones. At the same time, we’re not waiting to move forward with our lives anymore. We’re beginning our marriage, which is as real as if we’d had that big wedding, and we’re not thinking about what we didn’t and won’t have. We’re appreciating what we do have, which is each other, forever—whatever that looks like.

What would you change—or keep the same—about your wedding? Tell us in the comments.

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Alex was born and raised in Upstate New York, and now lives in Washington Heights with her fiancé and their many beloved plants. She went to a small state college, where she was an English major and literary magazine editor, and from there came to New York to get her master's degree in Publishing from NYU. Through previous jobs at Scientific American, Time Out New York, and Hearst, she tried on a variety of hats before stumbling into SEO. She is now Senior SEO Strategist at Food52.

16 Comments

jenzip October 18, 2020
I didn't originally want to read this because I thought, ugh, why not just wait until after the pandemic so everyone could be there?? But upon reading this, I realized that you two had a beautiful, wonderful wedding, despite the pandemic. Congratulations, and I hope you guys have an amazing honeymoon when travel is more permitted!
 
jpriddy October 18, 2020
My husband and I were married in my parents' backyard in 1974. Friends did the ceremony. I was working for a fancy import shop and was able to purchase the best of a small shipment of vintage Bedouin dresses—black with gorgeous red embroidery and blue velvet on the shoulders, the one the owner wanted—because I was short enough to carry it off. Flowers were from the garden, I baked the traditional wedding fruitcake from a hundred year-old recipe, and my mother's Italian friend made a huge pan of lasagna. We had about 30 guests. I remember it as vividly as if it had been last week: the tree overhead, my father's toast to "warrior children," and my mother accidentally flushing our rings down the toilet! It was all wonderful.
 
sharon October 17, 2020
Beautiful story of your wedding- Congratulations! And to keep everyone so safe and healthy!! I have been married 52 years- no regrets- 2 children-2 grandchildren! Best wishes to you both and to your friends and family.
 
E October 11, 2020
I too had a pandemic wedding of 7 people including the photographer. I married the kid I went to elementary school and church with after we reconnected over 30 years later. Instead of a fancy creme brûlée cake, I made our cake (and cried when I had to make it twice because it didn’t rise right the first time). I did get to wear my fancy dress as we picked it up before everything shut down and honestly, it made me realize how the marriage was really the most important, not the wedding. My husband has requested I make him the “flat” failed cake again that he loved snacking on...and marrying him was the best thing ever as he makes me laugh every day.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Wow, you made your own cake!? My husband also makes me laugh every single day, and knowing I get to spend all the rest of my years laughing really puts a few hours of a fancier ceremony in perspective. Thanks so much for sharing your story, and congratulations!!
 
Caroline October 11, 2020
I married in my 50s for the first, and hopefully only time. After 10 years of dating, I relented. We didn’t need anything fancy. Reserved a spot in a park and had family and just a few friends. We had the wedding near where my mom lived because she couldn’t travel. My cousins all helped with chair rentals, sourcing a cake in the area, picking up coffee travelers when it was time for cake. My artistic sister Made a beautiful bouquet wrapped in purple ribbon that, coincidentally, matched my husband’s shirt.. My dress was an off-the-rack Free People Mexican wedding dress. A friend of my husband’s got a certificate over the Internet that allowed him to officiate. The ceremony was short and sweet and we changed clothes and had dinner at my mom’s favorite restaurant. Very low key. I’m glad we got married. I didn’t think it would make a difference, but we are now even more of a team.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Sounds lovely, Caroline. It sounds like it really added something extra special to have each element of the wedding brought together by your loved ones. And it's reassuring to hear that marriage became even more important than you thought. I'm looking forward to that!
 
Elizabeth L. October 11, 2020
I had a pandemic micro-wedding in place of our originally planned 200 person traditional wedding. Thank you for this beautiful essay. It verbalizes perfectly the loss and joys I felt about our own special day.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Loss and joy is right! Congratulations, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for reading.
 
stefica01 October 10, 2020
Thank you for sharing your lovely day. I see stories where others chose to go ahead with huge gatherings and then a trail of COVID cases followed, some even resulting in deaths. I can't imagine a celebration of love becoming... that. You made a great decision to celebrate life and love without hurting anyone, and did it in style. I hope others read this and are inspired to do the same.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Thanks for reading. I really appreciate the support!
 
Jane October 10, 2020
The wedding industry won’t like my comments but your wedding sounds perfect. People have forgotten the real purpose of a WEDDING. It’s not the flowers, the venue or even the 300 best friends. You will remember every moment. My wedding has not big, but in a church with a reception after. I don’t remember even 1 minute.
Congratulations.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Thank you, Jane! I agree, it felt like I was really able to slow down and enjoy every minute.
 
Arati M. October 10, 2020
Thank you for sharing such deeply personal memories with us, Alex and CONGRATULATIONS. I now have such vivid images of your wedding in my head, it’s like I was there myself (I’m so into the pink disco flowers!) What a love-filled evening it sounds like!
 
SarahBunny October 10, 2020
Oh, I love this essay! Congratulations to you and Tom! I've been married twice now - the first wedding was rather traditional and unmemorable, TBH. The fun one to my current spouse was unconventional and informal. We held it at a neighborhood wine bar, kept the guest list to about 35 (pre-pandemic!), had a mutual friend write and officiate the ceremony, and did all the food ourselves (thanks Costco, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods cheese counter!). Our cake was delicious and unfancy, from a local deli. We had a great time, as did our guests - people still refer to it as a wedding they actually enjoyed. I love the truly personal touches a DIY wedding enables. Sure, the pictures may not be as polished, but the memories are so much more vivid. Again, congratulations!
 
Author Comment
Alex E. October 13, 2020
Yes, Sarah! Trader Joe's and Whole foods cheese for the win. Your wedding sounds like it was truly special. And I agree, there were many special memories I have now that I wouldn't have had otherwise. Thank you so much for reading!