On a warm afternoon infused with September’s honeyed light, two young people stand beneath a chuppah in a field of grass and wildflowers. The groom, who is also my son, is tall, handsome, and jittery. The bride, dark-haired, petite and lovely in an ivory gown of French lace, smiles at him reassuringly. Her anticipation shows in her widened eyes and smile, his in his restless arms and legs. A former college athlete, those nervous jitters have returned to animate his long limbs.
The rabbi recites the blessing over the wine and asks the couple to exchange the vows they have written. Rebecca quietly reads hers to Adam, an intimate, private declaration of love and commitment. Adam reads his in a loud, ceremonial voice, affirming his devotion to her and to their marriage. Above their heads, a light breeze lifts the white lattice border of the chuppah, which was sewn by hand and embroidered with a sphere of intertwining pale green branches symbolizing their union. There are also roses, symbolic of hope, promise, and new beginnings.
According to Chabad, originally the chuppah functioned as a legal instrument, formalizing the couple’s new marital status and the conclusion of the marriage process that began with betrothal. In the Talmudic era, the chuppah was, in essence, the groom’s home and the bride’s status changed upon her entry. Today a symbol of divine love and protection, the chuppah is a sacred space where the union of two people is consecrated.
As I watched these young people recite the nuptial blessings, I felt both removed and connected, simultaneously a part of the ritual unfolding before me while also floating above it, like a figure in a Chagall painting. It’s an exhilarating, terrifying feeling to see your child declare to the world that he or she is ready to leave home and create a new life as an adult. I felt great joy and also trepidation, realizing I will always want to help and that my assistance may not be what is wanted or what is needed. A mother does her best to create safety and protection and then releases her child to the world.
The rabbi is saying that he asked Rebecca and Adam independently of each other to describe their first date. They both used the word “epic.” He wants to know if they collaborated, if they compared notes beforehand. They shake their heads no. Perhaps indeed they are very much attuned, or perhaps, as so often happens with couples who have known each other a long time, they have learned to wear each other’s words the way sisters often wear each other’s clothing.
I found the word “epic” such an interesting choice. The guests did as well, later congratulating my husband and me on an epic wedding. Colloquially, the word means fabulous, outstanding, impressive. As a literary scholar, I think of epic as a narrative poem about heroic adventures. In Greek epic poetry, the hero’s undertakings involved conquest and acts of impressive physical courage. But what if we reimagine the narrative of marriage as an epic of emotional growth and transformation, a journey undertaken by two people who have pledged to love and support one another throughout the challenges and responsibilities life places before you? You don’t need to conquer a city to be brave. For a few brief moments, the chuppah protects the bride and groom, sanctifies them. But when the ceremony is over, they must leave that sanctuary. As Rebecca and Adam joined hands and walked down the grassy path before them into their new lives as a married couple, I thought that we — their parents, dear friends, and family — would become the chuppah, the fabric of protection and shelter, should that be what is needed.
Nancy Gerber, who lives in West Orange, N.J., is an advanced candidate in clinical psychological training at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston, N.J.