There was a third photographer at the Cathedral.
We’d hired two, Anne and Bill Holland, as our official wedding photographers. But as the wedding party lined up for the processional, another fellow — clad in black, laden under with lenses, and sporting a jaunty backward driver’s cap — appeared and introduced himself to me as Bill O’Leary from the Washington Post. (I promptly forgot his last name and proceeded to call him either Washington Post Bill or just Post Guy for the rest of the evening.) We’d heard he was coming, but were delighted afresh at the reality of the Washington Post. covering our wedding. Here. Now.
I wondered if he’d shot at the Cathedral before. The place remains a secluded novelty to a surprising number of Washingtonians; tour buses go there, but locals often don’t. Whenever I speak of the place to friends or colleagues, they’re mystified and vaguely intimidated by the place. The National Cathedral? Yeah, huh, you’re right, I guess we have one. It’s a monument, it’s a church, it’s high-Gothic and enormous and religious and all sorts of other things that often do not fit comfortably into DC yuppie life.
Tourists, though? They love it. The nave was peppered with them, the aisles chockablock with people from out of town who came to see a monument and lucked into a wedding. I have never felt more at the center of the universe than as a bride at the National Cathedral, sought out by of hundreds of eyes and dozens of point-and-shoot cameras, beaming back at my impromptu audience and bursting with joy at the fruition of my wildest dreams.
For months I had subsisted on a thousand calories a day, harried my seamstress through endless gown alterations, purchased no fewer than six pairs of possible bridal shoes, obsessed over decorations and details, and generally channeled my life toward this moment like sunlight through a magnifying glass. Now, here, in my finest hour, I was pared and honed and distilled to my finest self. And the whole world was watching.
The organ finished the final prelude and launched into the processional: the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition, &’s choice for the seating of the mothers and his own altarward march. Early on he’d decided that he wasn’t going to be one of those conventional grooms who materialized at the communion rail while no one was looking. No, this was his finest hour too, and he was getting a grand entry of his own: the fanfare of ten thousand organ pipes and a Cathedralful of eyes on him as he marched down the nave aisle, past all the seated tourists, and up into the choir full of our guests.
I didn’t see him go. This is how big the Cathedral is: & was already ascending the crossing by the time Ellen, my fairy godmother in the worship department, finished herding the girls into formation at mid-nave. We only knew he’d reached the high altar when the music shifted.
Have you ever heard a piece by Aaron Copland called Down a Country Lane? I’d heard it arranged for string orchestra and loved it, but didn’t know whether I’d find anything when I went looking for an organ version. Needn’t have worried, though; the talented Erik Suter, up there at the ten-thousand-piper, didn’t need anyone else to arrange his music for him. He may have spent a few minutes pondering the piano score I found on sheetmusicplus.com, but the improvisation on Copland that resounded through the nave as my bridesmaids processed was uniquely Erik’s gift to us. (We’d taken to calling it “our Aaron Copland world premiere.”)
“And,” Stanley the verger murmured as Ellen arranged my veil, “go.”
I took a step forward.
All the tourists stood up.
Have you had a moment like this in your life?
I’d performed before; I’d argued in court, sung recitals, been on stage and in costume and at the business end of a spotlight. But this was novel. This was real. This was my apotheosis: after a lifetime of being awkward and nerdy and overweight, I had become beautiful, impossible, legendary. That fairytale princess bride in the size 2 gown and the ten-foot-long veil? That was me, dumpy old Penny, sparkling down the aisle of the National Cathedral with Aaron Copland thundering on the organ, a coterie of paparazzi fastened on my every step, and several hundred eyes on me and no one else.
I crossed into the choir as the organ hit, and then exceeded, the highest point of the big Copland crescendo. Everyone was already standing. There were my six cranberry-clad bridesmaids, &’s half-dozen groomsmen, Vicar Steve, and my husband-to-be, all waiting for me at the rail. And looming up behind them was the high altar.
Last year, when & first confirmed that they’d let us get married at the National Cathedral, my first reaction was terror. I’d stood in this same spot, looked up at the high altar, and felt myself sinking into the floor. It was impossibly ornate, enormous, overwhelming. This space would dwarf us, swallow us whole. Wouldn’t it?
As it turns out: no, it wouldn’t.
This Cathedral had become friend and family to me. This was where we had hunted gargoyles, gone spelunking in the crypt, wandered through the gardens and climbed the towers, walked the labyrinth and plighted our troth at the center. This was the place where I sang the Verdi Requiem, where & gives tours every other Sunday, where we go to church and hug the vicar after services and fast during Lent and, now, were getting married. Our cathedral. The National Cathedral belonged to us as much as we did to it.
“This is one helluva space,” I nervously told & last year, “and we’re going to need to own it.”
Today, we owned it.
We stood up straighter, held our heads higher, threw our shoulders back and spoke our lines in our Outside Voices. For months we’d noodled over the order of our service, the readings and the hymns and the various bits of the Book of Common Prayer we could keep or do without. Even so, the finalized wedding program had only gone to press a few days ago. This was the first time we were running through the whole thing from end to end.
It worked exactly as we’d hoped. No major missteps. Not even a minor misstep. Thank you, Elianna and Brad, for your unprompted veil-wrangling and ring-summoning; thank you, bridesmaids and groomsmen, for gracefully materializing in precisely the right locations with every scene change; thank you, Melinda and Rachel, for your wonderful readings; thank you, Erik, for your virtuoso turn on the organ; thank you, Chris, for chanting the Rameau Psalm 84 perfectly on no rehearsal; thank you, friends who performed our “pop-up prayers” on a few days’ notice; thank you, all the guests who stood up and approached the altar for communion even if you didn’t take the sacrament; thank you, Vicar Steve, for your subtly brilliant homily; thank you, Annie and Bill and Washington Post Bill, for documenting every golden second; thank you, Ellen and Stanley and all the backstage Cathedral elves; and thank you, National Cathedral, our stage and our nest, for welcoming us into your sanctum. We’d joked that this would be the most expensive hour of our lives. This is probably true, but it was worth every dime.
After the ceremony, the program advised our guests, we would be receiving in the south transept. But as my newly-minted husband and I marched back out of the choir, I looked up at the rose window and immediately scuttled all plans for a receiving line.
“Look,” I said, rudely pointing upward. “What is that? Is that sun?? See that? That’s sun!!!”
Sure enough, the downpour had ceased. I had just been given the one gift I’d wanted most on my wedding day: a brilliant sunset lighting the fall foliage. We summoned the photographers, dashed outside, and left our guests waiting in the south transept, scratching their heads. We’d rejoin them shortly at the reception, but we were not going to waste this moment indoors.
The wet late-afternoon sunlight was brilliant gold on the dripping leaves and receding black rainclouds. The photographers worked furiously, taking turns snapping candids while the other posed us. There was a rainbow somewhere behind the Cathedral, but the sun was low enough that we didn’t have time to look for it. The moment was about to pass.
I was so relieved that we’d caught it. So thrilled that my wedding, the work of a year’s planning and exercise, had gone off without a hitch. So overjoyed to be married to &, to be a bride of legend, to be headed with my brand-new husband to the reception where we would celebrate not only our successful turn at Major Event Planning, but also the life together that we couldn’t wait to begin.
Or maybe it could wait just a moment longer.
My uncle Paul had the Rolls at the ready by the time the photographers had finished making the best of the light. Before we knew it he was pulling up in front of our reception venue, the Daughters of the American Revolution auditorium on 17th Street near the White House. “No, wait,” I told him. “Don’t pull up yet.”
“Where do you want to go?” our charioteer asked us.
“Let’s take a victory lap. Around the Mall.”
Paul gladly drove right past DAR, to the visible consternation of our photographers, and turned onto Constitution Avenue with a wink and a smile. We’d be there in just a moment; but first, we had just a little more winning to do.