Mangled invitations, hurricane evacuations, and a drunk aunt on a rampage? As Eliza Kennedy discovered, wedding-day debacles are perfect preparation for the highs and lows of marriage.

By Eliza Kennedy
Updated May 06, 2015
Richard Watherwax

There's a great Italian restaurant in Brooklyn Heights where my husband and I will never eat again. We're too ashamed. We had a big argument there 10 years ago. Big? It was epic. Cosmic. World historic.

It was about our wedding invitations. They were so beautiful! Witty quotations on pristine ivory paper, nestled inside a scarlet folder. Expensive, but worth it, we told ourselves. After all, the invitation is each guest's first encounter with our splendid and unique event. The invitation says, "Welcome." It says, "This is what to expect. This is who we are."

A few nights after we mailed them out, my fiancé broke the news while we were having dinner at that restaurant. The postal system's machinery wasn't impressed with our fancy invitations. They were arriving crumpled and mangled. The ivory paper was covered with disturbing scarlet smears.

Kind of like we'd used them to clean up the scene of a violent crime.

Our invitations said, "Welcome," all right. "Welcome to the Wedding from Hell." Ruined stationery. Such a shame. But, ultimately, not a big deal. The big deal was the ensuing fight, in which dismay became defensiveness became snippiness became hissed recriminations became me, sniffling, sobbing openly, using the tablecloth to blot my tears, while my fiancé suffered the death stares of the waiters, who were firmly on the side of the tragically unhappy woman at table nine.

The invitation blowout was one of many debacles my husband and I faced on our journey to the altar. Now, we didn't experience any actual calamities. Nobody died. Our venue wasn't sucked out to sea or consumed by a fireball. My fiancé didn't have an insane first wife who escaped from the attic just in time to ruin everything. But glitches and minor emergencies become disasters in the context of a wedding. Everything is so heightened. So emotional. So very, very expensive. With one shot to get it right, anything less than perfection feels like failure.

By that standard, our wedding failed. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great rehearsal for the marriage itself.

In the beginning, nothing marked my fiancé and me as nuptially cursed. He was a writer. I was a newly minted lawyer. I'm highly organized, efficient, a bit of a worrier. He's…a writer. Together we made a great wedding-planning team. I was starting a new job and didn't have much free time. He picked up the logistical slack and was only mildly delusional about the importance of his contributions. One day, after accomplishing two minor tasks, he announced, completely seriously, "You know, I think I would make a good CEO."

Ten years later, this still makes me laugh.

We wanted a low-key wedding. Elegant but not over-the-top. Super fun. This turned out to be so much harder than it sounded. Here are a few of the obstacles we faced.

Major Weather Events

We decided to throw our wedding in Key West. My fiancé had grown up there, and we loved the island's tropical beauty and smutty sense of humor. The CEO and I headed down to make the arrangements. Everything was going so well!

Until the mandatory evacuation.

Hurricane Charley was coming. A direct hit would destroy the island. We headed back to New York not knowing whether it would survive—or what would happen to all those deposit checks we had just scattered like extremely costly wedding confetti.

After a few nail-biting days, the storm changed course. But Hurricane Charley had friends. Their names were Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. Each headed toward Key West. Each prompted an evacuation. 2004: banner year for meteorologists! For Floridians? Not so much.

And for me? I couldn't help but view each one as a portent. I mean, one evacuation, fine. But four? Was somebody maybe...trying to tell us something?

Billy the Hairstylist

Hurricane season ended. The wedding day arrived. At noon, my bridesmaids and I trooped off to the salon. Billy, my chosen stylist, was small, fierce, chihuahua-like. I wanted my short hair set in 1930s movie-star waves, to match my lacy vintage gown. No problemo, said Billy. He wet my hair, set it with pins…and proceeded to blast it with approximately 400 cans of Aqua Net. I was soon enveloped in a sweet chemical cloud. A small hole opened up in the ozone layer above the salon.

I was horrified. Why didn't I stop him? I have no idea.

I stumbled out the door. My normally soft and shiny hair was a dull, crimped, crispy helmet. A shocked silence fell over my friends. It was like someone had died. And someone had: the bride I'd hoped to be. She'd been replaced by a freak show whose hair could deflect bullets. And it was only two hours before the wedding.

Medical Emergencies

A resourceful bridesmaid restyled my hair. We got dressed. Time began to accelerate. We arrived at the Truman Little White House, where we were holding the ceremony. We could hear the crowd gathering outside. It was going to happen. We were going to pull this off!

Then my brother materialized, tuxedoed and stricken. Two of our readers, a husband-and-wife team, weren't coming. I believe my response was "Huh?" The husband had called. They were at the hospital. His wife was having chest pains.

"Chest pains," I said. My brother nodded. "That's...bad." He nodded again. My mind was blank. "Pick substitutes," he said. I did. He left.

Somebody was definitely trying to tell us something.

Aunt Honey

We survived the ceremony. No lightning bolts from the sky, no sinister strangers shouting objections from the back row. Sure, my mother-in-law was late, and our tiny ring bearer tried to decapitate us with a palm branch during the vows, but at this point these were minor annoyances. We'd done it. We were married!

The reception began. Music and drinks and wonderful food and all of our friends. We were having a blast. I felt powerful, unstoppable.

Until Aunt Honey had a little too much Chardonnay.

So Aunt Honey? Not a blood relative. She was my uncle's second wife. He was her fifth husband, or maybe her seventh. Several of the former Mr. Honeys had passed away. She was a tough little fireplug with enormous tinted glasses and shoeblack bangs. I remember liking her. At first.

She and my uncle were out on the dance floor, grooving it up. She got the idea that our dj's were hitting on her. Aunt Honey: not happy. She began grumbling. Then shouting. She wasn't going to stand for it. She was going to kick their asses. We watched in horror. Was she going to…? Yes. She lunged. Fortunately, my uncle is a big guy, and he hauled her forcibly back to the hotel.

She wasn't my Aunt Honey for much longer.

Once the madness was over and I had time to reflect, I realized that all of these mishaps and aggravations were portents after all. A wedding confronts a couple with so many potential pitfalls. We were dealing with money, high emotion, family demands, your personal aesthetics and aspirations... Did I mention money, oh, and also money? It was the first time we faced some of these issues jointly, but not the last. How we worked together and dealt with the problems told us a lot about what our marriage would be like.

Ten years on, we're still a good team. We make decisions jointly. We communicate well. Different as we are, we take each other's concerns seriously, even if we don't fully understand them. And when we fight, it's usually not about some specific dilemma or problem but about our differing emotional reactions to it.

Now the debacles are what I love best about our wedding. They kept things interesting and gave us some laughs. They also planted a seed in my head that, years later, grew into my first novel, about a wedding in Key West and a bride coping with an entirely different set of problems.

Back at the reception, Honey was gone, but we had one final challenge. We had run out of booze. Our caterers were impressed, which, in Key West, is really saying something. My new husband immediately organized a liquor run. You see? Once again, the CEO had it under control.

Eliza Kennedy graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced at a Manhattan law firm before quitting to become a writer. Her first novel, I Take You, is available from Crown.