Weddings plus funerals equal family stress. Whether the event is happy or sad, planned for months or just days, you can bet someone will melt down.
July 23,1983, my first wedding took place on a hot, muggy evening in the garden of an elegant mansion. My father proudly escorted me down the steps. I wore my aunt's white wedding dress, which had an antebellum hoop skirt that took up a lot of space.
A full moon rose in the east as my groom Bob and I stood before the only rabbi we could find in Washington D.C. who would marry a Catholic and a Jew. The rabbi had Parkinson's disease, and over the course of the short ceremony, he shook and stuttered so badly I wasn't sure he'd finish.
The reception in the mansion featured a cool jazz trio and waiters passing trays holding pigs-in-a-blanket and mini-quiches. I tossed the bouquet while standing on the grand staircase. Bob and I made a memorable exit wearing electric blue jumpsuits and futuristic sunglasses. It was the Eighties, after all.
How we had planned! The creamy white invitations with a raised flower motif had been mailed out months before. We had silk flower arrangements and potted palms. We found the shaking rabbi to conduct the ceremony.
There was so much to decide: What caterer to use? What to serve? Photography! Transportation! Attendants! Flowers! Outfits!
Meltdown number one was the day before the wedding. I was having my nails done at the beauty parlor. The manicurist made some benign comment. Suddenly, I burst into tears. The pressure was just too much.
The marriage lasted five years.
Fast forward to December 27, 2000. A thin crescent moon hung over the last glow of sunset as family and friends gathered at Congregation Albert synagogue. On the seventh night of Hannukah, Dave and I had a Jewish Western wedding.
Dave proposed on the Fourth of July. We made all the arrangements in six months. Secured the date with the rabbi. Got an Old West portrait for the invitation. Bought stylin' Western outfits.
The wedding started late. We waited in the rabbi's office for Dave's father, Norm, who had run home to change his "itchy" shirt.
Dave and I walked down the aisle together. I wore a red dress with a black fringed and beaded jacket and red-and-black cowboy boots. We invited the guests to wear Western attire, and they responded with gusto. Even the rabbi wore boots and a bolo tie.
The reception was a barbeque buffet held in a converted barn with sawdust on the floor. A Western swing band provided the entertainment, with recorded Jewish dancing music during their breaks. Dave's artistic mother Myra hand-painted more than two-dozen ceramic cowboy boots for centerpieces. Everyone said it was the most fun they'd had at any wedding.
Dave had meltdown number two. We woke up the day before the wedding to see six inches of snow had fallen. Albuquerque was paralyzed. The synagogue called to say they were closed that day. No rehearsal - although we did have a rehearsal dinner. No setting up the wedding canopy. Everything had to be done the morning of the wedding.
Dave turned very red and complained, "How can they do this? We've got to get set up! There's no time!"
I pointed out the roads were treacherous and sent him out to shovel the walk. There's a good reason weddings are held in June.
Seven years later, Dave's father died. Norm was 82 when he fell and broke his hip. After seven weeks of hospitalizations, he succumbed to pneumonia.
I pulled out my wedding contact list to call Dave's relatives the day before Norm died. The end was near. Close family and friends flew in on short notice.
Dave and I had pre-planned his father's funeral three years before. Norm wanted a plain wooden casket. Jewish tradition calls for simplicity in funerals - no flowers. Charitable contributions were requested to the Jane Goodall Foundation. Myra provided a soft cotton tracksuit, so Norm could rest in something that wouldn't be "itchy."
We already knew what we wanted for a program, where the service would be held, and who would conduct it. We decided we didn't need a limo. In our exhaustion, we wrote just a short obituary to announce the funeral.
In the rabbi's office before the funeral, our family tore black mourning ribbons and pinned them to our clothes. The rabbi told us how the event would unfold. We lined up outside the sanctuary. There are no rehearsals for funerals.
Meltdown number three came from Dave's brother Steven. At the last minute, Steven wanted his wife to walk in next to him. This threw off the symmetry of the line-up. There was a scramble of silent rearranging.
In the end, Steven's wife threw up her hands and walked back to where I was standing. The two sons escorted their mother. The two daughters-in-law walked in together behind them.
Can meltdowns be averted? It's impossible to control the reactions of others, but how you react can affect whether there's an emotional blip on the radar or a nuclear emergency.
1. Take a deep breath or two before reacting. In those few seconds, compose yourself to avoid launching into a counterproductive tirade.
2. Look away from the combative person for a second. Locked eye contact can escalate the tension.
3. Change the course of the discourse. For example, if someone else starts out your day by having a meltdown, look away, take a deep breath, look back and say, "Good morning, (name). It's a beautiful day." Then quietly look at them.
4. Don't take it personally. Most meltdowns by others are more about them than it is about you.
Weddings are stressful. Funerals are more stressful still. It helps to plan ahead. And in spite of the best-laid plans, you can bet - someone will melt down.