The Thousand-Dollar Wedding, Savannah Style

Whew. I’m back from a completely exhausting weekend in Georgia.

Heather, a dear friend who has appeared in this blog a few times, got hitched. Me and three others piled in an Isuzu and drove five hours through three states to be there for her surfside 10AM wedding last Saturday on Tybee Island.

Heather’s a college friend, and she and I and our mutual friend Britt (who has also appeared in this blog) went through trig together a few years back as study buddies. We have been friends ever since.

Heather is that rare person who is both modest and self-effacing as well as great-hearted, sensitive, caring and highly intelligent. She is currently a later-in-life undergrad putting herself through college studying Spanish and assistant-teaching an organic chemistry class, planning to become a Spanish-speaking MD. Quite a change from working in an Alaska cannery, and a long hard climb up from being a high school dropout and a downtown bar wench, which was what she was before she started school.

On Saturday she married Ben, an aspiring architect, whom I don’t yet know well but liked the moment I met him.

The wedding party (with the bride’s fam coming in all the way from Alaska) had dinner the night before the wedding at The Lady and Sons, the Savannah restaurant run by famous chef and Savannah resident Paula Deen of Paula’s Home Cooking. (Heather and Ben made reservations for only 23, forgetting to count themselves, which made me laugh.) I sat with my pal Sherman (from the math lab, of course), the mother of the bride, and the groom’s aunt and uncle. I had the “Southern buffet,” which while expensive at $16.99 was extremely good if you like down-home Southern food, which I definitely do. It didn’t look like much, just classic Southern food — dark collard greens, fried chicken, boiled cabbage — in metal bins under under hot lamps. But the flavors were exquisite, from the salty and saporous greens to the caramel-sweet candied yams. Tender and crispy fried chicken, low country boil, mac and cheese, butter beans, black eyed peas… DAMN! Even the salad bar was good. Delicious, authentic and recommended.

Here’s my friend Grace enjoying the buffet:

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Back at the hotel word got around that a young couple had just gotten married and everyone came up to congratulate them, even the hotel staff, whom you might think see that sort of thing a lot. As I sat talking to Heather and Ben in the lobby the bartender brought them champagne on the house with a smile.

Heather said they didn’t have enough money to get married, but they decided to get married anyway. They’d originally planned to get married in grassy Ellis Square in historic, Spanish moss-covered Savannah, GA, home of tidal marshes and above-ground mausoleums, a sort of displaced New Orleans. But when that proved too expensive they went for what ended up being a lot more memorable and much more fun: a surfside wedding half an hour from Savannah on the beach at Tybee Island.

They got married in the surf in the morning, without a soul on the empty white beach but the bride and the groom and their people. The sand was pale gray, the water clear brown-green, the sky bluish white and glaring. It was beastly hot and muggy and I’d been excited all morning about going to the beach.

Only minutes before parking in the sandy lot did I remember that this was no ordinary day at the beach. This was a wedding.

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The bride wore a white bikini and a white beaded necklace. Her father wore a Hawaiian shirt as he walked her down the dunes to where we waited on the shore.

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The groom wore navy blue sport trunks.

The surf crashed and the light had that otherworldly white, almost powdery metallic color you only see at the beach and only on a sunny, hazy day. Heather looked beautiful and happy and completely herself. Ben looked handsome and relaxed. The ceremony was brief and hard to hear over the rolling of the water. My camera conked out seconds before they were pronounced husband and wife.

I wept from happiness.

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After the wedding we played in the water for hours and hours.

We were swimming near a sand dollar bed, and I found about 7 of them on the ocean floor, a skill I honed in ten years of life in South Florida, a time that left me with a superhuman tolerance for heat and toes that can expertly locate and retrieve sand dollars. Both great attributes to have at the beach.

I taught those that didn’t know how to look for sand dollars. You drag and scuffle your feet over the sand at the bottom. Sand dollars lie on the ocean floor and are rough like sandpaper, and round. When you feel something rough, flat and round, doublecheck with your feet that it is not a crab.

It will really freak you out if you bring up one of those thinking it is a little sand dollar. LOL I have seen it happen.

If it has no legs, carefully grab it with your toes and transfer it to your hand.

Living sand dollars are brownish green and covered with little spines. Only dead ones are smooth and white. Some people take the live ones and put them in a bucket of bleach to kill and whiten them, which I don’t do. We looked at ours and put them back. I swam around and showed everyone the ones I found.

Heather and Ben brought a cooler full of sandwiches (turkey and veggie), cupcakes, chips, hummus, salsa, water, sodas and beer. There was sand and food and friends and it all got kind of summery and timeless. Nobody knew what time it was and nobody cared.

Consider the following options:

A. Church wedding, bride in expensive one-time dress, boozy reception.

B. Outdoor summer wedding in the square. You spend a fortune on a summer formal you don’t like wearing and swelter in the 5PM Savannah heat.

C. Beach wedding with cupcakes and turkey sandwiches. You play in the ocean for hours and find seven sand dollars, huddling with your friends and marveling at them. The bride is beautiful in a white string bikini. The groom takes a sea kayak for a spin. Your sunburn is worth it.

Which one sounds best to you? I’ve got serious food for thought for my own wedding, should it ever occur. I feel like what was purportedly a discount, ersatz solution ended up being not only more economical but 1,000 times more fun. I didn’t feel like I was at a thousand dollar wedding; I felt like I was at the best wedding ever, one that a plain-vanilla church wedding couldn’t hold a candle to.

A storm blew in around 3PM, making thunder, bright flashes of lightning and heavy rain. We swiftly packed up camp and headed back to the hotel under darkening skies and a cold downpour. It was a blessing in disguise as easily a half-dozen people (including me) didn’t yet know it but were sporting a scorching red sunburn. Later, Kirsten the bridesmaid and I would scour downtown Savannah for some aloe for her blistered and blue-eyed Irish-Alaskan husband, Matt.

The people I’d driven in with up and decided to stay another night in Savannah (with no reservation and a hotel that was booked solid), something I didn’t want to do at all, much less with a scorching sunburn, a headache, on three hours’ sleep and with my cats at home needing food. I felt disgusted and betrayed, but my other option — demanding to be driven home — was extreme and unfair. I arranged for emergency cat care and resigned myself to staying another night in Savannah.

I bucked up and wandered the streets of downtown Savannah to improve my fallen mood, eating a grilled chicken Caesar and breathing air made cool by the rain that had stopped while we showered and changed back at the hotel. I listened to the clip-clop of the constant carriage tours, visited with a man carefully folding a palm rose in the City Market.

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I started to feel like myself again.

Savannah is a beautiful city, full of historic architecture, tourist-laden horse-driven carriages and gray-green Spanish moss that lends an air of spooky mystery to everything, even in the middle of the day.

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Ice cream, a handsome young ice cream vendor with beautiful hazel eyes, dinner, a walk and some alone-time did me a world of good. I went back to the hotel and ended up bunking with Annie in a spare bed in the hotel room of a tipsy and generous semi-stranger from the groom’s side of the wedding party (Thank you, Jimmy). I stayed in the rest of the evening, too tired, headachy and out of sorts to enjoy the surroundings much. I’d love to go back next summer and do Savannah right.

We finally made it home early Sunday afternoon after a long drive. I was dehydrated and headachy, and my face stung from the sunburn. I half-assedly unpacked and laid on the sofa for a few hours watching a movie and feeling sicker and more tired by the minute. Little sleep, travel and a bad sunburn were taking a serious toll. I took a cool shower, slathered myself with aloe vera and lidocaine, and was in bed before nine. I slept for 11 hours straight.

I missed the wedding dinner due to a headache, bad mood and a long sunburny day at the beach on three hours of hotel sleep the night before. But if I had been given a chance to say something to the bride and groom, this is what I would have said.

Heather, I often wish you could see yourself the way I see you, so on your wedding day I will try to help you do that.

I see someone who, without help or example, forged a difficult new path in life when the deck was stacked against her. With relatively limited advantages in life, you were your own advantage. And just being Heather is a huge advantage for anyone to have, if you ask me. You moved yourself under your own power from the waitress lane to the MD lane and the last time I saw anyone like that it was on Oprah.

When I first met you you were a hard-working student who would let nothing stand in the way of her dreams, and since then, despite incredible academic challenges of the sort that defeated even me, you are still going. Not only are you a working student, you are also a handpicked chemistry teaching assistant, a wonderful friend and a tireless, committed and caring volunteer for rape survivors.

You always tell me of your worries about getting into a good med school, or any med school at all. Personally, I worry about any med school that wouldn’t want you in it. What school wouldn’t want someone so great-heartedly devoted to helping others, someone who truly understands hardship, someone to whom the choice between money and service is not even a choice? And what school worth going to wouldn’t want someone like you, who has lived life, and who lives her desire to make a difference every day?

Heather and Ben, may your life together have all the joy of an o-chem quiz you unexpectedly ace, the stability of a sine wave, the comfort of a great pep talk from an amazing professor and the lastingness of a really bad silver nitrate stain. On your wedding day, I wish you good grades, fat envelopes from several good med schools, mutual support in your ambitions and the challenges that the future will hold, and the promise that we your friends are here for you always.

And as you and Ben are such good friends to all of us here, so we know you shall be — that most important thing — good friends to one another.

Thanks for the most awesome wedding ever, and a perfect example of letting what really matters most, matter most: friends and family, having fun. Not a needless and needlessly costly conformity to tradition and convention. You are doing things your own way from the start, in the sanest, most creative, most thoughtful and most wonderful way. I would have expected nothing less from you and Ben.

Love,

Jen

One response to “The Thousand-Dollar Wedding, Savannah Style

  1. thanks for sharing – there’s a wedding photo i’ve rarely seen.

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