Love in the Time of COVIDDec 31, 2020 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
A year ago, who could’ve imagined the challenges we’d face in 2020? Not me. With all the scheduling, rescheduling, postponing, and canceling of what used to be common events, I have planner’s fatigue. And I’m not trying to plan one of the most special days of my life—I checked that off twenty-one years ago. Yet the pandemic doesn’t change the fact that many women (and, yes, men) who’ve daydreamed about their wedding since they were kids are now engaged, staring 2021 in the eye, and weighing their options.
Because COVID-19 can stop a lot of things, but it can’t stop love.
Beautiful Barn and No Big Deal
Noyes Lawton of Wellsboro was all set to propose to Sarah Brion last March. He had the ring. He had tickets to see a play—one they’d both been in years before. “So they cancelled the performance because of COVID,” he says. He carried the ring around for days before taking her to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon and proposing there instead. Then the lockdown happened.
“I don’t think either one of us planned on marrying that summer,” Noyes chuckles, “but we had months in the house together and we said we will never have this much time to plan a wedding. So it happened fast.” Luckily his friends, Jim and Tricia Reifer, had renovated a barn just outside of town and were renting it for events. Red Barn Hollow was the perfect choice due to the location and the flexibility of the owners, as well as the beautiful site itself. They used the wooden arbor built by Jared Stone, who donated it after he and Courtney got married there in 2019. It’s movable, and Jim says everyone who’s gotten married there since has used it.
Outdoor weddings have always been popular in our area, but, with an airborne virus hanging around, barns, tents, or a combination are being chosen for safety as much as ambience. Noyes and Sarah ended up with about forty people attending. They used the Red Skillet as caterers and a friend as photographer, sat families together, and did most everything outside, including games for the kids. At the time, they went with twenty-five percent building capacity to determine how many they could invite, and of course not everyone showed.
The Reifers received queries over the summer from folks in New York whose weddings were canceled due to state restrictions, and of course they had some cancellations too. One couple’s event survived by the skin of their collective teeth. They’d planned their wedding for June, and just in time Tioga County went into green phase, lifting many restrictions. The couple had been out of the country due to their work in government security. (They could tell you more, but then they’d have to, you know...) No one had heard from the not-returning-any-calls caterer. Arrangements had been made pre-COVID, so they weren’t sure if he was still coming. “I was emptying my work van, getting ready to pick up pizzas, when the guy rolls in,” Jim recalls. “He was all chill, like what’s the big deal?” That’s the kind of stress brides and grooms prefer to avoid.
Something sweeter than COVID must’ve been in the air last March, because that’s also when Landen Kennedy proposed to McKenzie Frank. In their case, the shutdown had already happened before he popped the question. McKenzie says, “I think getting engaged during the pandemic made it even more special! It was definitely something to celebrate and be thankful for.”
They set the date for June 12, 2021 and McKenzie seems to have everything planned already. “I love planning! I actually had to make myself wait a while after he proposed to make it last.” She booked the Red Barn Hollow—which she and Landen can see from their house on Williams Circle. They knew they didn’t want a fire hall or church and did want to use local vendors. Ed-U-Caterers from Galeton will handle the food, and they’ve decided to do a dry wedding, which means they won’t have to worry about added insurance for alcohol. Skipping a DJ and going with a pre-made playlist and speakers also simplifies things. Captured by Carrie Photography in Columbia Cross Roads has already been booked to document the big day.
Family will play a large role in the preparations, and the couple is blessed with talented relations. Landen’s mom, Lori Kennedy, does wedding cakes, and McKenzie’s mom, Chris Frank, is a retired hair stylist and former owner of Magic Touch in Mansfield. “But she’s only doing my hair and hers,” McKenzie emphasizes. “We found out from my sister’s wedding that it’s too much for her to do the entire bridal party.” McKenzie learned a lot by being her sister’s maid of honor, and now the roles are switched. They are using artificial flowers so that they know exactly what to expect, and so her sister can set up and decorate the day before. They are going for an intimate and elegant feel, with a motif of olive green, cream, and gold. The ceremony will be outside if the weather cooperates, and the guest list of sixty is mostly immediate family.
Amanda Painter and Kyle Wood of Mansfield have been planning their wedding for a while, having gotten engaged on February 16, 2018. “It was a few minutes after our first son was born,” she laughs. “We knew we wanted another child and it’d be a few years before we could plan the wedding we imagined.” Sure enough, when Kyle Jr. was eight months old, Amanda got pregnant again. Larson was born in July of 2019. They chose August 28, 2021 for their date so that both boys could be ring bearers. Then the pandemic swept in.
“Kyle’s sister got married in September 2020. She was stressed out, but they couldn’t postpone since we’d already made plans for the next summer,” Amanda tells me. Both families are dairy farmers, and that means they grew up adapting to environmental variables. Kyle and Amanda live near Wood Acre Farm off Route 549 in Mansfield, where Kyle still farms full time. Amanda grew up on Painterland Farms in Westfield, and that’s where their ceremony and reception will be held.
“My dad’s a good guy,” she says, which is an understatement. Bradley Painter built a large wooden pavilion in his backyard for the reception’s food and dance floor. He’s also putting in a large playground for all the kids. This is a short walk from the field where they’ll be married. “We’re having the ceremony by two maple trees we call George and Myrtilla after my great-grandparents.” Amanda’s voice gets warm and intense. “It looks like one tree, the trunks are so close. But they’re really two.”
It seems like Amanda has imagined having her wedding at that exact spot for a long time. “When I was a little girl, I’d play dress up with my cousins in Gramma’s dresses. We’d have to take turns being the boy. I always knew I wanted a sunflower wedding.” This is the reason for a late August date. And of course her dad is planting the sunflowers.
But the pandemic has cast a bit of a shadow over the planning. They’re keeping the guest list local and smaller than they would under other circumstances. Amanda would like to be able to invite people from high school and people who’ve moved away, and hopes everyone understands why she can’t. “And dress shopping is a nightmare now because you have to make appointments.” She orders what she can online, which means measuring the boys for their suits. “And then when you try to order things, they’re out of stock or delivery is delayed. Everything is just so hard now,” she sighs. “But the sunflowers will be cheerful, you know?”
Still Blooming Photos from Westfield will take photographs and a friend will smoke the meat, with family stepping in to help with the rest of the food. She gets excited again as she describes the elements of her country style wedding. They gathered old milk jugs, barrels, and tins from their family farms to use in decorating. The bridesmaids will wear burgundy and the little girls’ dresses will be really poufy. The ring bearers, Junior (three years old) and Larson (two years old), will have sunflower yellow bowties and suspenders. The ceremony is set for noon, so the reception will be done in time for the evening milking.
No Show Bridal Shows
What about if you don’t have family land, or people who’ll do your hair, cake, flowers, photography, or food? Normally you’d go to a bridal show to see a variety of vendors, taste cakes and appetizers, look at photo portfolios, and watch dresses parade down the runway. But the February bridal shows are being canceled. There are online sights like theknot.com and withjoy.com to help brides set up their own websites, manage guest lists, and add a registry, with lots of articles on the smallest details. But if you don’t have the time or inclination to do that, you could consider hiring The Wedding Planner.
“Wedding planners are good for brides who work full-time or get stressed easily,” says Cat Rush, who planned many weddings through her business, Rush Events, before she started working full time for Tri-Co Connections. A planner can help the couple decide a budget and stay within it, and can assist with finding middle ground if they disagree on whether to spend more money on photography or the cake. A planner has a list of vendors they know work well together, can suggest the ones that fit the couple’s personality and vision, and, best of all, they can make the calls.
“A wedding planner will bring up issues before they arise,” Cat says, “and we always have a backup plan.” That sounds especially important these days. A planner can be the one looking from a safety perspective while the bride and groom can concentrate on choosing colors. And they can keep track of cancelation policies and deposits. Cat has helped mediate when the bride has wanted a magical Renaissance feel rather than the traditional church wedding her mother wanted. In this case, the bride got her theme and the groom’s aunt, who was a pastor, presided. “When you feel like you don’t have control over anything,” Cat explains, “a wedding planner can bring back that sense of control and calm.”
But she knows that in lean, uncertain times, the wedding planner is the first budget item to go. Some might consider hiring a day-of coordinator for much less, a person who will touch base with vendors right beforehand, and be sure the emcee and photographer have coordinated so no one misses first dance or cake cutting photos. Brides who don’t hire anyone can ask a family member or friend to be point person on the day. Be sure they have all the vendor contact information and a clear event timeline. (At my wedding, my bridesmaids took terrific care of me—right until I became a Mrs. After that, our attendants, who’d been working hard, ate and drank and danced, and no one thought to set aside plates of smoked pork for Jimmy and me. When we got done with photos we were famished. My brother, who had three helpings, says it was excellent.)
A New Twist
In a lot of cases, the pandemic has created more demand for vendors and venues in 2021, rather than less. Many folks who were planning weddings for 2020 postponed them for a year, thinking this would all be over. So now, according to Sonja Harvey, who established Special Event Network, “there are two years’ worth of girls trying to book one year’s worth of weekends.” But there is a fairly new option people are considering as they try to plan for every contingency—going online for part or all of the event.
Kelly Raleigh, a former student of mine at Mansfield University, found herself helping friends stream their September wedding on Facebook Live. The bride waited till early August to scale their 200-person wedding down to forty. Their venue, Reading Liederkranz, was very flexible, even understanding when they canceled the catering, but the couple lost their deposit on the band.
Facebook Live was a simple and free way for Emily and Andrew Wildman to have friends share their day. Kelly was the equivalent of the online emcee, letting folks know that the bride was running late. “It was really fun. People snapped selfies of themselves watching the wedding and posted them to the Facebook page,” Kelly says. And though they couldn’t communicate directly with the bride and groom during the event, the way weddings done via video conferencing platforms like Zoom would allow, there was more interaction than possible from a YouTube livestream. The Facebook guests could comment in real time and communicate with each other: OMG She looks so beautiful! Oh, Andy’s crying. The comments are saved so when the video is played back later the bride and groom can read them.
They modified the reception to include only a first dance and socially distanced receiving line, at the end of which guests picked up individually boxed cupcakes. No cake cutting. When asked what she charged for her services Kelly laughed. “I got paid in cupcakes.”
Onward, Upward, and All Around
Alysha Walters, from Sayre, isn’t interested in a virtual or hybrid wedding. “At this point, we have just decided to plan as if everything is normal.” Josh Simpson, of Waverly, proposed to her November 1, 2019, long before the virus was a factor. Alysha has watched co-workers limit guest lists and try to plan for all potentialities. She says there’s “a major chance we’ll have to postpone our wedding” planned for October 9, 2021, “but there’s no point expecting the worst. We’d rather have everyone safe and have the wedding we want.”
What she wants is a cozy, welcoming feel that’s not too elegant, a medium-to-large barn wedding at Dewing Farms in Rome, Pennsylvania. They plan to have people seated at tables for the ceremony so they don’t need to move for the reception. She’s chosen warm brown and burgundy tones, and has already contracted Traveling Portraits Photography, a husband and wife team from Sayre. “It’s great because she can stay with the bridal group while he shoots the groomsmen,” Alysha says. When asked about flowers she says, “lots of roses.” She has had trouble getting a caterer. The one she had lined up is from New York, and backed out once travel restrictions were put in place. This is another hitch, since the couple lives in New York, about twenty miles from their venue in Pennsylvania.
When she was a little girl, Alysha liked to pretend she’d marry rapper Aaron Carter or singer Jesse McCartney. But other than that, she’s holding onto her dreams. “Having the pandemic come now at my special time is a little heartbreaking,” she admits. “But what would really wreck me is if my grandma couldn’t be there.”
Heather Thomas is having a hard time bringing herself to start planning her September wedding. After she uprooted Justin King to come back to Tioga County, she says she abandoned him “for a good nineteen weeks” while she completed the Police Academy at Mansfield University. On one of her weekends home in September, he proposed. Heather wishes things would settle down so she could enjoy this, but she’s worried a wrench will be thrown in their plans.
They’re thinking of a small wedding at her parents’ property in Warren County and maybe a reception at the local fire hall. The next time they’re in Vermont they’ll celebrate with Justin’s family. “My mom has been trying to prompt me to give some ideas or details of what I want, but I’ve got nothing,” Heather says regretfully. When asked what’s most important to them about their wedding day, what do they have to have for it to feel right, she says immediately, “for Justin’s son to be there.” Justin has primary custody but the mother can be unpredictable. “It’s been a roller coaster for sure.”
One friend told me that every couple she knows is already living together, so what’s the point? They should take care of the legalities and celebrate when the virus settles. While many are choosing that route, or postponing the whole shebang, others don’t want to. After all, putting off a wedding doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly. There have always been variables brides and grooms can’t control. The health and attendance of family and guests is never guaranteed. People who plan outdoor weddings have always been gritting their teeth and gambling that nature will cooperate.
Does it really matter that it’s the time of COVID? Love—and weddings—will always find a way.