I got married in 2011. I knew the union of marriage would not be an easy one. I knew it would not come without challenges, without disagreements, without happy times and without the growing pains of any other kind of relationship. Marriage is both the best decision I've made in my life and one I often wonder if I've made the right decision. Not because I don't love my partner. Not because she isn't my best friend. Not because it wasn't the right time, but because of me. In a marriage, we are forced to look at our faults. We are forced to bare our truths. We are urged to always do and be the best we can because at least one other person is counting on us to do so. There is an expectation that our partner, our spouse must also accept the ugly parts of who we are. Perhaps the parts of us we despise ourselves. Couple these natural expectations around marriage with an inter-racial marriage and one can often end up with more questions revealed than answers. Will our families like each other? Do we share the same beliefs in religion? What are my values? What does your family expect of me? And so, so, so many others...
I am black and my partner is Sri Lankan. Naturally, while planning our wedding, we wanted to include our families in the process as much as we could. I bonded with my mother in-law-to-be by perusing a flower market in New York City a few months before our wedding.
As we entered our third flower shop of the morning, we came across a coconut branch which reminded her of Sri Lanka. It resembled a tan bouquet of long pointy stems, stems tied together by an ornate jewel. To me, it resembled a simple bunch of stems. My mother-in-law went on to tell me exactly where to place this branch during the wedding and with the approval of our wedding planner, who acted as our tour guide on that day, I agreed. His tastes were better than mine, I was sure of it. I listened intently as she, the expert and I, the student, bonded right there in the middle of the room surrounded by expensive flowers, as the coconut branch stared at me. The look on her face told me I needed to make a decision and fast! My heart told me to clear it with my partner first. I called her to describe the branch which stood before me:
"How do you feel about having a coconut branch decoration at the wedding?" I asked.
"A what?" was the response which reverberated through the phone lines.
"A coconut branch?! We are here in the shop looking at this branch and your mom wants to get it," I said.
"What the hell are we going to do with a coconut tree? It's ugly and I don't want it. Don't we have enough flowers?," she exclaimed. Each word spoken in response to my question was the opposite of what I expected.
The end result: My mother-in-law paid for two coconut trees. The trees greeted us on our wedding day as we stepped onto the lavender runner which led us to our priest to exchange vows. For my soon-to-be wife, that was the first time she saw the coconut trees as I didn't have the heart to tell her I couldn't say no to her mother. I can still recall her eyes, narrowing in on the decoration, filled with irritation as we approached the coconut branch that day.
Another wedding tradition suggested by my mother-in-law: the fertility lamp. I had no clue what the lamp was. I'd seen it each time I walked into my in-law's home. It's a large decorative pole with a golden rooster, which sits about 3 feet high. Honestly, I thought it was a pretty, shiny coat rack. One Sunday after dinner, we prepared to leave their house, my mother-in-law-to-be excitedly declares:
"You must use the fertility lamp!"
Shock and disgust blanketed my fiancée and her father's face alike. I stared wide eyed at everyone in the room, my eyes darting between each family member. I had no clue what this golden creature was, I knew then, however, it was definitely not a coat rack. My soon to be father-in-law shrugs and walks away. My fiancée says, "Why would we need a fertility lamp, mom?" and chuckles as she puts on her shoes, dismissing the lamp.
"Because it's tradition!" her mother rebuts.
"We are not taking the lamp mom, sorry," says my fiancée.
The conversation continues, "Why not, Dinushka?" says her mom.
"Mom, we are gay! What are we going to do with this lamp? Anyway, it's ugly. It will confuse people," she says.
As I bent down to pick up my shoes, I stood there in their entryway confused. I did not understand the suggestion of our taking the fertility lamp but I did know she wanted to include as much tradition in our ceremony as possible. And she was excited to help us plan our very gay wedding.
Over the course of our wedding planning, I learned so much about Sri Lanka. As our relationship progressed and eventually, as we decided to get married, I understood why Dinushka loved her country of origin so much. Before dating her, I did not even know where Sri Lanka was. What kind of tradition/culture would she bring to our wedding?
Long before our wedding day, Dinushka taught me about taking our shoes off before entering our own home. She taught me about eating with my hands, when I felt comfortable doing so. She told me about the civil conflict which tore Sri Lanka apart and which urged her to want to return and help her people. Her love for her country propelled me to think about the love I have for my own culture, history, and family story.
My grandparents, who raised me, were from the south. They grew up poor and found comfort in attending weekly church services, feeding their appetite to hear the word of God through the Baptist scripture they received each Sunday. They found pride in homeownership and the value of each person in my family getting an education. On Sundays, after church, they invited family members over for large southern style dinners. So, for my non-traditional wedding, my family and I would not be giving a tree to represent our culture nor jump the broom at my ceremony, which usually pays homage to a historical black tradition. My family, however, would support me by attending my wedding.
On our wedding day, and all of the events leading up to that day, proved we'd both made the right decision -- to get married. Our families met for the first time that very week. They respectfully got along and while we came from different parts of the world...we all had one common value, love and a belief in God. To our families, love and God were the same and we had the presence of both. The expectation from Dinushka's family of me rested in the reality that; I would always respect them and keep God in our marriage. My decisions were no longer my decisions but our family decisions... talking about general concerns, household concerns, child rearing, budgets and bills... together. On our wedding day, we had family and friends who represented different pivotal points in our lives. We had family and friends of different religions, different ages and different relationship statuses. In the end, it is love which holds us all together. It's what binds us.
Our marriage, one that is not always easy as we continue to go through our own growing pains, has in the end made us better people. Next up, our journey raising our Afro-Lankan twin girls. Do we cover their hair in coconut oil? Let them relax their hair? Pierce their ears before they reach one year of age? Do we teach them how to make chicken curry and/or introduce them to my grandmother's fried chicken recipe? And the questions go on...