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May 2024
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The Vows of Marriage

Officiating my niece’s wedding was a precious gift.

By Caren S. Neile, Ph.D.

Couple saying their vows at alterCaren Neile officiates the wedding of her niece Rebecca and Rebecca’s new husband, Alex. Photo credit: Curtis Dahl Photography
I am making my way down an aisle in a fancy Los Angeles hotel ballroom, tottering on spiky black heels, sweating lightly under my blue silk dress, surrounded by 200 family members and friends. My hands are vibrating from excitement. Up ahead is the wedding canopy known as a “huppah,” the primary symbol of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. 

It all feels like a dream—but it’s not. My beloved niece Rebecca and her fiancé, Alex, have, incredibly, asked me to officiate at their wedding.

My mind travels, like one of those wiggly, black-and-white movie flashbacks, to another family wedding, more than 25 years earlier. That time my cousin was getting married, and his brother delivered a wedding toast that was both heartfelt and hilarious. With all my soul, I envied his ability to speak to a crowd. What a gift, I thought, to be comfortable enough to celebrate aloud one of life’s most ­precious moments.

“One day,” I silently promised 2-year-old Rebecca, who was sitting on my lap, “I will be able to do that, too.”  

Not long afterward I joined Toastmasters, and a few years after that, I realized my dream of becoming a professional storyteller and teaching storytelling studies at a local university. Not a day went by that I wasn’t thankful for those opportunities. But this—this was different.

My niece and nephew are of different faiths, so they did not want to hire a member of the clergy to marry them. Who did they know with the ability to pull off the job with aplomb, and without nervousness or shyness? It was one of those rare times in life when instead of asking in time of need, “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone asked, “Is there a speaker in the house?” And there I was. First I completed a brief online form to become a wedding celebrant, and then it was time to work on the ceremony, a job that took most of the following year working with an informal committee of friends and family. 

On the evening of the wedding, I opened with a folktale about a wise man who runs out of food and water while traveling through a desert. He almost loses hope, when he spots a coconut palm tree in the distance, drags himself to it and collapses in its shade. Eventually he cracks open a coconut and drinks and eats until he is ready to go on. Before he leaves, he wonders how he should bless the tree, which already has all it needs. His blessing: that the tree’s saplings—its offspring—will inherit its bountiful gifts and share them in their own time.

Then I welcomed the guests to the union of two extraordinary people and their families, and the ceremony began. I wasn’t the only one to speak; the bride and groom had selected readings for their friends. But I served as master of ceremonies, just as I had learned to do in Toastmasters meetings. Alex’s three aunts helped perform his Indian wedding traditions, which, with information contributed by his mother, were explained by one of his closest friends. Toward the end of the service, I told another story—thanks in large part to the Toastmasters Story­telling manual—that ended, “The key to your success and happiness is ultimately in your own hands.” Using the body language skills I had learned in the Competent Communication manual, I spread out my own hands. Next I read for the couple the vows I had created, which had felt a lot like writing a ceremonial speech:

“Do you, Rebecca, intend to cherish, respect, support and nurture Alex in body, mind and spirit, as long as you both shall live?” 

“Do you, Alex …?”

Finally, they exchanged rings, and I pronounced the pair husband and wife. 

“This ritual symbolizes the awesome power of words,” I said to the crowd. “Think about it. With the words spoken here today, we have created a married couple.” 

By the way, Rebecca recently joined Toastmasters and is ­happily making her way through her first 10 speeches. That’s the power of public speaking. 

And for this ability, do I feel truly grateful?

I do.


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