Last weekend, I was in one of my best friend’s weddings in Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve never been to Savannah, it’s a lovely little city, highly aware of its own Southern charm, and it has made that charm something of a commodity: at almost every turn, you can buy artistic representations of dogwoods, magnolia blossoms, and peaches; Gone with the Wind memorabilia, and more pecans and pralines than you can imagine.
And for those who have a soft spot for Southern cuisine – for fried chicken and greens and macaroni & cheese and green beans and low country boil and biscuits and hoecakes (cornbread that is fried flat like a pancake) – it is a dining dream.
Whenever I visit Georgia, I find myself faced with dietary decisions that I just don’t have at home in Virginia: I am, in my normal life, seldom presented with fried chicken, fresh vegetables abound, and there’s not a hoecake to be found. (In fact, when I came home and mentioned hoecakes, my roommates and my Illinois-born girlfriend looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.) And so it often happens that when I come back from a visit to Georgia, my rules for eating are few and simple: no more fried chicken. No more biscuits. For the love of God, nothing fried. Not for a few days. I must stabilize first.
And now that I have, I must tell you about the wedding reception at Lady & Sons. Not only about the delicious food (and y’all know it was good), but also about the experience. My friend, the bride, Liz, was a friend of my brother’s. The groom was one of his best friends. I watched those kids grow up through middle school, and after my brother died, Liz and I found each other on the school bus one day. She was crying, mourning the loss of her grandmother, and I saw in her a kindred spirit. We cried througth that bus ride home, both aware of our loss, and after that, we were friends.
I didn’t expect her wedding to be an emotional ordeal for me. It’s been just over ten years since my brother passed away, and I’ve known Liz and Travis as a couple for years. But as I watched Liz walk down the aisle, I was struck by how far we’ve come. How much has changed. One of my brother’s best friends was marrying one of my best friends. He had friends in the audience. He had friends in the line of groomsmen. And it struck me how rare that is: I was around people who knew and loved my brother.
This summer marked ten years since Danny died. That’s his name: Danny. So often, I write “my brother,” which allows some sense of obscurity. And when the anniversary of his death rolled around this summer, I shut myself in my room and went to bed and didn’t get up. I cried hard for a long time. I said no to social engagements because I needed to hide. So often in my Virginia life, I am able to forget what happened. I have a busy, full life; I’m surrounded by love and joy and encouragement. Nobody here knew my brother. They know me, and they love me, and they honor my loss. But they didn’t know him. July 10th came and went, and I was the lone representative of that day’s grief in Virginia.
But at Liz’s wedding, people knew Danny. They had funny stories about him when he was a goofy teenager. And so as Liz walked down the aisle, as I was overcome with happiness for my dear friend, I couldn’t help feel a twinge of bittersweet grief.
At the reception, Liz’s dad made a speech about the people who should have been there, but weren’t. The people whose presence we still feel, but can’t see, whose laughter we can hear even if they’re not with us. And at that point, I lost it. Danny was one of those people. Amid the happiness and joy, there was an absence, even if only a few people recognized it. I watched the bride and groom in a slide show of baby pictures and prom photos, I watched a video that the bride’s brother, Jordan, sent from his Coast Guard camp in Texas, and through it all, I lost myself to the sweet sadness of the day.
When it was all over, as other bridesmaids politely dabbed their eyes and fussed with their smudged mascara, I excused myself and went out into the stairwell of Lady & Sons. I shook and gasped and worked at composing myself. And then the funny thing happened: a waiter came through the door, took one look at me, and went into full chivalry mode. “Ma’am, are you all right? Can I get you a tissue? You should sit down. Let me help you to a chair. Can I show you where the bathroom is? Are you sure you’re all right? I can go get you a tissue. Let me help you.”
I felt like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice. I felt cared for and fussed over, which is extraordinarily uncomfortable for me. I pressed a hand to my chest and caught my breath and assured him I was fine. I congratulated myself on not outright telling him to stop looking at me. I got myself straightened out, walked back into the dining room, and ran into Liz’s step-grandmother. “Darlin’,” she said, “you look just stunning. Well, wait, you looked just stunning. You’ve ruined your make-up now. But earlier, you were beautiful.”
I could only laugh. It was all too big and ridiculous and emotional and Southern not to laugh. I chowed down on hoecakes dredged in mashed potatoes and gravy. I stuffed my face with cake. I sipped probably the best sweet tea I’ve ever had. I celebrated my friends, and I remembered my brother. And yes, it was sad. But it was happy too.