Sunday, May 17, 2009

Culture, family, and us

Lately, Sweet T has been musing on culture, inheritance, and the ways those concepts can come into play when planning a wedding. Like many white Americans, I have only vague notions of any cultural identity. The names in my family tree are mysteriously generic, giving little hint as to whether my forebearers were Swiss, Irish, German, French, or something else entirely, and I've been able to trace only one ancestor back to his country of origin (England).

So if I had to name my family's racial and cultural background, I'd say WASP, in the literal sense of the acronym (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- although the Anglo-Saxon is just my best guess). Same for Econo Boy's family. In most ways, our background and upbringing was very, very similar. We grew up 20 minutes from each other, in friendly neighborhoods where block parties were a regular occurrence. We each have one younger sibling. Our parents were big believers in academic excellence and playing outside, and we both wound up as PhD students at the same university. I'm happy to say that we really love each others' families, and the feeling seems to be mutual all 'round.

But wedding planning has brought some very subtle differences between our families to the surface -- not in a bad way, just in a "gee, that's really interesting" way.

My parents (who are now divorced, but that's a whole 'nother post) are middle-class Midwestern WASPs. My dad is from a farming town where his middle school teacher's idea of a great field trip was a tour of the local slaughterhouse. (My dad, who has fainted at the sight of blood, attributes his determination to pursue higher education to this field trip.) Both of my grandfathers worked in factories. Both of my parents attended the local state university. When they tied the knot, my mom wore a knee-length pink dress, and they followed their ceremony with cake and punch for 25 in the church's Fellowship Hall.

Econo Boy's parents, on the other hand, are High WASPs. His dad is an Ivy League grad; his mom attended an elite East Coast women's college. When they were married, the bride wore a Priscilla of Boston gown and the wedding was announced in the New York Times.

The place where the difference in our family backgrounds has become most evident is the registry. In my family (3/4 Iowa farmers' descendents, with one High WASP grandmother who ran away with a WWII vet she met in Boston thrown in the mix), registries should be practical. You do not ask for more than you need; that would be crass. Also, the best gift is almost always cash.

After Econo Boy and I compiled our small registry, I told my mom that if her family wanted to give us anything and inquired about what we really wanted, she should tell them that money for moving and setting up our new apartment would be much appreciated. My mom's response: "Perfect. They usually give cash anyway."

When I suggested this to Econo Boy's mother, however, she turned completely white and quietly said that she didn't feel comfortable telling people that we wanted money. I quickly learned that in their social and family circle, money is absolutely not an acceptable topic of conversation, no matter the circumstance. She pushed for us to expand the registry to include the kinds of higher-end items that her family and friends would want to give us, and we eventually registered for some solid, durable stoneware dishes and nice pewter serving pieces.

Now, a difference of opinion on the appropriate size for a wedding registry barely registers on the scale of wedding culture clashes. But when you're bringing two families together, as you do when planning a wedding, it's almost impossible not to run across some differences of taste or style or etiquette. Finding out about your partner's family background and family traditions can be one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of planning, but it can also be one of the most stressful. I have tremendous respect for couples who are dealing with much wider cultural divides, like Mrs. Hot Cocoa and accordionsandlace.

This is a rather odd and rambly post, please forgive me for that. But it's all been jumbled up in my head for a while and I thought I'd better get it out of there somehow!

What kinds of family differences have come into play in your wedding? How do you compromise between different ideas and different priorities?


Anonymous said...

Ah, much as we have the cultural stuff going on, we also have the subtle class stuff that you're describing. The mister's family sounds a lot like yours--working class turned middle class in his parents' generation. My family, while not WASPy at all, has upper middle class standards. This does make for some awkward negotiations, for sure. Thankfully his family has been quite flexible at realizing that my family's standards are just kind of rigid and thus sort of going along with it (which isn't fair to them, but is very kind). It's amazing the kind of baggage that comes up while wedding planning.

LPC said...

I love your description of his mother's reaction to gifts of cash. Yeah, in my family, not done. At least didn't use to be. But my sister's husband is Jewish. Lots of cash at that wedding and what a great present it is too:). Some cultural traditions are made to be risen above.