Pull a Fast One

How to plan a mad dash to the altar

My husband and I were in the midst of planning a big church wedding for our daughter, Elena, when she phoned one Saturday night. "Tony's been called up," she said, sounding like she was about to cry. Her fiancé, U.S. Marine Reserves Cpl. Tony Mauer, was being sent to the Persian Gulf imminently. "We were thinking about getting married in a civil ceremony on Tuesday," she said. "Would you come?" So began our adventure planning a long-distance wedding (we live near Pittsburgh; they were in New York) on short notice.

Three days later, Elena and Tony were married in a 68-second ceremony at City Hall in downtown Manhattan. She wore a plaid skirt and carried a bouquet of white roses; he wore a handsome navy suit and a white rose boutonniere. Afterward, 18 family members and friends celebrated with Italian food, Champagne, and a blue-and-white wedding cake that we'd brought from our local supermarket. It wasn't what we had originally planned, but it had everything we wanted, especially joy.

Express Lane

War isn't the only reason for a quickie wedding—serious illness, a pregnancy, and a job transfer are other possible situations. Whatever the impetus, you can still create a day that's special:

Consider a civil ceremony. In most states, such unions can be arranged with just a few days notice, unlike many church services.

Get on the phone. We didn't have time to mail invitations, so I called everyone Elena and Tony wanted to invite. E-mailing them seemed too impersonal and risky, since I didn't know how often people checked their accounts.

Make the wedding festive. This involves setting priorities and delegating chores. In our case, Tony's mother and I decided flowers and cake were the most essential traditions to have. She ordered the bridal bouquet while I arranged for a two-tiered wedding cake.

Invite lots of guests. More people will make your day feel more celebratory. The saying "Friends increase our joy and diminish our grief" rang true in a big way for us.

Take lots of pictures. There was no time to hire a professional photographer, so we snapped away with disposable cameras. Those shots and our homemade video are both entertaining and poignant.

Pick a familiar place for the meal. We chose an elegant but cozy restaurant where Elena and Tony had dined before. They knew the food would be delicious, and the service solicitous. This isn't the time to take a chance on a new spot.

Go with the flow. We made a point to appreciate the wedding's uniqueness, like the strangers who broke out in song upon seeing the video camera.

Make cancellations later. Don't worry about the original wedding plans until you return home. As soon as you do get back, though, call any vendors with whom you have a signed contract. Ours were almost uniformly supportive once they learned the reason we were canceling, and several waived the penalty fee.

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