Just a 30-minute drive north of Nashville will take you to the part of rural Kentucky where I grew up. In Kentucky, you can get married at age 16 with a parent's signature, just like a permission slip for a field trip. You can't vote, join the Army, buy cigarettes or alcohol at that age, but by golly you can file joint tax returns.
By the time I was 18, I had been a bridesmaid three times. I was in more weddings in high school than I have been in the 13 years since.
Living in a boring, one-Walmart town gave me wanderlust. I had my sights set on big-city living, but would settle for leaving the Bluegrass State. I viewed marriage as a contract to become the stereotypical housewife. I wasn't going to let any boy, no matter the size of his pickup truck, distract me from becoming the empowered businesswoman Christina Applegate pretended to be in "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead."
Now that I'm an educated Southern woman in my early 30s, unmarried and childless, my friends and family can't imagine why I have restrained myself from the magic of matrimony all these years. I have a delightful boyfriend of 10 years with whom I live and co-parent two pugs. I love the idea of having a huge party with an open bar where all my acquaintances buy me gifts. I don't have issues with intimacy, commitment or changing my bizarre last name.
But I've never felt compelled or motivated to make an honest woman of myself.
The underage bridesmaiding started when my aunt, who was only nine years older than me, got engaged. The whole family pitched in to throw her a simple wedding on a shoestring budget. We made all the food, bought our dresses secondhand, hosted the wedding at our house, and my mom and I were the bridesmaids. I was 12.
I got my period for the very first time just minutes before the ceremony. I kept it a secret and threw away the evidence, including my undies. That's loyalty to the bride - I didn't want to take any attention away from her, even for my first menstruation.
My sanitary supplies were limited to what I could sneak from my mom's stash, so I was basically wearing a diaper underneath my bridesmaid's dress. I felt my maxi pad crinkle and crunch under the green polyester dress as I stiffly marched down the aisle. I felt so grown up. My aunt, who was raised like a sister to me, was getting married, I was ovulating, and my mom let me get my haircut in layers for the first time.
My next stroll down the aisle was for a friend at the small Christian school I attended for two years. She was a high school senior, marrying her manager at Wendy's. They're still together, have three sons and a wonderful life together. She told me recently that she was happy she got married but looking back didn't know why her parents went along with it.
This wedding took place in our church/school/building we used for everything. None of us had much money; we worked part time after school for minimum wage. Our dresses were made by the most efficient seamstress in three counties, a Mennonite lady. This was pre-Pinterest, and our town didn't even have a JoAnn Fabrics, so patterns were limited. We either got our shoes at Wal-Mart or went barefoot down the aisle. Being barefoot in Kentucky is a way of life: If you couldn't run over gravel full speed without shoes, you'd never survive childhood.
The bride-to-be was raised even more religiously than I was. We were Southern Baptists, and premarital sex was a ticket straight to hell. We had both participated in a purity banquet, a ritual where we promised our parents we wouldn't have sex until marriage. We wore rings inscribed with "True Love Waits," and our parents were given skeleton keys as a symbol that they held the key to the lock on our chastity belts. Figurative but creepy. This ensured there would be no snarky remarks about the color of your wedding dress. No cream or eggshell - you earned every thread of that bright white dress.
The third time I was a teenage bridesmaid was for a friend in the same grade, who was 17. She wasn't hiding a pregnancy, under a purity vow or even dying of cancer - she just wanted to be a wife.
She asked me to be her maid of honour. I had no idea what that meant. When I learned that the maid of honour plans the bachelorette party, I asked my mom if I could have people over. I could have three, she said, but we could order pizza. If the bride didn't like that idea, maybe I could wait outside a gas station and ask an adult to buy us wine coolers. The town we lived in was dry, so I would have had to go to the next city over, and I wasn't allowed to drive on the highway at night!
The day of the ceremony, I did my best to hide how I felt that the girl I made mud pies with as a kid was getting legally bound to someone. We were still kids, but our state lawmakers didn't find anything weird about not being able to drink during your own wedding toast. At the ceremony, the traditional wedding march was replaced by 'N SYNC, Mariah Carey and Shania Twain. The happy newlyweds rode off into the sunset on a John Deere Gator.
The only logical place to go on a teen honeymoon is back home with your parents. How romantic to carry your new wife over the threshold of her childhood bedroom. What if she shared a bedroom with a sibling? Turn up the volume on your Discman so we can consummate this thang. Then we'll move out all the Precious Moments figurines to make room for our wedding china.
A year later, my friend's marriage ended and I was home from college for the summer. As we caught up on everything from divorce to the freshman 15, I realised she had matured far beyond me.
A year of college didn't teach me what she learned about life in her first month of marriage. While she paid utility bills and property taxes, I was hanging posters in my dorm. While she was budgeting and cutting coupons for a week of groceries, I was sneaking napkins out of the dining hall to save money on toilet paper.
We celebrated our reunion by riding roller coasters at Six Flags. The last time I saw her was at our 10-year high school reunion. She surprised me when she showed up with a new husband, pictures of her adorable kids and a very pregnant belly.
I'm still close with these three wonderful women, and I know they would do anything for me, including put on a bridesmaid's dress and accompany me down the aisle, if it ever came to that.
If I've learned anything from them, it's that following your heart isn't the worst thing you can do. Sure, divorce is messy, and it's a real pain to get all new monogrammed stuff when you go back to your maiden name. But it's nothing compared with the regret you would feel of never knowing if it could have worked.
As for me, I'm not sure if I'll ever feel old enough to drink at my own wedding. But until then, I'm registered at Target.