How Not to Give Your Daughter Away: A Guide For Fathers
You're never fully prepared to hand off your little girl — even the fourth time around.
Many years ago when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I was amused by the very idea of Mr. Bennet, a man who had five daughters—five daughters!—and the responsibility of finding good husbands for them all. Later, rereading it when I had five daughters myself, I discovered that my attitude had changed. Since I plateaued at seven—all of them grown now, four of them married—I have looked back at Mr. Bennet, that amateur, with a certain wistfulness.
My outnumbered son and I learned long ago how to escape when there was a dangerous uprising of the feminine, and the preparation for a wedding, in my experience, is the most intensely feminine phenomenon known to mankind. An emotionally charged female population (mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, bridesmaids) converges on the bride, who represents everything that most profoundly interests them as women. All their fervor is brought to bear on the upcoming day. It is like the rays of the sun being bent through a magnifying glass, and any male—even the indulged and humored groom—who wanders haplessly into that blinding focus will have his self-importance instantly annihilated.
What is a mere male in this context? What do I know, for example, about this handmade lace passed down from mother to daughter, generation by generation, for the past 150 years? Do I appreciate that needlework? And do I think raw silk or silk chiffon for the bridesmaids’ dresses? I might have something to say about whether Tim Lincecum’s looks remind me more of Bill Lee or Mark Fidrych back in the ’70s, but do I really have an opinion about this fabric? Listen, I want to say, it’s really okay if you don’t include me. I’ll be there when it’s time.
Is this a callous attitude? Not at all. At some point, I might have occasion to remember how Therese’s first word was “shoe,” or how Laura gave 2-year-old Lucia an unauthorized haircut, or why Ruth’s eight days in the hospital with haemophilus influenzae scared us to death, or how Sarah used to charm Bishop Núñez. But before the wedding? Are you kidding?
Officially, perhaps mercifully, my emotions have to be compacted and ritualized into one act: walking the bride down the aisle and giving her away to the groom. But nothing can ever prepare me for the moment when my daughter, after all that preparation, stands there on her own after the bridesmaids and flower girls have gone their way to the front of the church.
It’s impossible to explain. There she is.
Just before the music begins, just before we start down the aisle, she takes my arm in this last moment. She smiles at me and then turns, both herself and more than herself, and suddenly the Purcell trumpet rings out.
It is not her personality on display; in fact, the formality holds mere personality in check, but her truer self shines. She rises to the call of her beauty, and I wonder at her. It is not that she becomes some archetypal Bride in her latest incarnation, as though her individuality were unimportant. She has never been more herself, but she takes on a radiance, no question, as though she had momentarily passed through the brightening presence of a goddess or an angel. This was my little girl, and now I am moonstruck to walk beside her down the aisle. We pass through the strata of smiling friends and relatives, all the old stories deep into the past, and at the end waits the future.
And I wish I could say that in that moment I think about the meaning of it all. Instead, I see the groom and start worrying about the handoff we rehearsed and whether my new son-in-law was paying better attention than I was. Do I take my daughter’s right hand and place it in his left hand? Is that it? Then I shake his right hand, kiss my daughter, and sit down? Or do I turn and kiss her first, then put her right hand into his left hand, and then shake his hand and sit down. Oh, Lord, I don’t remember.
And then we’re there in front of the priest, my daughter and I, our backs to the congregation, my other daughters watching from the sanctuary, all the groomsmen looking on. It’s not like I haven’t done this before, but Matt and I stare at each other and perform a three-second comedy in which two secret agents try to execute a coded handshake both have forgotten. Eventually, he ends up with Therese. I start for the seat, but she pulls me back. I’ve forgotten to kiss her.
And it’s a good thing there are details to think about, I suppose, because they help keep the whole reality from suddenly breaking in on a father. Is there anything more momentous than giving away my daughters, one by one, even to these fine young men? I feel like giving Mr. Bennet a call.