Knot Like This: A Milwaukee Bride Reflects on Her Roller-Coaster Wedding Planning Experience

It takes a village to keep a bride-to-be sane.

On Feb. 12, 2015, I opened an email from our wedding photographer, Eau Claire-based Kate Bentley. The venue we had chosen for our ceremony and reception, a Northern Wisconsin dinner theater-cum-supper club on a ridge overlooking the winding Chippewa River, was closing its doors the following month, she informed us. Had I heard?

What I heard was the voice of Senator Clay Davis from “The Wire” in my head delivering his best line: Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.

At that point, my fiancé Dan and I were seven months – a mere 219 days – away from the wedding we’d been planning for more than a year, and now we found ourselves without a location. (You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to know this is a key component.) It was one of those worst-case scenarios you read about in advice columns, or hear about happening to a friend of a friend. But now I was that person. Fleeting sympathy turned into the chest-burbling sensations of an oncoming panic attack. What would we do?! Our guests’ plans were already in the works. Relatives had already booked hotel rooms near the supper club. Should we scrap it all and go to the courthouse? Aghast, I wondered, would I have to wear my fully-paid-for wedding gown – a gown whose price requires it be worn in front of at least 50 people – to a courthouse full of strangers?

Our panic didn’t last long. When Kate saw the report of the supper club closing on the local Eau Claire TV news, she just happened to be sitting with the wedding coordinator for an area golf course situated on a nearby lake. And, being the thoughtful problem-solver she is, she asked the coordinator if her venue had our date available. It did.

Within two days, I’d locked down our date at the new venue, the Lake Wissota Golf Club in Chippewa Falls. The 18-hole course features gently rolling greens that run beside the lake that is fed by rivers and streams, including the mighty Chippewa.

The golf club itself looks like a boxshaped antebellum plantation with a second-floor wraparound deck for an ideal west-facing lake view. It was roomier than the supper club, but its views of the Chippewa area were just as majestic. The golf club was a venue we’d seen in pictures, but never thought we could afford. Our desperate time, however, called for desperate questions – and we received surprisingly affordable answers. As long as we got our deposit back from the original venue, which at that point was selling its decor, we could make it work. We’d have to pick out new bar and dinner menus, but most everything else would stay the same: We’d still have pies from the Norwegian bakery Norske Nook, we could keep our DJ, my mother’s dear friend would still officiate, and my mother-in-law could still design the most gorgeous wildflower centerpieces with flowers from none other than Sam’s Club. More important than ever, we’d still have Kate, our ears on the ground in the Northwoods.

Although we’d avoided major disaster, that didn’t mean the remaining months were breezy. To prepare for the wedding (OK, OK, and because they’re guilty-pleasure reading), I had read advice columns of all types – Dear Prudence, Dear Sugar, Carolyn Hax, Ask Reddit, even the godforsaken Knot message boards – to be able to handle planning crises large and small. Plus, I plan high-stress, complicated photo shoots for this magazine all the time. But how much harder could the remaining seven months be?

It turns out pretty difficult, but most of the distress was of my own making. As the date approached, the frequency of my panic attacks increased along with the pressure I put on myself to do everything, including: impress everyone, have fun, be gracious, be thoughtful in every decor choice, and respect the opinions of everyone who offered one. (Instagram doesn’t help either, people.) My head felt like it had been put through a blender of wedding advice and contradictory opinions. Most days, my mental state could best be described as a rubber-band ball whose outermost bands are beginning to snap. One piece of advice from friends that stuck: I went to see a therapist. (Let it be known this nugget is almost entirely absent in the wedding advice world.) And I was lucky enough to have a mother who would pick me up at work for brief crying-with-coffee sessions.

About a month before the wedding, I stepped out of the office and sat in my car to make a few phone calls about our yet-to-be-planned rehearsal dinner. It wasn’t going well, and that familiar feeling of breathlessness was slowly creeping into my airways. But I tried to compose myself before my mom was supposed to pick me up for a dinner date at the former Bay View location of Pastiche. After I got in her car, my face still red from cry/wheezing, she chatted away while driving in a direction not toward the restaurant. This must be one of her famous “scenic routes,” I figured, until we pulled up to Humboldt Park and my coworker Ann was walking toward our car. It wasn’t until they led me up the back of the hill and we came upon the rest of the magazine staff with picnic blankets, champagne and baby pictures of me that it all began to click. Their surprise shower at Chill on the Hill came on a day when I couldn’t have needed support more. And it was a reminder that I had plenty of eager ears when the stress seemed like too much to bear alone.

Photo by Kate Bentley

Despite my anxiety and all the tens of miniature planning bumps that arose, our wedding day, Sept. 19, 2015, was precisely the magical tornado of love I had hoped it would be. Like a day-long warm hug. There is no exaggerating the feeling of looking at the person you’re committing yourself to, and then seeing the faces of all the people who raised you and your partner until that moment. After dinner, the sun even cooperated in painting the sky neon hues of pink, orange and purple. It was the best sunset I’d ever seen. And not even my 8-year-old cousin’s numerous requests to play 1990s-era Carlos Santana could bring down the revelry at the reception.

While the worst of my anxiety had subsided well before the dancing started, in dealing with it I’d learned important lessons about myself, my limits, and the futility of trying to micro-manage a day that involves more than 100 people.

What was most important was that Dan and I made our journey to foreverhood official, and we now share a couple hundred pictures whose true purpose has just recently become clear. Those glossy prints capture only the joy we felt that day – joy enhanced by the shenanigans of our friends, a little tequila, and the collective euphoria experienced by indulging in 15 flavors of Norkse Nook pie. What they leave out is equally awesome: There’s no sign of any of the jaw-clenching stress or tears, of frantic spread-sheet organizing that led up to that day. Soon, I think, in my own retellings, I’ll leave that part out, too. ◆

‘Knot Like This’ appears in Milwaukee Weddings.

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Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.