The Last Detail

By Sandy M. Fernández
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Two months before my April wedding, during some of the most frenzied days of prenuptial prep, I put down my list of to-do's and took a trip to meet two friends in Mexico. I hadn't seen them together in years, and this was my bachelorette getaway. At our tiny seaside hotel, I was relieved not to have to think about invitations, cake stands or RSVPs, and, for the most part, lost in conversation and margarita-ordering, I didn't. Only once in a while, my friends told me, would I withdraw and get quiet. My face would get cloudy. My nostrils might flare.

"Are you thinking about Natalie again?" one of them would ask.

Natalie. Light of my life, fire of my soul. They'd heard plenty about her. Whatever my gripes -- and they were numerous -- this was a relationship I was stuck in. Natalie was my wedding planner. Until the 150 people my fiance, Rob, and I had invited to Baltimore came, ate and took home the centerpieces, Natalie would continue to be the second-most important person in my life.

FROM THE BEGINNING, I knew I wouldn't be the easiest client Natalie ever had. I come from a very opinionated family, and the eight years I lived in New York City just made that tendency worse. Generally, people don't refer to me with adjectives like "easygoing" or "relaxed." If my fiance (now husband) weren't the most preternaturally calm man on the planet -- a genuinely laid-back Midwesterner -- well, you wouldn't be reading this piece right now.

Yet things with Natalie had started on a note of pure sunshine.

It was about seven months before the day Rob and I had chosen to get married. I had arranged to take a couple of weeks off between jobs, figuring that would allow me to take care of the big stuff myself: Book a church and a caterer, maybe even get a dress. We'd already found a reception site. How long could this take? I bought Wedding Planning for Dummies and an armload of bridal magazines and joined a couple of online bridal boards. Piece of cake, I thought.

Little did I know. According to my sources, I was late, late, late. The best vendors booked a year or more in advance. Dresses took months to get delivered. On the wedding Web site the Knot, my automated to-do list showed dozens of items already in arrears -- from finding an officiate to deciding on my "colors" -- and 100 more barreling down on me over the next few months.

The news on the money front was equally hair-raising. Rob and I had agreed to a budget of $20,000, a number that seemed more than adequate, considering it once had been my annual salary. But when estimates began coming in from caterers -- food being a wedding's largest expense -- I got the feeling that this number wasn't the bounty I'd imagined.

From my post-wedding vantage point now, it seems ridiculous that I let the situation frighten me. After all, many couples put together inexpensive weddings without Normandy invasion-level planning. But, at the time, I was already coming under the clouds of my own perfect storm of wedding insecurity.

In my immigrant family, my wedding would be the first in the United States and, on my father's side, the first traditional wedding since that of my very Catholic grandmother. One of her children had eloped, and another had married by proxy -- I wanted to give her, finally, the full church-and-reception experience she'd always wanted. My parents, I knew, had recently been to several weddings hosted by their lifelong friends. They'd be worried about breaches in etiquette and how ours stacked up. I didn't want to disappoint them.

And then there was the unfortunate question of taste, another personal weak spot. Traditionally, my idea of home decor has been of the mounted-deer head, fake-flowers variety. That is, honestly, what I like -- though I know most of the world doesn't. Now, too many hours getting punch-drunk on the perfect pictures in Martha Stewart Weddings had raised, to say the least, some unfortunate expectations. Understated chic it had to be, and if I couldn't pull it off, I'd hire someone who could.

Enter Natalie. I'd e-mailed her after coming across her company's Web site, which opened with a black-and-white photo of an exuberant young bride kicking up one high-heeled shoe. "Fresh, timeless, chic," said the tagline. I was hooked.

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