Wediquette maven answers questions with humor

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Wearing Alençon lace from head to toe, she took her wedding vows in a posh Manhattan hotel. Her parents were back home, in England, so it was a bittersweet day. Her uncle had planned the entire wedding, without any input from the bride-to-be. When it came time to make the symbolic cut in the cake, she could not get the knife into the white mass. The photographer, who was her only chance for recording memories of the day, didn't get one good picture of the couple. Now, Yetta Fisher Gruen, of Bethesda, Md., who created The Washington Post's bridal page more than 20 years ago and wrote "Wediquette," laughs at this memory of her own wedding.

Gruen is a Jewish Dear Abby of wedding etiquette. Her book, a guide to wedding etiquette questions and much more, was updated and expanded last spring. It addresses concerns of all cultures, and the sections on Judaism are complete, taking the reader through the subtle and not so subtle differences among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

Her contemporary style incorporates established tradition, such as the breaking of the glass, "thought to commemorate the fall of the temple." And, her tips address modern considerations, such as the following: "Some Conservative couples, in order to avoid strife, include wording in the marriage contract that permits either the man or the woman to ask the Beth Din [the Jewish court] for a divorce."

In Gruen's experience with wedding consulting, the most common first question comes from the mother of the future bride or groom who is waiting to hear from the other mother who hasn't called. According to traditional etiquette books, it is the groom's family's responsibility to contact the bride's parents. If the bride's mother is concerned, however, Gruen advises, "You should pick up the phone and break the ice. It's not that the groom's parents want to be difficult. They just don't know."

Another concern that is typical among brides is what to call their future in-laws. Saying "Mom" and "Dad" is often awkward, especially when brides do not feel close to the groom's parents. At the same time, Gruen says, "Mr. and Mrs." sounds too formal. Gruen suggests, "Try to find some other term like `Mother' or `Father.'"

Gruen recalls a related experience when her oldest son, Richard, became engaged. His bride-to-be, Ruth, brought the subject up and said, "I'll call you Mom." Gruen was so touched that she cried.

Gruen's book is full of anecdotes and heartwarming experiences. One such story is of a groom's mother who picked a dress to wear to the wedding that she found appropriate. When her future in-laws saw the dress, they found it highly inappropriate. The groom's mother realized why when she saw their outfits: "I've never seen outfits so tacky-looking…without style or form…They reminded me of a Li'l Abner wedding, the two-dollar kind."

Gruen advised this mother of the traditional etiquette: The bride's mother pick her dress first, and the groom's mother picks a dress of the same length that complements the color and style scheme, taking into account the bride's requests. What did this distressed mother do? She rented a dress for $40, stood sideways in the family pictures so no one could recognize the dress and simply popped her head into table shots.

Gruen is a petite woman who is fragile, like the cup she sips tea from in her Maryland townhouse. Tea with milk, of course! Her competence is evident in the range and depth of advice she gives brides every day.

On her personal style, Gruen says, "I never tell people what to do. I point out the different ways and results if you do something. Some people will say, `Tell me what to do.' I say that I'm not standing in their shoes. I don't know the full story. Nobody but those who are intimately involved can know."

On her methods, she said, "When I write, I project myself and try to be the person I'm writing about." But it is the compilation of concerns people brought to her that led her to write her book.

Gruen says that the first crisis many brides-to-be face is the date of the wedding. When a couple becomes engaged and sets a date, it may not be possible. "The place of worship must be contacted. Also, you need a place that is large enough or small enough for the reception. The date must be suitable for both sets of parents."

Then, there's the sticky question of who pays. Gruen remembers an uncomfortable situation: "The bride's mother asked if the groom's parents would contribute to the cost of the wedding. His parents asked, sarcastically, `We're coming, aren't we?' I was surprised at the lack of tact on both sides." To avoid a situation like this, Gruen advises, "It's the groom's parents who should offer. They shouldn't be cajoled. It's unreasonable for the bride's family to plan an expensive bash and think the groom's family will pay without consulting them first."

Choosing the photographer is one part of the wedding planning that can provide lasting memories…or lasting nightmares! When Gruen describes her own experience — "Every picture is awkward looking. We had a beautiful wedding but that cannot be seen in our album"– she is not alone. Three anecdotes stand out in her advice on photographers: the lazy photographer, the unknowing photographer and the absent-minded photographer.

The lazy photographer leisurely strolled through the wedding, handing out more business cards than the number of pictures he took.

The unknowing photographer was a victim of a careless guest who toppled her camera. She lost all of the pictures she had shot.

Finally, enter the absent-minded photographer who "forgot to remove the lens cover so that although the photographer worked hard, there was not one photograph taken of the entire proceedings."

But Gruen stresses that these nightmares are the exception, not the rule.

Some wedding concerns are those that come with cross-cultural unions. "When you marry someone from a different culture, you should do a lot of research and reading so you understand as much as possible about their ways and traditions. There may be certain things they expect from you," Gruen says.

On intermarriage, Gruen maintains an open mind: "I don't make judgments. There has to be a lot of understanding…When all things are equal, it's better to marry within your own faith. But I don't consider [interfaith marriage] the end of the world."