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Coronavirus Zoom wedding ditches the plan and lets loose needed joy

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Why let the coronavirus rob them of all their joy? That was what Owen Smigelski and Carolyne Johnson began to think as the date approached of the big spring wedding they’d had no choice but to cancel.

On April 11, they were supposed to be 200 miles north in San Luis Obispo, saying vows in a church before more than 100 guests.

They were supposed to be dancing with friends and family at the famed Madonna Inn, and spending their first married night in the inn’s rock-showered, blue-flowered, wonderfully retro-kitschy Romance room.

They were supposed to be giving their guests who’d flown in from as far as Japan fancy cookies as favors — some shaped like three-tiered wedding cakes, featuring their names and the date.

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And that date, which was supposed to be their anniversary, was everywhere: on a big sign they’d had made, on the cake topper, on the bright red socks they’d ordered for themselves and their combined brood of boys, with 4.11.20 woven into a multicolored collection of hearts.

But why wait on supposed to be? Why let the virus, which for weeks already had shut them all inside together for work and for school and for everything else in between, turn that day into just another in an endless string they’d spend shuffling around their El Segundo home in their sweatpants?

They decided instead to just go ahead and get wed right when they’d meant to without fuss — in front of friends and family, on Zoom.

Instead of moping around and mourning, they took charge and took a stand against sadness.

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So much right now is bleak, frightening and beyond our control. What is happening in our nation’s ICUs is the stuff of our nightmares. We carry fear for our loved ones’ health and stress about our shutdown finances in our tense necks and shoulders, in knots in our bellies that rarely relax.

But we also reach out for relief from the grim, not just for ourselves but for others. There is beauty in that. And there is strength in the way we grab the reins where we can and toss aside the tidy maps we’ve made for our lives.

I’d been thinking a lot about how much we are doing this when Owen announced his Zoom wedding on Twitter, using my virtual community‘s #mydayinla hashtag.

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People planning their weddings often want everything just so, but just so just isn’t practical when we can’t even easily find toilet paper. A Zoom wedding in the middle of this crisis requires letting go of minutiae and cutting right to the heart of it all — which can be lovely and liberating.

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Owen and Carolyne Smigelski with their three children, (L-R), Ian Smigelski, 9, Jonah Smigelski, 11, and Adam Johnson, 7, at their home in El Segundo.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

No matter that Carolyne’s wedding gown was still at the nonessential bridal store, shut down before her final alteration. Owen chose her red dress with big white polka dots, which shows off her curves. And in accordance with Zoom fashion, he opted for a crisp dress shirt, bright blue tie and suit jacket to cover the part of him that would be seen on screen, but shorts and those red socks for the part of him that wouldn’t.

It wasn’t that Carolyne and Owen were giving up on the big splash. They’d pushed it forward to Sept. 26, when there’s at least a slim chance that we’ll all once again be flying on airplanes, staying in hotels and gathering in groups.

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But they needed some happy far sooner, not just to fill that now empty big day. Like many of us, they’ve been struggling as the coronavirus upends their lives.

As local governments and institutions make vital decisions about the pandemic that affect lives and livelihoods, it’s clear how useful local newspapers can be.

This is the second time around for both of them. Owen’s two boys, Ian and Jonah, 9 and 11, spend half of each week with him and Carolyne. Carolyne’s son Adam, 7, is with them all the time. Now with schools closed, the couple — he’s an Internet lawyer, she’s an engineer — were trying to take meetings at home with roughhousing in the background while also supervising home schooling (Adam in particular being too young to process school-assigned videos alone.) And that wasn’t all.

When her father died, Carolyne took over his business, repairing and installing coin-operated laundry machines. It’s work deemed essential, but in the crisis, jobs quickly dried up. Her technicians didn’t want to do repairs in heavily used public places. Money stopped coming in. She had to lay off her five employees and shut down for good — which led to another woe she couldn’t have anticipated.

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Carolyne’s 81-year-old mother usually came to work with her. At home alone, she was bored. One day she took a walk and fell and hit her head. Carolyne and her sister, Julie Mullane, got a call from a hospital ICU — not something you want ever but especially not now. Their mother had a concussion and a brain bleed and — because of the virus — they couldn’t visit or help her communicate with nurses and doctors, which can be difficult for her in fraught circumstances. Her first language is Japanese.

Why does social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic still meet resistance when we know it can flatten the curve, reduce deaths and save our lives and the lives of others?

With so much going on, when they decided to get married on April 11 after all, they initially thought they’d just go through the ceremony alone, with an officiant at a safe distance.

But why keep it to themselves and not share it with others who also were stressed and stir crazy and short on good cheer?

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They’d spent so long meticulously making their original plans. This one, in a joyful jumble of generosity, had come together in a flash.

One friend, Heidi Wang, who said she wasn’t a big cake baker, nevertheless volunteered to bake them a cake — which she drove from Agoura Hills and delivered, arm outstretched, wearing a Minnie, Mickey and Goofy mask she’d gotten from her kids’ doctor’s office. Another friend, Tania Rios, found a local florist to make a boutonniere and a bouquet, which Adam would later drag through the cake icing. She and Edward Su, who owns a local print shop, put “Just Married” signs on the couple’s cars.
Owen is a member of a nonprofit, service-oriented social organization called the El Segundo Dad’s Club. In a Zoom club meeting, a fellow member ordained online by the Church of the Latter-Day Dude volunteered to be the officiant.

Scott Humphries had been friends with Owen for a matter of months. He’d meet the bride for the first time onscreen at the ceremony — as he sat upper-half dressed up before a pastoral Zoom background that mostly hid his 7-year-old daughter’s Disney-princess-themed bedroom, which recently became his home office.

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Owen Smigelski and Carolyne Johnson were married over zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Smigelski/Johnson zoom video)
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At 3 p.m. that Saturday afternoon, right when they had planned to be standing at the altar, Carolyne and Owen sat before a laptop screen at a table in their backyard. As the boys bounced up and down behind them on the trampoline, they prepared to say their I dos. Owen opened the Zoom session and so many faces suddenly appeared that they had to toggle among multiple screens just to see them all and say hello.

Some people were dressed up, some casually rumpled. A couple of bridesmaids wore their gowns. Some guests sat in their living rooms munching on snacks, as if they were unseen, watching TV one way. Babies burbled. Dogs moved across frames. Fingers filled them. People wandered away and returned. Conversations some thought were private really weren’t.

The Orange County clerk-recorder has set up three booths in the parking lot of Anaheim’s Honda Center, where staff will give out marriage licenses and perform ceremonies until the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

It was definitely free form, even in El Segundo, where Ian danced for the camera, and Adam grabbed the big cake knife and mussed his mother’s carefully pinned, self-styled hair.

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Still, vows were said. Champagne glasses were raised. Owen gave a toast, “Here’s to finding a little bit of happiness in a bunch of craziness,” and it seemed that everyone had.

They laughed. They smiled. They beamed their love out. It spread. Neighbors that Owen and Carolyne had never met saw the “Just Married” signs on the cars and dropped off a card and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

On April 11, as planned, Owen and Carolyne joyfully got married — which is all that mattered — and not even a pandemic could stop the celebrating.


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