Eli McCann: Welcome to a Big Fat Mormon Wedding — where cousins arrive by the dozens

Meetinghouse receptions feature streamers dangling from basketball hoops, kids darting down carpet-walled hallways, and diners nibbling on butter mints and half-frozen eclairs.

Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune

My parents come from Mormon pioneer stock, which means my second cousins outnumber the sands of the sea.

If you’re from Utah, there’s a good chance you and I have been invited to several of the same family reunions. I once did one of those Ancestry DNA tests and when the software attempted to populate my family tree, it crashed the system and caused power outages in nine counties.

There’s a scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in which the protagonist is explaining to her WASPy new boyfriend that her family is different — that meeting all of them might be overwhelming. “I have 27 first cousins,” she emphasizes. “Just 27 first cousins alone.”

I saw this film in 2002. I was 17. I thought the point she was trying to make was that she had a small family, and that’s why they were all constantly up in one another’s business. I thought that because, by that time, I already had somewhere around 70 first cousins, and I thought that was normal.

When my Portland-born hippie husband moved to Salt Lake City, and I tried to explain this to him, he thought I was confused. “No,” he said. “You must be counting second and third cousins, plus the once-removeds and close family friends. No one has that many first cousins.”

I had to draw a diagram to explain how it was possible for my mother’s nine siblings and my father’s seven siblings to produce enough children to fill out the roster for an entire Division 1 college football team.

My cousin’s Big Fat Mormon Wedding

(Yannis Drakoulidis | Focus Features) The cast of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3" — from left: John Corbett as Ian, Maria Vacratsis as Aunt Frieda, Melina Kotselou as Victory, Nia Vardalos as Toula, Elena Kampouris as Paris, Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula and Elias Kacavas as Aristotle. The movie is slated for release Sept. 8, 2023.

Even after he seemed to understand this on paper, the implications of having such a deep family bench never fully sank in. This became obvious several years ago when we received a mailed wedding invitation from one of my youngest cousins who had met her fiancé the previous week and was marrying him the following week.

“Such short notice!” my panicking husband shouted. “Thank God we’re in town! Did this invitation get lost in the mail for a year?” Then he turned over the simple card several times. “Hmm. I don’t see a way to RSVP.”

We had just spent the summer traveling to America’s most inconvenient destinations to participate in a nearly never-ending stream of wedding ceremonies for his college friends who had devoted more time and energy to planning their festivities than the International Olympic Committee does in executing a global event. I realized, based on his reaction to my cousin’s announcement, I had never braced him for the often comparatively chaotic simplicity of a slapdash Utah Latter-day Saint wedding.

I tried to explain we weren’t invited to the wedding itself. That would be a small religious ceremony we’d have to engage in substantial life changes to even be allowed to witness. We were just being welcomed to swing by one evening to a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, where streamers might dangle from basketball hoops and children we are somehow related to would be running wildly through carpet-walled hallways wearing clip-on ties and their most recent grass-stained Easter dresses.

Nevertheless, he entered the reception into our shared iPhone calendar and ordered the couple a gift from their Target registry.

The reception I missed

The following week, he texted me while I was still at work to ask what time I thought we should leave for the open house. This was a Thursday, and I just then realized I had scheduled a conflicting evening appointment. I called him and explained I didn’t think we’d be able to make it to the reception. In his most concerned tone, he told me we couldn’t just not show up to celebrate these family nuptials, no doubt picturing the opening scene of “The Godfather” and imagining a disappointed, powerful, raspy-voiced uncle upset that we flaked out “on the day my daughter is to be married.”

I tried to explain, again, that there really was no expectation that we actually attend. “They sent out hundreds of these, like a house flipper spamming mailboxes with offers to buy homes for cash in the neighborhood. Besides, I barely know this cousin. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t even recognize each other in a crowd.”

“Oh, that can’t be true,” he argued. “I can’t imagine someone not knowing their first cousin who lives mere miles from them unless there was family drama that would have kept them apart.”

“No family drama,” I clarified. “But I’m telling you, this is not a close relationship.”

“I doubt they see it that way,” he said.

“They misspelled both our names on the envelope,” I reminded him, “and misgendered you.”

He waved me away and said if I couldn’t make it, he’d at least go by himself “to represent our family.”

I wished him luck.

He arrived home that evening around 9:30, looking bewildered.

“How was it?” I asked.

“There were so many people there and no program or any organization to it at all,” he said. “Also, they didn’t really have any food.”

I chuckled. “Just butter mints and half-frozen eclairs?”

He looked surprised, like he just discovered he might be married to a psychic. “How did you know?”

“Honey,” I told him with a condescending pat on his hand. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I have 75 first cousins. Just 75 first cousins alone.”

‘Your family is incredible’

My husband is a physician, and last summer he happened to be working in the emergency department when my 90-year-old paternal grandma suddenly checked in after suffering a stroke. My parents and all my dad’s siblings were out of town on a trip together and didn’t have cell service. My husband called me and told me to come right away.

That afternoon we sat with my thankfully stable grandmother, fielding dozens of messages bombarding a gargantuan cousin text chain in which everyone began coordinating shifts to stay with her, cook her meals, and ensure she had constant company.

“Your family is incredible,” my husband told me later that evening, shaking his head. “You are so lucky to have so many great relatives.”

Just then my cousin whose wedding reception I had missed texted me a picture of our smiling grandma. “Back home in her armchair and happy,” she said. “We’re painting her nails tonight.”

A tinge of guilt and gratitude rushed through me and a surprise tear emerged from my eye.

I think I’ll make more of an effort for the next family wedding.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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