Last summer I received an invitation to a surprise 45th-birthday party for my friend Dubravka. People thought her boyfriend and her 14-year-old son, who were throwing the bash, were out of their minds. Dubravka is just not the type of person you throw a surprise party for. She's the type who takes care of everything and tells everyone else exactly what will be going on. One thing she had clearly told her friends was that she and Terry saw no need to get married.

On the night of the party, Dubravka acted astonished as one group of friends after another showed up. But shortly after cocktails, her son, John, mounted the stairs, thanked everyone for coming, and explained that, actually, the joke was on them. This wasn't only a birthday party, it was a wedding. Dubravka and Terry were married in front of the fireplace then and there. ("I thought that peach satin formal was a little much for a birthday dinner," my friend Ellen said later.)

People who knew I was collecting interesting second-wedding stories told me to call Harriette Cole, the author of Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner. Ironically, and somewhat painfully, Cole had been asked to write the book while in the middle of a divorce. But she decided to go ahead with it anyway. "I wanted to focus on traditions that were not just pretty but substantive," she says. "Things that had helped people stay together." As it turned out, the project was the place where she buried her first marriage and found her second. She began dating George Chinsee, a photographer with whom she'd worked, and married him one month after the book's publication.

"We consulted Brahman priests for a date that would be good astrologically," says Cole, who is a devotee of Eastern spiritual traditions. They chose 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning and found a beautiful spot—the Tea Garden in Loch Sheldrake, New York, near the couple's ashram. While Cole's first wedding was a Methodist extravaganza, her second marched to a world beat. She wore a gold and red form-fitted sheath, a crocheted cap, and golden sandals. Honored female relatives and friends were draped in hand-dyed scarves, honored men received vests, and all were served ginger beer and sorrel tea from the groom's native Jamaica.

The climax of the ceremony was jumping the broom, the African-American slave ritual that gave Cole's book its name. Because slaves couldn't legally marry, the act of jumping over a decorated broom—easily accessible as well as a symbol of homemaking—became the commitment ritual. "I'd written and talked so much about it, but it was another thing to do it," Cole says. "As we prepared to jump, there was a crescendo of drums meant to invoke the grace of the ancestors. Everybody stood up and started cheering. Then, the moment we jumped, I saw my dead grandmother's face. She was 101 when she died, right around the time I met George."

Finding a way to evoke the presence of those who have died is a common thread at second weddings, perhaps because those who have been around longer have more loss in their lives. My friends Bob and Vicki found a way to combine gift evasion with the theme of remembrance.

Before she met Bob, 56-year-old Vicki, a nurse and hospital administrator in Baltimore, had raised her sons, given up dating, and thrown herself into marathon running and law school. So when she bumped into an old friend on the running trail and he wanted to fix her up on a date, she had to be convinced. "He's an amazing man," her friend said. "He was my English teacher in high school." It wasn't until the night of the date that Vicki thought, His high school teacher? He has to be, like, 70 years old.

He was. But doubts about her date dissolved as Bob started the evening by buying Vicki a tequila shot. Not long after, they moved in together and decided to be married at a French restaurant. "At my first wedding I saw no one because we were so busy taking pictures, and at my second wedding I ate nothing because we were so busy making sure friends were taken care of," Vicki says. "So I planned my third wedding with no cameras and lots of hors d'oeuvres." In lieu of gifts, guests were asked to donate to the cancer center where Bob's first wife had been a patient—both in memory of her and in honor of Vicki's older son, who had survived leukemia. The thousands of dollars raised meant a lot more to the couple than a barrage of new sheet sets and food processors would have.

I think Vicki and Bob would agree with the sentiment expressed in an e-mail I received when Sue Jernigan, the friend who introduced me to Crispin and whose own second marriage preceded ours by a year, heard of our engagement. We quoted her on our invitation: "This is the ephemeral and elusive happiness that you can't even look for because it doesn't have a name or a site. It floats and soars through luck, karma, destiny's twists and turns. If you are very blessed, you turn around and it grabs you tight around your heart. And you have the intuition to grab back, smiling and breathless, stupid and brave."

Second (or third, or fourth) time around? Keep reading:


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