Photography by Laura L. Gingerich
With five previous marriages between them, Mary Frances Rudy and Joe Burnett didn’t think “happily ever after” would ever happen for them — and they had each come to be okay with that. Both had lives full of friends, family, hobbies and diversions.
Mary Frances, a real estate lawyer and lifelong Nashvillian, and Joe, a Mobile, AL native and recently retired grocery executive who had lived in Baton Rouge, LA for nearly two decades, met over 4th of July weekend in 2013 in the northwest Florida vacation town of Seaside.
Joe was there to visit his childhood best friend Dale Foster. Mary Frances, who owns a vacation home in nearby Panama City Beach, had once gone on a date with Dale and, though neither felt any sparks, they had stayed friends. She, Dale and some other friends gathered to celebrate Independence Day and, as luck would have it, Mary Frances and Joe happened to sit next to each other at dinner and continued to talk when the group moved on to a bar with a live band.
“One of the first things that impressed me about Joe was that he asked me to dance,” Mary Frances says. “Most guys won’t dance — and I love to dance.”
Joe adds, “I was really busting my moves that night.”
Mother Nature also intervened that weekend to make their coupling more likely. It rained all weekend long, forcing Joe and Dale to cancel their golfing, tennis and beach plans and hang out with Mary Frances and her friends instead. By the end of the weekend the pair were making plans to see each other again.
Fast forward about a year, and Joe was taking an early retirement and moving in with Mary Frances in Nashville.
The two hadn’t given marriage much thought until Mary Frances, who has four children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, began to worry about the example she was setting for her offspring.
(Writer’s note: Mary Frances is my mother — their cohabitation didn’t bother me.)
They attempted to plan a simple ceremony in the beautiful yard of their Belmont Boulevard home but couldn’t seem to keep the guest list small.
“With all my clients and all my friends, we didn’t know where to draw the line,” Mary Frances says. “We didn’t want to offend anyone by not inviting them, and we didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to attend. Also, I think most weddings are boring — and I didn’t want to have a traditional, boring wedding.”
Traveling is Mary Frances’ favorite hobby, and she and Joe travel frequently together. Just since meeting in 2013, they’ve toured Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, The Bahamas, Mexico and Canada together. They quickly realized that a destination wedding would trim their guest list and allow them to plan a non-traditional ceremony.
I told my mother about my friend Elizabeth Arroyo’s travel company, Your Cuba Travel, and how she was taking groups on off-the-beaten path trips to Cuba. Elizabeth, who goes by Eli (pronounced “Ellie”), is the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and her company specializes in person-to-person encounters, with guests staying in the private homes of Cubans and traveling the country in immaculately restored 1950s cars.
“Cuba was already a place I wanted to go,” Mary Frances shares. “I had already been contacting travel agencies about going there. It was just opening up for Americans to visit, and I’d wanted to go there for years.”
As for Joe, “I’m good with anything,” he says. “Mary Frances sometimes gets irritated with me because I don’t do a lot of research before we travel, but I like to just go. I’d have been happy to just go to the courthouse and get married, but the wedding was a big deal for her, and I was happy to go along with whatever she wanted.”
Within weeks of announcing their plan, 80 people had RSVPd, more than double the number of guests they expected. So much for “small and simple.” Eli’s company had never handled such a large group.
“When I first talked to Eli about it, she asked if I thought I’d have as many as 20 people sign up,” Mary Frances says. “I said, ‘Eli, I have 30 people in my immediate family! I know we’ll have at least 30!’”
The guest list also included 25 children and teenagers and even a 5-month-old baby.
“We booked and paid for her trip before she was even born!” Mary Frances says. “She has the cutest passport picture you’ve ever seen!”
Bit by bit, the wedding and trip plans began to take shape. The ceremony would take place on New Year’s Day, with the guests all flying on a charter flight from Miami to Havana a few days prior.
With such a large group traveling together in a country that does not yet have a well-developed tourism infrastructure, every meal was practically a wedding reception. And — as with any wedding and any travel experience — there were unexpected obstacles. For example, the night before the wedding was New Year’s Eve, and the group had planned to attend the official Cuban government’s celebration. However, when Fidel Castro died in late November the country went into a mandatory mourning period, and all official celebrations were cancelled. Eli and company quickly reshuffled, and the entire wedding party rang in the New Year at the legendary Tropicana nightclub — an amazing experience no one present will likely ever forget.
“Everybody thinks Las Vegas is the be all, end all, but the New Year’s Eve show at the Tropicana was so over the top that Vegas pales by comparison,” Mary Frances says. “Cuba is so different that even though we would have reservations, we sometimes got to a restaurant and they would tell us that they had no food or that they had given our tables to another party,” Mary Frances recalls. “We had to do a lot of last-minute changes.”
Another complication was that nearly everything they needed for the wedding would have to be hand-carried with them from the United States, with the notable exception of the dress.
“All my girlfriends were so excited about me getting married,” Mary Frances says. “Everyone kept asking me, ‘What’s your dress going to be like?’ I hadn’t even thought about it. The dress was a minor thing to me.”
Mary Frances and Joe traveled to Cuba with Eli in November to scout locations and work on their plans. While they were there, Mary Frances asked Eli where she could buy a traditional Cuban wedding gown. Eli asked her friend Nuria, who asked the sister of Raul Castro, who had designed her daughter’s wedding gown. Eventually they found Cassandra, an 80-year-old Cuban dressmaker. They drove to Cassandra’s tiny house for a fitting.
“I thought it would be funny if I wore a Carmen Miranda-type hat with fruit on top,” Mary Frances says. “I wanted to look different. They talked me out of the fruit hat, but we were able to incorporate a head wrap.”
Eli, Nuria and Cassandra began designing the dress — in Spanish — as Mary Frances and Joe stood patiently by, not understanding a word. Cassandra drew a sketch of the dress and told them how much satin and organza fabric, how much thread and what notions she would need to make it. None of the materials were available in Cuba. All would have to be purchased in the United States and delivered to Cassandra by courier, as it is not possible to ship packages to Cuba.
Mary Frances bought the fabric and sent it by Federal Express to Eli, who was about to travel to Cuba and promised to deliver the fabric to Cassandra, but the package never made it to Eli’s house in Tampa. Everything was lost. In a panic, Mary Frances went to the only fabric store she could find in Nashville that was still open late at night and bought the only fabric they had enough of to make the dress. She overnighted the package to a courier in Miami, who took it to a man Eli knew there who was flying to Havana that day. He hand-delivered it to Cassandra.
“Getting the dress made in Cuba was very special, but it required a lot of work,” Mary Frances says.
During that November trip the couple also bought 20 white Guyabera shirts for Joe and all the males in the family to wear to the wedding. But they weren’t confident they could guess the right sizes.
“Some of the guys in the family are really big and muscular,” Mary Frances shares. “We wandered around the market in Old Havana until we saw a really big man. He didn’t speak any English but agreed through hand signals to try on the shirts for us. That was really funny!”
In order to transport all the guests throughout the celebration week, Eli hired 26 drivers and their immaculately restored 1950s cars. She booked a horse park where horses and jockeys train for English racing and jumps outside of Havana for the ceremony, with a large pavilion and restaurant where the ceremony would take place.
The bride and groom were still trying to keep things simple and neither planned to have attendants.
“I wasn’t planning on having any bridesmaids,” Mary Frances says, “but at the last minute Ansley, my 6-year-old granddaughter, asked to be a flower girl. I figured if she was going to be in the wedding then I needed to ask all the other granddaughters, too.”
Joe stood up by himself and Mary Frances’ attendants were her granddaughters Caitlin Roberts Jennings, Lydia Gleaves, Shelby Gleaves and Sydney Gleaves as bridesmaids, and granddaughters Rudy Sanderlin, Lucy Sanderlin, Ansley Gleaves and great-granddaughter Virginia Jennings as flower girls.
Officiant duties were shared by myself and Mary Frances’ close friend Ashley Duggar and — truth be told — Ashley and I wrote the ceremony while sitting on the beach in Havana earlier on the day of the wedding.
Eli booked a pristine red convertible for the couple to ride in during the 40-minute drive to the ceremony and, to Mary Frances and Joe’s surprise, several of us decorated the car with white streamers and balloons that we brought with us from the States.
“I was shocked when I saw the convertible all decorated,” Joe says.
Mary Frances adds, “At our age we don’t expect people to decorate cars for a wedding.”
Planning the wedding required the efforts of dozens of people in Havana and in the United States, and word of the pending nuptials had spread throughout Havana. For the drivers, the wedding week meant being paid $100 per day to drive guests around — a huge increase from their typical $20 per month salary, and many of them had told their family and friends about the wedding.
As the convoy of 26 classic cars wound through Havana, people stopped on the sides of the roads and came out on their balconies to watch, smile, wave and take pictures. The driver of the wedding couple’s car even had a special horn that played “Here Comes the Bride” when he honked it — which he did frequently during the drive.
“The people there are used to seeing the old cars, but not 26 in a row,” Joe says. “We were like a parade.”
The convoy caused such a commotion that Havana’s Channel 46 News reported on it during their nightly newscast.
“It was so special to me to have all of my family and Joe’s family and so many of our friends there with us,” Mary Frances says. “The best wedding gift I could have ever gotten was to have so many people I love spend their money to come celebrate with us. It was wonderful to see their expressions as they went through Havana and the countryside and saw all the different sites. More than anything, I wanted the whole event to be fun — a wedding everyone would remember as one of the most fun weddings they’d ever attended. We definitely succeeded in that!”
Rebekah Sanderlin is a professional writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Self, Maxim, NPR, CNN.com and many others.
Special thanks to Laura L. Gingerich for sharing the amazing photographs she took of this fantastic wedding. See more of her work here.
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