Ellese Nickles’ and Blake Bartok’s socially distant backyard wedding ceremony.

The Big Day, Reimagined

In Buzz, July/August 2020 by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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Even during the COVID pandemic, local couples are set on tying the knot.

Within two weeks of Karoline Briggs’ and Kyle Eckenrode’s wedding this summer, the couple had to change ceremony and reception venues twice and the wedding date three times. 

Karoline Briggs’ and Kyle Eckenrode’s wedding photos with Hamilton the Pig. | Photo by Connection Photography

The couple, Raleigh residents and parents to Carolina Hurricanes de facto mascot Hamilton the pig, had originally planned for an early May wedding on Bald Head Island. When it became clear the wedding party wouldn’t be able to ferry to the island due to the state’s social distancing rules, the couple looked to having a June wedding closer to home; then, the citywide curfew that followed a weekend of looting threw another wrench in their plans. 

“We really did everything in our power to try to make it happen on Bald Head,” Karoline says. “It was a last minute decision not to.”

But her eventual wedding and reception destinations were special in their own ways. Twenty-one family members from both sides attended the ceremony at The Meadows at the Historic Yates Mill County Park followed by dinner for 15 at downtown’s Mulino. Both turned out to be perfect.

“I grew up on Yates Mill Pond, across the street from this venue, and I remember riding my bike and running down the dirt road that leads to the farm,” Karoline says. “It’s adjacent to my great-grandparents’ farmland, that we eventually sold. But that was my home, it’s where I grew up. Something was pulling my heart there.” 

Social distancing, mask wearing, limits on gatherings, DIY flower arrangements, unforeseen obstacles, last-minute scrambling, changes, cancellations and postponements— such are the trappings of getting married in the time of COVID-19. But, instead of despairing of the circumstances, local couples are finding ways to embrace them and take them in stride, making for memorable wedding experiences that, couples say, have come with few regrets. 

Durham residents Ellese Nickles and Blake Bartok had been planning their May 1 wedding for 100 people at Forest Hall in Pittsboro for about a year. When the virus hit, they say they waited as long as they could to see what options they still had.

Ellese Nickles’ and Blake Bartok’s socially distant backyard ceremony. | Photo by Three Region Photography
Ellese Nickles’ and Blake Bartok’s socially distant backyard ceremony. | Photo by Three Region Photography

“We went from planning our big wedding to planning a smaller wedding to planning a tiny wedding, an elopement, in our backyard,” Nickles says. She arranged buckets of flowers from the local farmers market. Bartok decorated a window of their home. And they tied the knot at the original time on May 1—following a brief sprinkle of rain—in a garden that had recently reaped the benefits of a lot of stay-at-home love.

In the end, a total of five guests attended—both sets of parents and Bartok’s brother—with a longtime friend of Nickles’ family officiating. Following the ceremony, the couple Zoomed in friends and their guests enjoyed cupcakes and a champagne toast at socially distanced stations in the yard. Guests left with takeout from Luna’s Rotisserie, one of the couple’s favorite restaurants. 

“The hardest part for me was having family and friends coming in from all over the world and it was sad to have missed the opportunity to gather them all together,” Nickles says. “It was sad not to be able to hug family members or walk down an aisle with my father. But in the end, it was so special and intimate and we 100 percent felt their presence, even if it was socially distant.”

As with the Eckenrodes and the citywide curfew, Nickles and Bartok ran into other logistical obstacles in reimagining their wedding plans: When they were looking to apply for their marriage license, they learned that Durham County’s computer system had been attacked by Russian ransomware. 

Luckily, Wake County had implemented virtual wedding license application appointments using Google Duo back in March. Couples can now submit their information and pay for their licenses via an appointment with county staff using their smartphones. Wake Register of Deeds Charles Gilliam says the county is processing around 23 marriage licenses each day, for couples all over the state, while the vital records offices remain closed to the public.

Karoline Briggs’ and Kyle Eckenrode’s wedding photos with Hamilton the Pig. | Photo by Connection Photography

The Eckenrodes still plan to celebrate their marriage at Old Baldy, the 200-year-old lighthouse on Bald Head Island, next year, where they’ll invite their married guests to renew their marriage vows alongside them. As far as any regrets go, Karoline says she wishes she had been able to keep her original wedding date but is happy that, with next year’s gathering, she’ll have two dates to choose from to celebrate.

Both couples say they realized the most important thing to them was marrying the people they love.

“I just let go of everything and was very much like, ‘I’m not going to stress over this,’” Karoline says. “The most important thing is we are married. It wasn’t worth crying over or getting upset.”

Nickles says, looking back, her wedding “could not have been more perfect.” 

“I would advise any couple to do a small, intimate wedding, COVID or not,” she says. “[The experience] brought into focus that you’re getting married to have a marriage, not to have a big party. I was excited to get to marry Blake. We made it really lovely.”

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