They had dreamed of an April wedding – just not this April. The National Guard had other plans. Celiann Santiago was the sort of girl who dreamed of layers of tulle, glittery headpieces, her father marching her slowly down a long aisle in a grand church.
That was before she became a soldier.
That was before she and Michael Lowman, 22, her fiance and fellow National Guard member, found out they would be mobilized and sent a world away any day.
So yesterday, Celi – 21, taking a full college course load, working full time and coping with the prospect of an indefinite tour of duty – became a bride in an off-the-rack dress in an unspectacular town hall.
“It’s not exactly the wedding I wanted at first,” Celi said, “but this gives me peace of mind – we’ll be married, and hopefully we’ll be together out there.”
They met in 2000, the year they graduated from high school – Overbrook for Celi, who lives in Lindenwold, and Haddon Township for Mike – and joined the Army National Guard, landing in the same company in Cherry Hill.
Celi, whose elementary school in Puerto Rico was run by the military, had always entertained the idea of service. Mike signed up “to try something new.”
They started dating two Aprils ago. Celi remembers the sweet frenzy of getting ready for their first date, when she stressed about finding something to wear to South Street with the guy who suddenly seemed like someone special.
“I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Mom, I actually like this one,’ ” Celi said.
Mike and Celi got serious quickly, and she began circling diamond ads in magazines.
Mike rolls his eyes when Celi talks about the pressure she applied, but he is tender with her, stealing a kiss when he thinks no one is looking, making sure she has a soda and a soft place to sit.
What does he love about her? “Just, like, everything, you know?” Mike said.
Just before Christmas, he got down on one knee and gave her a delicate white gold band with a row of little diamond baguettes. They set their date for April 16, 2005.
“She was all happy and giddy,” said Mike, a tall, calm soldier whose bravado glossed over the part that he was pretty tickled himself.
But a few weeks ago, their standby orders came. So did the realization that they might be anywhere next April.
For a few weeks, they contemplated postponing the wedding until they came home. Then, Celi said, she realized that the important thing wasn’t the big church or the fancy reception.
Could they pull off a wedding in a few weeks? Celi worried. Their mothers took deep breaths and began scrambling.
“I said, ‘If this is what they want so they can be together, we’ll do this,’ ” said Debbie Gifford, Mike’s mother.
The saleswoman’s jaw dropped when Celi marched into David’s Bridal and told her she needed a dress in a week, a reaction the bride would get more than once.
Compromises abounded: Celi’s pearl white, spaghetti-strap gown wasn’t her dream dress, but it worked. So did the civil ceremony, planned because there was no time for a church wedding.
Debbie phoned a long list of halls and restaurants looking for a reception site for 60, lucking out with RMac’s Pub in Haddon Township. The banquet hall was not booked, and the staff was happy to pitch in for two soldiers in love.
Between work – Michael coordinates shipments at a medical firm, Celi is a clerk at an insurance company – and Camden County College for Celi, most of the details were left to Debbie and Ana Santiago, Celi’s mother.
Costs were split up. Celi, her mother and father are dividing the bill for her dress; Mike’s godmother paid for the couple to stay at the Inn of the Dove in Cherry Hill for their wedding night; and Ron DePietro, owner of RMac’s, is sending them to Caesar’s Palace tonight.
All worries faded away, though, when Mike, trying to be stoic but smiling in spite of himself, saw his calm bride, a tiara set in her cascade of curls.
A handful of family and friends, all sporting flag pins, was on hand as Mayor Bill Park invited them “to bear witness to the pledge of Michael and Celiann” in the Haddon Township municipal courtroom.
Nervous at first, Mike loosened up after the ceremony, fiddling with his white gold, diamond cut wedding band and goofing with Celi, grabbing her bouquet and tossing her nephew, 6-year-old ring-bearer Tim Santiago, into the air.