Call me M.O.B.

That's what the caterer does. And the florist, the baker, the DJ, the organist and, even, the wedding coordinator.

Yes, I'm Mother of the Bride. Or in shorthand: M.O.B.

That means I'm the arbiter of good taste, the minder of the budget, the sherpa of all things movable. The leveler of spirits, the calmer of nerves. And more. All this without me ever anticipating the transformation.

But I digress. This is the story of how one M.O.B. learned not only her role, but the biz and the buzz of weddings -- most importantly, what weddings aren't. At the top of that very long list is this -- and listen carefully if you have a bride-to-be in the wings:

A wedding is not the best day of the bride's life.

(You may need to check on that bride-to-be, who has likely fainted.)

Seriously, think about this prospect for brides of any age, but especially young brides of, say, 25. If the wedding will be her best day, then the rest of her life would be headed downhill. Let's get real. Marriage is difficult enough without putting the weight of a lifetime on a few hours of excess.

Blame the bridal industry for this fantasy. It's certainly not tradition that is at fault.

In 1973, long before I was a M.O.B, I was a blushing bride of 19. Weddings were spare in the early '70s because it was unseemly to be extravagant. I wore my mother's wedding dress, which my grandmother had made. My three bridesmaids each carried a single $3 rose. My bouquet was a clutch of three roses. The invites, created by a friend, cost less than $10 to print. The reception at the church -- cake and dinner mints with lots of coffee and punch -- cost 95 cents per person. An informal after-reception party at my parents' home was more generous with food and drink, but was nonetheless homespun.

And it was a lovely occasion. Not the best day of my life -- it never occurred to me to think of it that way -- but a really happy day. And my wedding was not so different from those of my peers, at least not for the Scandinavian Lutheran celebrations that I attended.

I did marry into an Austrian Catholic family, who knew how to have a lot more fun at weddings, what with polkas and sit-down meals. But even those weddings were never held anywhere much fancier than a Knights of Columbus windowless room or a VFW hall.

That all changed by the '80s, when the bridal industry focused on making serious money through building wedding fantasies. Jewelers and bridal-gown manufacturers had already tapped into that market; the South African diamond company De Beers began pushing its sparkling stones in the 1930s with a hefty ad campaign, whose crowning gem became the slogan "A diamond is forever" in 1947. Ring sales haven't stopped climbing since.

The notion that a groom should spend the equivalent of two months salary (now they suggest three months) on said ring? Another advertising idea. Judging from the diamonds glittering on the ring fingers of young 20-somethings, the trend is big bling with carats in the $7,000 to $10,000 range. (Oh my. That young fella must have a pretty good job ... or an open credit line.) As for wedding planning, the longer the better, urges the bridal industry. You'll need at least a year -- or more. (Think what she'll spend!)

Pay-less dresses fit the budget

In 2006, the average bridal gown cost $1,025, according to the American Wedding Survey produced by the Condé Nast Bridal Group (publisher of Brides, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines and

Those prices weren't for us. Instead, my daughter and I headed to a sample sale. No sleeves, she said, as she specified her preference. No strapless dresses either. (That was a relief, after having seen too many prom dresses hiked up for fear of overexposure.) We grabbed everything in a size 2. First was a skinny lace number that she didn't like on the hanger but that I thought had potential.

We headed to the curtained area where dozens of young women were half-clad, thongs flashing as they dipped in and out of dresses. Some dresses looked more appropriate for the skank patrol than the altar, and many were too small for bigger girls sucking in their bellies and sticking out their chests as mothers and friends helped them into the finery. (Note to those shopping with brides-to-be: Friends don't let friends wear strapless dresses unless they have a gym membership they actually use.)

I gasped as I saw my daughter in the dress. Could it be possible that the first dress she tried was perfect? We looked at more. Then back to the original. For $249, the dress was ours. The wedding budget would be a snap to meet, I thought foolishly. Her father and I had already settled on $5,000 as the shocking amount we would spend. My daughter rolled her eyes when I suggested that, with careful planning, we would come under budget.

The average Twin Cities wedding cost $16,700 in 2007, according to estimates by the Wedding Report, an industry tracking website. A competing survey by the Condé Nast Bridal Group puts the average wedding nationally at $27,800 in 2006 at a time when the median income of an American family was $48,200. (Survey results are gathered from brides who respond to questions in magazines, at websites or bridal fairs.)

Celebrations don't come cheap.

Need a limo to take the bridal entourage to the church or reception? It will cost about $700 for three hours, more if it's a stretch limo.

Got flowers? Prices range widely -- and can make a huge dent in any budget. Bridal bouquets run about $75 to $100, attendants' bouquets about $40 to $75. Simple corsages go for $7 to $10 apiece.

Letterpress or laser-printed invites? The difference could add $500 to your cost.

Photographer? $1,500 to $5,000.

Cake? For 150 guests, about $600.

DJ? $700 to $1,000.

Food and drink is where the real expense comes in. Champagne or mixed drinks? Cash bar or open bar? Chicken, beef or simple hors d'oeuvres?

Then there's the honeymoon -- or the exotic wedding location.

And never mind what the magazines insist are must-haves: the signature cocktails or table favors.

This isn't a wedding, it's an extravaganza suited for a celebrity, which is really what the fantasy is about: You, too, can make the A-list for a day.

Budget-minded plans

Suffice it to say, I didn't spend $27,000 as M.O.B. I didn't even spend the Twin Cities average. However, even this cheapskate, after recovering from initial sticker shock, spent far more than I had ever expected a wedding to cost. And the couple-to-be had to dip into their savings too. Nonetheless, I would do it again the same way (and expect to for daughter No. 2). But let's get back to the details.

We refigured the budget, realizing that $5,000 was inadequate. (Consider that $1,000 went to the church for space, minister and organist, $5,000 for the guarantee of food expenditures at the reception. Photographer, cake and flowers extra. Musicians at the church and reception, extra extra.

And there was another factor: Groom's family expectations. This Scandinavian-Austrian family was used to more staid weddings. But the groom's family was not. The son-in-law-to-be was an American citizen who grew up in Central Africa. That meant a cross-cultural opportunity for family bonding in the form of a Cameroon choir at church and dancing at the reception (always the highlight at an African wedding). Which meant a DJ had to be hired. And if there was a dance, there had to be a dinner in between the wedding and the dance. And if there was a dinner, then the food had to be good because this M.O.B. was a food editor and my reputation was at stake.

You see how complicated this gets? And I haven't even described the hours spent calculating the seating chart and wrapping ribbon around the wedding programs. (The best advice came from the church wedding coordinator: "Don't spend a lot of money on those. No one saves them.")

We danced until midnight, not all night as it would have been in Cameroon. We shimmied to African music and rumbaed to Frank Sinatra, hipped and hopped to Jay-Z and Akon until my feet begged for a rest and the reception staff signaled the night was over.

But it wasn't the best day of the bride's life. That's still to come.

Mine was the day I held my first baby. Then it was the day I held my second baby. And my third. I never thought about it again, as life whirred by, until I was preparing the high-school graduation party for my eldest, amid a swirl of friends, family, teachers and neighbors. "This is the best moment of my life," I remember thinking of this gloriously happy occasion that snuck up on me after 18 years of busy work.

That thought crossed my mind a few years later as my second daughter graduated. And again when my son graduated.

I hadn't really thought about it until the wedding dance, as I greeted the friends and family who had traveled from half a world away to celebrate with this beautiful young couple. I watched the two, their smiles reflecting that brief moment of time when hope triumphs reason and all things are possible.

This, I thought, is the happiest day of my life and I never want it to end.

That will hold me until the next wedding. Or until I hold my first grandbaby.

Perfect days just happen. No one can plan for them.

Expect the unexpected

As food editor at the Star Tribune, I occasionally hear from unhappy readers who have had a bad experience during their own weddings. The cheesecakes weren't perfect. The meat was undercooked. Ergo the wedding was ruined. I gently remind them that marriage isn't made of food or flowers or musicians. Nor is the wedding.

"There are only two people who know exactly what is supposed to happen," I told my daughter hours before she headed to the altar. "And if something goes wrong, I'm not telling anyone."

Nor did she. Never mind that the temperature outside was 95 degrees and the air conditioning had broken inside the family church. Or that the magnificent organ was being overhauled and a lesser substitute had to be used. That the trumpeter didn't hit the high note. The brother and sister from Africa couldn't get visas to join us. The flowers weren't exactly what we expected, and the salad wasn't composed as specified in the photograph I'd given the chef.

None of that mattered. It was the perfect wedding. But the best day of the bride's life? No. There are even better days ahead for her.

The best day for this M.O.B.? Absolutely.

At least for now.

Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749