Outdoor wedding ceremonies and receptions are a growing trend. According to one statistic, at least 35 percent of some aspect of a wedding occurs outdoors. For Retta Brunson, there was no doubt that she wanted her special day outside. As a little girl, she imagined a wedding on the beach or at a resplendent plantation. What she managed, this past spring, was a ceremony at her church — Trinity Episcopal Cathedral — and a stunning reception overlooking Forest Lake in Forest Acres.
Retta and Edwin Lesley grew up in Columbia, and their parents were friends. They knew of one another, but were not acquainted until after they both finished college, and Retta was home after living in Atlanta. “It’s so nice that our parents already knew each other.”
Retta and Edwin’s engagement came to fruition outdoors — on Debordieu beach where Retta’s family has a home. “We were at the beach house with my family one weekend — my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew and Edwin — as we did many weekends in the summer. Dad sent Edwin and me out to go check the tide at the beach. We always go to the same spot to check the tide so nothing seemed unusual,” Retta says.
They brought along their black lab, Jake, so they could walk along the beach for a while and then report back the tide situation to the family. As they were walking along, Retta saw a wine bottle in the dunes and couldn’t believe someone would litter on the beach … but they kept walking.
“Edwin later told me he was nervous that I would never walk over and pick it up,” Retta says. Luckily Jake went up to it on the way back, and Retta saw that there was a note inside the bottle. Edwin was close behind. “I knew at that moment what was coming and turned around to find Edwin on one knee!” Retta remembers. She opened the bottle and read the note that Edwin had written. He then asked Retta to marry him and presented her with a ring he had designed with a jeweler.
“It was wonderful to go back and be able to celebrate with my parents, sister and brother-in-law … Family is so important to me, and I couldn’t imagine a more perfect engagement!” As to how the bottle got there, Retta’s dad placed it half-buried on the beach that morning when “going to grab the paper.” Retta and Edwin have the wine bottle and message in their home to serve as a reminder to that special day.
What she determined when focusing on her childhood dream of an outdoor destination wedding was that the logistics of getting everyone to the beach or to a plantation were challenging. “You have to organize travel plans, hotels, rentals, etc. It was just too much; plus, we wanted to have the ceremony at our home church.”
Yet, planning for out of doors comes with other dilemmas. She had to consider the possibility of rain and temperature changes, especially since it was a late spring wedding. Wind could also be an issue. Tents help, but too much wind results in a wind tunnel and hot temperatures result in a terrarium-like environment. She considered all of this while determining the reception site.
Since they selected Forest Lake Club as the venue, she approached Director of Member Events Jessica Chavis and Executive Chef Patrick Weller about the reception. The club was surprised to learn that she did not want the reception inside, as was customary, but outside on the lawn that sweeps down to the lake. After looking at the venue with the eyes of a “bride-to-be,” Retta determined that guests would enter through the main ballroom but then gather under tents.
Although Retta wanted no specific theme for the wedding, lighting was key. She desired an abundance of natural candlelight and string lights to illuminate the reception. She says her father, Frank Brunson, came to her aid when stringing lights over the pool seemed impossible. Between his ingenuity, that of a staff member at Forest Lake and an electrician, the lights were strung and reflected beautifully on the surface of the pool’s water. There were string lights as well as large, hanging floral design globe lights inside the massive white tents.
It took the full engagement year to iron out all the details of the wedding, points out Retta. “I was still planning up to the day of the wedding. Some people have told me they were glad their engagement was short, but I needed that year.” She gleaned many ideas from years of perusing bridal magazines, from having been a bridesmaid in six weddings and by attending many others. Plus, she utilized social media and online resources to devise a plan in addition to hiring Cricket Newman Designs as her wedding planner. JoAnn Brunson, Retta’s mother, was a great help regarding details, such as working with Martha Morris on the custom wedding invitations and the save-the-date cards. “I met with Martha multiple times to come up with the perfect invitations and save-the-date cards. She was such a delight to work with,” Retta says. A local calligrapher, Giovanna Alvino, addressed the invitations beautifully.
Since the Brunson’s oldest daughter was married nine years ago, JoAnn says she had some experience with wedding particulars. “I was more involved with her wedding due to the fact that she had not attended as many weddings as Retta and really did not have a vision of what she wanted for her own wedding. I was involved in Retta’s wedding mainly for moral support. She picked out material for the table runners for the reception, and I made them.”
Even though it is not considered traditional, Retta and Edwin decided to see each other about an hour before the ceremony and had Photographer Landon Jacobs, with Jordan, his wife, take some “first look” photos. Retta wore a Modern Trousseau strapless lace gown purchased in Atlanta at Kelly’s Closet.
Since bagpipes have invoked emotions at other weddings Retta attended in the past, she arranged for Billy Dubose, a bagpiper, to play at their ceremony. “That made her entrance spectacular in that beautiful, historic cathedral,” says JoAnn.
Colors were also important. Retta chose neutral shades, white and taupe, as well as coral. Nieces and nephews from both sides were ring bearers and flower girls. For both Retta and Edwin’s families, the ceremony exceeded expectations. “It was such a beautiful and joyful affair, and a memory that we will always hold in our hearts and minds as special and amazing,” says Salley Lesley, Edwin’s mother. She added that every detail was thoughtfully carried out.
Edwin’s favorite moment was arriving at Forest Lake for the reception and sitting down with his new wife for a private intimate dinner before they formally arrived at the reception and celebrated with guests. For the reception food, Retta and Edwin decided on small plates to create mini distinct meals. Different stations under the tents offered quail medallions over mushroom risotto and a cherry balsamic glaze; beef short ribs with cauliflower puree and jicama slam; and shrimp and grits accompanied with grilled vegetables. There were also passed items such as pan-seared scallops with jalapeno bacon jam and brie and apple in puff pastry.
Beverages were also key. At Soda City Market, a farmer’s market that occurs every Saturday on Main Street, Retta had discovered the Cannonborough Beverage Company, based in Charleston. Small batch unique sodas are crafted and carbonated in Charleston and made from natural ingredients: fresh picked herbs, in-season fruit and real sugar. The sodas are kegged in five-gallon batches. A few ordered for the Lesley reception included one made with local honey, basil and lime, while another was a honey, basil, lemonade soda. The bartenders at Forest Lake used some of these sodas to create unique cocktails, while Retta’s father, Frank Brunson, made and brought a special Jamaican rum punch for the celebration.
“One special touch that Jessica did that I didn’t know about before the reception was to bring in hibiscus flowers to garnish one of our specialty cocktails … it looked gorgeous. She went above and beyond to make me happy!”
Under the tents were comfortable chairs, sofas and a full dance floor. Guests had the opportunity to sit and eat or stand up under the tents, on a platform area above the pool, or on the lawn. A Charlotte band, “Right to Party,” provided ambiance and dance music. Charleston Artist Elizabeth McKeever was hired to capture the outdoor reception setting on canvas. “That beautiful painting is now hanging in our home,” says Retta.
Despite the unpredictability of the weather — it was cloudy with a chance of rain on the wedding day — clear skies and a balmy 70-plus degrees enchanted the couples’ special evening. Retta’s mother admits being worried about the weather but says the evening was magical. The epoch of the event was when confetti was blown over the guests, sparklers were passed out and the couple climbed aboard a pontoon boat for a half hour “reflection” cruise around the lake. “To see the reception site all lit up from the perspective of the lake looking back was wonderful,” says Retta.
Since both Retta and Edwin love to travel, they chose a two-week trip to Thailand, a country she had visited while in college, to explore and enjoy. Both currently work at EDENS, a company that develops, owns and operates community building centers along the East Coast; Edwin is a corporate pilot, while Retta is the project management office manager.
Looking back on her wedding, Retta says she has no regrets. All the planning fell in line with her vision, and no vendors disappointed. She encourages other brides to avoid stress, live in the moment and enjoy every detail.