Karen Jennifer Winstanley and Jan Schlimme Talk about True Love and Their Spontaneous Wedding
Originally published August 3, 2020
On April 4th, 2020, from the comfort of my home and in my hoodie and sweatpants, I had the honor of attending my childhood friend and her true love’s New York-style spring wedding. When New York City faced the pandemic’s peak, Karen Jennifer Winstanley and Jan Schlimme got married in an intimate ceremony on their Brooklyn apartment’s rooftop. Only a couple of hours prior to their wedding, they notified their loved ones on Whatsapp that the ceremony was going to be live streamed via Zoom, with a virtual reception following afterwards. Even though Jennifer and Jan’s Central Park wedding was cancelled, their rooftop wedding was nothing short of magical.
As March kicked in, COVID-19 took the world by storm, social norms were drastically altered, and the ways of life started shifting. Around the world, countries were implementing drastic measures to protect populations. Shopping malls were closed, and recreational activities were cancelled. Schools and post-secondary institutions, along with non-essential businesses, went remote. Restaurants had to solely shift to delivery methods. Parties and social gatherings were hindered; people were compelled to stay indoors due to lockdown measures and social distancing. For many couples, the pandemic was no “excuse” to have their weddings halted. The purpose, to begin with, was to celebrate their love and solidify the bond. As most in-person weddings got cancelled, betrothed couples discovered ingenious ways of proclaiming their “I do’s” while maintaining global health regulations. Anxiety, stress, and disappointment became the initial wave of emotions for many couples who coped with the imposing restrictions. However, this pandemic revealed love’s resilience as countless couples defied all odds by choosing to get married during unusual circumstances. Through improvisation, Zoom calls, Google Hangouts, and social media live streams propelled the age of digital love. COVID-19 welcomed a new epoch of weddings, where technology bridged the distance between a couple and their loved ones.
With her graphic tee and cargo pants, Jennifer is settling in on her couch, ready to give the exclusive details on how she and Jan pulled off their dream wedding within a couple of hours. With a huge smile on her face, the first thing she exclaims, after asking how I was doing, is, “I hope I’m looking alright for this interview, Aanchal.” Jennifer has always looked her best ever since we were kids, and in the midst of this pandemic I couldn’t help but marvel at how flawless and “cool” she looked, even in her sweats. She definitely had that post-wedding glow. As Jan came into the frame, I immediately noticed the Central Park paintings they had made, the night before their wedding. The paintings were hung on their walls, perfectly posing as the quintessential backdrop for this interview. As the happy couple situated themselves within the frame, our virtual interview became an all-too-familiar moment igniting the memories of their spontaneous rooftop wedding. As I interviewed Jennifer and Jan and listened to their incredible journey, from cancellations to hosting an impromptu (albeit beautiful) wedding, I noticed that they were even more in love than the first day they met.
Aanchal Bhattacharya (AB): Many engaged couples around the world made the difficult decision of cancelling their wedding because of the pandemic. What was the first thing that came to your minds when you noticed a shift in everything, and were you already working on a backup plan? How were you both feeling when the pandemic started?
Karen Jennifer Winstanley (KJW): At first, there is optimism; you hold on to the hope that everything is going to be fine. We felt there was a chance that we wouldn’t have to cancel our Central Park wedding venue and every detail we originally planned for would happen. We thought it wouldn’t hit the United States so badly because we thought the nation was prepared. However, everything felt like a whirlwind as we started to see the implementation of lockdown measures, social distancing rules, and cancellations of public outings. It was obvious we had to cancel the wedding when a makeshift hospital was erected at Central Park. Even though our wedding was an elopement, we still had our friends flying in to New York City, and one by one, they started cancelling their flights as travel restrictions were imposed. We were disappointed.
Jan Schlimme (JS): When you plan something and you look forward to, it is natural to experience disappointments and dejection. The shifting of circumstances does bring in anxieties and even fear, because you wonder what will happen next. But then in our situation there were several questions we asked ourselves: What does our wedding symbolize? Are we hosting a wedding for the glitz and glam? Are we planning such extravagances for our family and friends? In the end, and we knew this from the start, it all comes down to celebrating our love and being with each other. We saw our home as the safest place and our rooftop the perfect setting for our intimate ceremony. This was where we realized, if we can’t go to Central Park, then perhaps we can recreate it.
AB: When was the moment both of you decided to come up with such an intimate wedding with just the two of you, an officiant, and hosting a Zoom reception with your family and friends?
KJW: We didn’t know we were going to host a virtual Zoom wedding until the day itself. Everything was planned in the morning, besides the paintings, which were done the night before. Our family and friends (basically everyone who attended the stream) didn’t know we were getting married on that particular day. Everything was spontaneous and not at all done in a traditionally planned way that most in-person weddings are. We went with the flow! As circumstances changed every day, we came up with new ideas on how to go about getting married. Everything was about adding and subtracting, hence there was no set day or time when we decided to host our virtual rooftop wedding.
AB: Did you have to go through any rescheduling madness? Did you incur any additional costs through your cancellations process?
KJW: We had already paid to reserve our venue, the Wagner Cove, in Central Park. There was no refund procedure. It wasn’t too expensive, but it was still disappointing because we did not get our deposit back. We had reserved a booking at a restaurant for our reception, and that was cancelled as well. Our friends who cancelled their flights lost money too. We also had ordered a carved sign which would commemorate the date we got married and the location, but it was too late to tell the person to change the sign; it still has the original date and location. Since we were unable to go to Wagner Cove, we just decided to recreate Wagner Cove on our rooftop.
Even though florists and plant shops were closed, we were lucky because we already had a lot of house plants in our apartment, so we were able to improvise. On the morning of our wedding, we took all our plants from our apartment and staircase and recreated the venue on the rooftop. The vibe already felt like Wagner Cove. We always wanted to paint, and now we had an even greater reason to paint on our empty canvases. As we painted Central Park and the Cove the night before our wedding, we felt hopeful and positive. The whole process was entirely organic and filled with improvisations by the minute.
AB: On the day of your wedding, what was going through your minds? Did you face any challenges?
KJW: I used to do theatre. The day of our wedding felt like the first-day performance in front of a live audience that the theatre troupe goes through. Anxieties do run high, but there is that adrenaline rush. We did everything ourselves according to the situation. My wedding dress was a little loose, so I stitched and fixed it. I was doing my own makeup while Jan was focused on communicating with family and friends via Whatsapp and text groups. Even getting our witnesses’ signatures was done by ourselves within the time frame. We did feel the wedding jitters on the morning of, but it felt so real. In a traditional sense, couples are worried about other people and the ceremony itself; however, the best thing about getting married remotely in the midst of this quarantine was that the wedding was all about us. It felt like there was nothing else except us.
Our officiant, who came to our rooftop, was one of the friendliest people we’ve ever met. He was calm and adaptable. Jan and I also took on roles that traditionally we wouldn’t have done; he was my maid of honor and bridesmaid, while I was his groomsman. We were preparing the venue while helping each other get ready. Like I said, this wedding was entirely about us and that is what made it even more real.
AB: Do you feel having the intimate wedding on your rooftop was more romantic and perfect than anything else you might have planned?
JS: Absolutely. When you have your plans and expectations thwarted and everything is turned upside down, you try the best that you can. When you have someone who holds on to the same attitude and sentiment as you, and is willing to do whatever it takes instead of giving up, then that’s what makes it special. This is what made our wedding even more romantic. We were constantly working as a team, and were there for each other. We both wanted to celebrate our love for each other, and that’s what mattered the most. For couples with difficult decisions, take away all the flashy stuff and entertainment aspects of a wedding, and ask yourselves what a wedding ceremony means to you. We were genuine, and every time we faced a hurdle, we talked about it and agreed to improvise and come up with new ways to host our wedding. Instead of losing our courage, we took on each hurdle and slashed all obstacles out of the way.
Initially for Jen, it was emotionally taxing for her and made her sad that everything was getting cancelled. She would feel bad about the changes and feel a little dismal that things were not going according to how we originally had planned. However, our discussions with each other helped with all the anxieties, and we felt even more inspired to host a spontaneous wedding like no other.
AB: Many news outlets, from NBC to The Washington Post, have been using the phrase “Love in the time of Coronavirus”, a play on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. What does love in the time of coronavirus mean to the both of you, especially after getting married during such a historic time?
JS: When you love somebody, it doesn’t matter what time or moment it is. The circumstance around you should not affect your feelings for your significant other. If you truly love someone and want to spend the rest of your life with your partner, no matter how tough the situation may be, love is eternal. You will overcome any obstacles. The relationship between you two is fortified even more, therefore you don’t have to be scared of anything. In fact, love during difficulties will strengthen your relationship, and you’ll be even more confident of your love towards your partner.
KJW: Love in the face of adversity puts your relationship to the test. Being in love in the midst of a pandemic forces you and your partner to face all problems head on. Nowadays, people get married for many different reasons. When it comes to a time like this, it makes you realize how you need to strip away all the distractions, and it allows you to grow closer together. In the end, your love is between you and your significant other. It allows your relationship to adapt to any situation and fight off any impediment. When you get married during a difficult time, you and your partner are there to lift each other up. You will be forced to have uncomfortable conversations, but it allows you to see the real reason you are getting married: to celebrate your love. Love in the time of a pandemic and getting married during such testing circumstances reveals where your heart is.
AB: Do you have any final advice to give to other couples affected by this pandemic?
KJW: Don’t get blinded or carried away by anything. Most importantly, don’t ever get discouraged. Anxieties may run high and tensions will run deep, but understand that in the end it is only about your love for each other.
JS: Society may have presented certain expectations, especially when it comes to hosting a wedding, in terms of what a wedding means to the rest of one’s family and friends. There are a lot of distractions out there that can cloud your judgments, especially when it comes to planning a wedding (having the perfect flowers, venue, etc.). Ask yourselves, Do others really matter when it comes to your relationship? Push all of these distractions aside, and ignore impressing others. We can’t stress this enough, but disregard societal standards and simply embrace the love you have for your partner. This is how you know that you’re truly in love.
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Aanchal Bhattacharya has always been a storyteller her whole life. From indulging in creative writing, to directing short films and fashioning innovative projects, her passion has always driven her to artistically express herself in this ever-changing world. As a third culture kid and an extrovert, Aanchal considers herself a global citizen who loves to interact with people coming from all over. She has a First-Class Joint Honors Degree in History and Religious Studies from McGill University. Aanchal is also a Wasserman Scholar and has a Master’s Degree in Cinema Studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. A great deal of her academic work consists of articulating people of color experiences and the concept of “Otherness” in cinema, television, and public media. She also cares deeply for the environment and animal rights. When she’s not too busy creating or writing, Aanchal loves to kick back with a good novel, listen to some awesome music, and/or watch hours of television shows and movies that spark her intellect. Whether it’s her personal or professional life, inspiration continuously flows through her veins.