Connected \\ February 8, 2022

Pandemic romances with happy endings

Mike Paige first noticed Ali Mahon in their sixth-grade band class. She was the pretty girl on the other side of the room who played the oboe. He turned to his friend to see if he knew her name, but no luck.

He eventually found out and the two became close friends throughout middle and high school, but never dated. Years later when one of the mix CDs Mike made for Ali fell from her bookshelf, she wondered what he was up to and reached out. The two reconnected and romantic feelings started to grow.

Today, the Salem residents are in the final weeks of preparing for their wedding, set for the end of February in PEM’s historic East India Marine Hall — a spot that holds special meaning to them both. It was where they shared their first date. And it was where Mike got down on one knee to propose.

Photo by Danielle Norris-Gardner from Salty Raven Studio.

Their love story begins a few years ago on New Year's Eve. “I planned this day to give him the best things in Salem,” says Ali, recalling sharing macaroons to having their fortunes read. “The big activity was going to the Peabody Essex Museum.” They stepped into Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0 and were the only visitors to lie on the floor to experience the immersive projections. “It was definitely the greatest first date ever,” Mike says. “I knew this is how I’m proposing to her.”

The two returned to the museum one year later on New Year's Eve in 2020. Mike says now it was a nerve-wracking day. Pale faced and unusually quiet, he clutched a bag tightly in his hand the whole afternoon, one with a diamond ring inside.

Photo by Danielle Norris-Gardner from Salty Raven Studio.

The two recreate their first date in the Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0 exhibition. Photo by Danielle Norris-Gardner from Salty Raven Studio.

After painstakingly stopping in every gallery and peeking at most every wall label, Mike says he finally managed to usher away his niece and nephew who had tagged along for the day. The couple made their way back inside their favorite exhibition and then … “When I turned around, Mike was getting on his knee,” Ali says, adding how she blacked out, but was later told she did in fact say “yes.” A PEM guard later approached and gave the couple a keepsake digital recording of their sweet proposal. The security cameras capture the happy moments too. “Everyone wanted to stay and see something good come out of 2020,” adds Mike.

Photos by Danielle Norris-Gardner from Salty Raven Studio.

Waiting secretly in the gallery, photographer Danielle Norris-Gardner of Salty Raven Studio captured the proposal.

When it was time to plan the wedding venue, there was no hesitation. “We both knew PEM makes sense,” says Mike. A pandemic would not deter them. He confidently told his fiancé: “I fully plan to marry you at the museum. If we’re standing outside by the anchor. That’s fine, too. That’s all we really need.”

In less than two weeks, the couple — vaccinated and beyond ready to celebrate — will stand side by side in East India Marine Hall to recite their vows, make a toast in the new wing near N.C. Wyeth’s stories-high mural (one of Mike’s favorites) and share their first dance as husband and wife. “Each time we share our story, I say, ‘Are we really that fairytale-like? That charmed?,’” Ali says. “I’m excited to start my life with Mike, but I feel like he’s always been part of my life.”

For other couples, Covid altered how they intended to spend their special day. Engaged in 2018, Josh Stiling and Lauren Perry planned for a 2020 wedding, but with all the uncertainty pushed it out one year.

But Josh and Lauren were always sure of their venue. The two studied architecture at Roger Williams University and knew of Moshe Safdie, the architect behind PEM’s 2003 expansion, and were fans of Ennead Architects, who most recently designed the 40,000-square-foot new wing. “From an architectural standpoint we had an attraction to the museum,” says Lauren. Pointing out PEM’s neutral tones and design, Josh added how there’s something about the space that allows the objects within it to be the focal point. “To me, it allows the activity that’s inside to take the focus of the day,” he says.

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The couple shares their “first look” with each other in the secluded garden. Photo courtesy of Servidone Studios Photography.

On an incredibly hot, but beautiful, day last August, Lauren and Josh met in the intimate garden off PEM’s new wing to share in a private moment before joining their guests. “Since we’ve been dating, we’ve had a history of writing each other notes,” Lauren shares. The two decided to write down their vows and exchange them in the serene, blooming space.

The couple share their first kiss as husband and wife in historic East India Marine Hall. Photo courtesy of Servidone Studios Photography.

The couple's first kiss as husband and wife in historic East India Marine Hall. Photo courtesy of Servidone Studios Photography.

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Photo courtesy of Servidone Studios Photography.

“I feel very thankful we got to celebrate the way we wanted with all our friends and family,” Lauren says of their big day. After planning her own wedding and hearing experiences from friends, she noticed how the pandemic gave many couples a “grass is always greener” mentality. If a wedding was scaled down, the day comes and the couple wished it was bigger; if one was postponed, they longed for an intimate ceremony sooner. But for those still planning, she encourages that, “It’s your day and you should try to celebrate whenever you feel comfortable and safe doing it.”

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A tourist captured the garden wedding on a small Polaroid camera.

An intimate outdoor ceremony with a handful of close family and friends appealed to Jon Bolles and his now wife, Maghan. A true pandemic couple (proposing and planning their wedding in 2020) the two said “I do” at Salem City Hall and held a small ceremony in the Ropes Mansion Garden in October. A tourist snapped photos on a Polaroid camera they left out. Jon strummed his guitar next to Maghan. “It was perfect; beautiful things were said, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he says, remembering the crisp day and fall foliage around them.

The couple’s big day fell on a somewhat cloudy, moody day with breaks of light hitting the historic house and bed of foliage. Photo by Chris Gaines.

The couple’s big day fell on a somewhat cloudy, moody day with breaks of light hitting the historic house and bed of foliage. Photo by Chris Gaines.

Natalia Laskaris, PEM’s Director of Event Rentals and Catering Services, says she’s honored couples continue to choose the museum to celebrate their day and make it part of their love story. “This past year, it was amazing to be surrounded by so much uncontainable love and joy,” she says, adding that 32 weddings are already booked for 2022. Couples understandably are done with postponements. The New York Times reported this week that roughly 2.5 million weddings are planned for this year, the most since 1984.

Photo by Chris Gaines.

Photo by Chris Gaines.

The pandemic delayed a number of once-in-a-lifetime occasions for everyone. But it also gave many an important moment for self evaluation and introspection. “You realize that you’re truly with your best friend,” Jon says, thinking of Maghan. “It takes things to a new level with higher stakes involved, and I thought, ‘I can’t imagine being without this person.’”

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Danielle Norris-Gardner from Salty Raven Studio.

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