A Delaware Couple’s Design Instincts Elevate Their Backyard Nuptials

DIY wedding includes burlap, lace and black.

Marlena Wolfe and Jessica Mills first met in 2003, when Marlena, a furniture refinisher, walked into a homebuilder’s office in Frankford, where Jessica was the office manager. Jessica was immediately attracted to the shy young woman, who was picking up a check for her employer. Although she’d never asked a woman out, Jessica bravely approach Marlena. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m not gay,’” Jessica recalled. “I was mortified.” 

Flash forward to spring 2013. Jessica met a friend at The Pint Pub & Eatery in Millsboro, where Marlena was bartending. This time, they made a date to go to lunch at The Pickled Pig in Rehoboth Beach. “I was really nervous but excited,” says Marlena, who’d since come out. “It seemed like we clicked right away.” 

Lunch slid into cocktails at The Surf Cantina. “After that, we were completely inseparable,” Jessica recalls. By December, they were living together, and they wed on June 2, 2014 at their home. 

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“I’m not a very sentimental person but I was emotional at that wedding,” says photographer Elizabeth Ferguson. “There was such a feeling of sincerity. Sometimes people get caught up in all the pomp and emotion goes out the window. You could see the love between the two women.”

Partly that’s because the couple had it their way: a backyard wedding with DIY flair and a family focus—all tied together with burlap, buttons and lace and topped by a homemade cake with black icing.

Close bonds

Jessica, who knew Marlena was the one, bought an engagement ring at the end of summer 2013. Although Marlena’s mother and stepfather, Bonnie and Paul Cullen, encouraged her to pop the question, she waited for the right moment. On Christmas Eve, in front of their first Christmas tree, Jessica presented the ring. Although Marlena had some inkling that a proposal was in the works, she was still surprised. Crying, she said, “Yes!” (Later, Marlena purchased a ring that Jessica had admired, so both women have engagement rings.)

The couple talked about eloping to Paris, but they had to reside there for 40 days. There were other concerns. They were living with and caring for Bonnie’s mother, Eleanor Demetro, then in her 90s. “She was so sweet,” Jessica said of the matriarch. “We got close really quickly, and we talked about her past…and how close she’d been to her husband.”

When Eleanor’s health declined, Jessica and Marlena held an unofficial union at home, led by Chaplain Courtney Mys of Delaware Hospice, so Eleanor could participate. A week later, on Feb. 14, Eleanor passed away.

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Designing women

Marlena and Jessica liked the ceremony so much they decided to have the chaplain officiate at their wedding, which they wanted to hold in the backyard to feel close to Eleanor. 

Picking colors was easy. They love black. When they found burlap fabric they liked, they created a theme with burlap, lace and black. Jessica, who planned to wear a black cocktail dress, wanted Marlena to wear white. “She’s the artistic, quiet one. I’m the boisterous one. I wanted to let her be the focus.” 

Marlena wanted them both to wear white, so they went shopping with family. It was a disaster. Size 6 Marlena had no problem, but full-figured Jessica had to try on larger sizes than normal since most samples were in smaller sizes. “There were only five dresses that came close to fitting me,” says Jessica, who left in tears. 

The couple ventured out alone to David’s Bridal in Newark, where Marlena found a dress with an empire waist and flesh-tone neckline studded with necklace-like rhinestones. Jessica found a strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline and lace overlay. The six bridesmaids would wear matching long black gowns with cap sleeves and loose draped necklines.

There was more work to do. The couple, who love antiques, found doors with peeling paint at a Dagsboro store, which Marlena joined to form a backdrop for the ceremony. They draped burlap on wrought iron between the doors and used baby’s breath as an accent. Baby’s breath also appeared in the table centerpieces—Ball jars wrapped in burlap —and in Jessica’s hair. On the black table linen, they’d scattered buttons from Eleanor’s collection, many of which Marlena as a child brought to her grandmother. 

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They hired Gary Papp of Essential Chef in Lewes for the food, but Jessica wanted to make the cake: red velvet covered in butter cream and topped with black fondant. (“You’re making a black cake?” family asked incredulously.) She decorated it with burlap ribbon and topped it with two eggs cuddling in a bird’s nest. 

A distinctive event

On the day of the wedding, guests walked into the backyard to find black folding chairs 

and a sign reading: “Choose a seat not a side. We’re all family once the knot is tied.” To the Van Morrison song “Crazy Love,” Jessica walked down the aisle with Marlena’s cousin, Justin Dugary. “He’s like a brother to us,” she says. 

Marlena chose Johnny Cash’s “Rose of My Heart,” for her procession. “It was an honor to walk Marlena down the aisle,” Paul says. “I truly love her like she was mine.” 

“Chaplain Courtney” added a punch of humor in the recount of how the couple met and fell in love. “You were laughing and crying,” says Ferguson, the photographer. 

Paul, a former bassist with the rock band Bad Company, who performs in Delaware and the surrounding area, played guitar and sang during the cocktail hour. As the sun set, guests dined and sipped Jessica’s homemade limoncello under Christmas lights strung from trees. They made s’mores in the patio fireplace, using supplies the couple had tucked in black boxes as gifts.

When the DJ played “Black Betty,” Jessica took to the dance floor to clog. She was undeterred, even when her feet got tangled in her hoop skirt and she ripped the bottom of her dress. (“Black Betty” is now her theme song.)

The honeymoon is still on hold. Jessica is the general manager at Touch of Italy on Del. 1 in Rehoboth, and a week off is hard to come by. Marlena is a bartender at American Legion Post 28 in Millsboro.

The women, who share the last name Wolfe-Mills, wouldn’t do anything differently. They didn’t sweat the details, even when the cake started sweating in the sun. “If the wedding didn’t go off without a hitch, I wasn’t going to cry into my Cheerios over it,” Jessica says.

There were no worries about that. “If I could sum up the day in one word,” Paul says, “it would be ‘perfect.’”  

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