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A PLACE AT THE ALTAR FOR FOUR BEST FRIENDS

Dear Miss Manners: I am 40 years old and engaged to be married for the first time. While I am overjoyed that I will be spending my life with a wonderful man, my wedding poses a special problem.

I would like to have a ceremony attended by about 100 people. At this stage of my life, I do not feel comfortable having a string of bridesmaids precede me up the aisle and stand with me.

However, I have four of the most special friends that a woman could ask for, all of them within six years of my age. Each of them has honored me by referring to me as her "best friend," and I adore each of them. They have all shared my life in the happiest and darkest times.

I want each to have a special role or place, ideally. But I really do not know how to go about this.

Gentle Reader: So far, Miss Manners hasn't had much luck in explaining the proper way to match people and slots when planning a wedding. But as you obviously have a gift for friendship and love, she has hopes that you will understand.

You are supposed to start with the people. When you say that you want to have 100 guests, Miss Manners trusts that you mean that you have identified 100 individuals whom you would like to have there. Not that you want to get married in a place that holds 100 people, or to serve a menu that you can afford to serve to only 100, and therefore you are omitting people who mean something to you or adding people who don't.

The idea of bridesmaids is that the bride be accompanied by her close friends, with the closest as maid or matron of honor. But again, the slots must be adjusted to fit the people involved, not the other way around.

You have four best friends, and therefore should have four honor attendants. They needn't parade before you; they could simply gather near the altar asgroomsmen do. They needn't be matched with groomsmen, and they needn't be in bridesmaid uniform. The only point is to have them with you -- as you say they have always been.

Keeping secrets

Dear Miss Manners: My wife and I had a disagreement about friends of ours. The wife knew something that was told to her in confidence and didn't share this knowledge with her husband.

I supported this person's actions, saying that someone had recently told me something in confidence and I didn't tell my wife.

My wife is adamant that if anything is told to either one of us, even if we are asked to "not tell anybody else, please," it is both expected and acceptable that one spouse will tell the other. I feel that this undermines the whole basis of confidence and confession.

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners firmly believes that there are certain things you should never tell even the most beloved spouse. The chief one is that you have a secret from someone else but you are not going to tell her what it is.

Just couldn't resist, could you?

Though no one outside of a marriage should expect to dictate that one spouse keep a secret from the other, Miss Manners can imagine circumstances under which the confidant would be prudent to do so. One needs extraordinary discretion to keep a second-hand secret.

However, to tease one's spouse that one has done so is not only indiscreet, but mean.

Address your etiquette questions to Miss Manners, in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions except through this column.

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