It was a hot Saturday afternoon on May 6th, way back in 1978. A little church building set up on a hill in Athens, GA. A city where life events are planned around the SEC football schedule. A small apartment on South Lumpkin from which I wrote love letters to a young girl over in Selma, Alabama who would one day become my wife.
I look back on the events of that day and I’m amazed at how insanely crazy we were to get married like we did. Our poor parents. The stress we must have put them through. We graduated and got our diplomas on Friday evening. Wedding rehearsal on Saturday morning. Then rehearsal lunch. Then we stood up and said our vows at 4:00 on that same afternoon. We rode off into the sunset in my Chevelle, leaving everyone in our dust and throwing our cares to the wind.
My buddy, Mitch, played the piano. When he wasn’t playing weddings, he was pounding the keys on his Hammond B3 on songs like “Born to Be Wild”. He’s still playing with bands around Atlanta. And he took the time to send me a few emails over the last couple of weeks to share his heart with me.
Our friend, James, sang a love song for us. I wish I could remember the name of the song. It had this line about “dark brown eyes” which is why I wanted him to sing it. A voice as smooth as honey flowing over silk. He came to the funeral the other day. I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to him more.
Bobby, who was my Youth Minister back in high school, was the one to lead us through our vows and sign the marriage certificate. He was a huge influence on my young stupid life. Not really that much older than me, and a lifelong friend. He came to see me at the visitation.
I walked out of the back room and took my place on that little church stage. I checked the bottom of my shoes. My buddy, Cam, had threatened to write with white shoe polish the words “Help” on my left sole, and “Me” on my right sole; so, when I knelt down for the prayer the crowd could see the message.
I remember how beautiful she looked in that white wedding gown. It was a dress that Mama had made for my sister’s wedding. She made the alterations for Beth for our wedding day, and it was perfect. We come from practical people and from a time when weddings were simple and when peanuts and mints and punch were enough to get the job done.
Like every young couple before and since that day, we held hands and looked deep into each other’s eyes. We were just kids. We were so clueless. We were so ready to start our life together without having any idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
Then we spoke those simple and intimidating vows.
“I take thee to be my wedded wife.” I chose her. She chose me. It wasn’t so long ago, on our last anniversary date, that she asked me an uncomfortable question. We were riding along in the car on our way home. “So how many girls did you kiss before me?” She was toying with me. If you didn’t know it, she could be a real jokester when she wanted to be. I squirmed a little and never gave her an answer. Not that I was any kind of Don Juan. Not that I could have had my pick from among all the former girlfriends. I said something like, “What does it matter? You’re the only one that counts.”
“To have and to hold from this day forward.” There is something about a long and firm embrace that does a soul good. We were never afraid to hug each other. She was shy sometimes out in public. There were a few times she slapped my shoulder and said, “People are watching.” I didn’t care. She eased up over the years and learned not to care. We hugged our children between us. We held each other in hospital hallways. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. She hugged me when I walked in the door after work. Holding her always put me at ease.
“For better or worse.” Some people look at a long marriage and think it must be nice to have everything go so smoothly. My oldest daughter said to us just a few months ago, “Y’all make it look so easy.” Beth and I laughed at that one. I have always been the outgoing one. She has always been the quiet and reserved one. I tugged on her to be more like me. She fought to be respected for who she was. In the early years we could stay mad at each other for days. Most of it my own stubborn fault. I don’t mind telling you, it was her patience and tenderness that got us through.
“For richer or poorer.” I think we had $500 to our name when we got married, and most of that came in the form of checks inside the cards given to us at the wedding. Money was always tight. But from the beginning, we looked at every penny as “our” money. She was the one that looked after our financial affairs. She sat down and paid the bills. She counted the pennies. She was never extravagant. She could tuck a ten-dollar bill into a tight crevice in her wallet and keep it for years. She was frugal and generous, and she always made sure that we had what we needed.
“In sickness and in health.” There’s nothing that says love quiet like holding a wet washcloth to your husband’s forehead while he tosses his cookies in the toilet at three in the morning. She took care of me. So many times, I slept right through her late-night trips to the bathroom. “Were you sick last night,” I would ask. She would moan and give me the look. I was never the partner to her like she was to me. I wish I could have done more.
“To love and to cherish.” There was never a day, even when she was upset with me for good reason, that I felt unloved. When she would tell me, and she would say it often, how glad she was that we had each other, it made my day. To have a love that is cherished is maybe the greatest gift on this earth.
“Til death do us part.” When a young couple stands up and repeats these words, I doubt they grasp the gravity of that commitment. We didn’t. We just said them because the preacher said to repeat after him. We weren’t thinking at all then what those words would mean now. But I’m glad we said them. I glad we meant them. I’m so glad we did it together.
A little church wedding so long ago. Vows spoken and finished. I’d do it all again with her in a heartbeat.