Saturday, December 16, was an important day for my husband Bill and me. It marked the beginning of our fiftieth year of marriage. It’s incredible to realize our good fortune in having reached the half-century mark together, when so many couples our age have lost a partner due to illness, or drifted apart due to incompatibility or infidelity or some other unforeseen circumstance. We’ve come to realize that every day we have together is a gift that we don’t want to take for granted.
As the big day approached, we talked a lot about how to commemorate the event with some kind of party or trip, and we began making plans for how we would move into the next decade together by modifying our living quarters to ensure our safety and independence as we age.
When the day actually arrived, we spent it attending church basketball games in Charlotte–a triple header where we got to see four of our grandchildren in action, all at the same site, interspersed with a lively family lunch at Hawthorne Pizza. That evening, we returned to Winston Salem and decorated our Christmas tree, which has always been one of our anniversary rituals.
As the year progresses, we’ll continue to celebrate our half-century milestone with a yet-to-be-determined trip, and implement the plans we’ve made for “aging in place” by possibly adding a garage and a street level utility room to our existing home.
But yesterday was a day to reminisce–a day for remembering all the quirky details about how we finally tied the knot and began our long and fruitful journey as husband and wife.
On December 16, 1967, we were married in my home town of Wake Forest, North Carolina, in Binkley Chapel, at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Bill was a student. A beautiful village with tree-lined streets and large Victorian homes with gingerbread trim, Wake Forest lies about fifteen miles north of Raleigh and was the original home of Wake Forest University before the campus was relocated to Winston-Salem in 1956.
My family had moved there from Birmingham two years earlier, in 1965, when my dad accepted a position as professor of religious education at Southeastern, then considered the liberal Baptist seminary. My dad performed the service and gave me away. He didn’t say the word–he just symbolically handed me over to Bill when we got down the aisle. He said he objected to the idea of “giving” a human being, like giving chattel, to another person.
I’m sure he really believed that, as do I; but I suspect that in playing the dual role of father and officiator, it may have also been a small act of defiance. The father in him was having an awful time letting his daughter go.
Bill and I had graduated from Furman the previous spring and planned a December wedding to allow time for me to get a semester of teaching and Bill a semester of school under our belts. Neither of us had a penny to our names, and to save some money, I lived at home with my parents while Bill worked all summer in Atlanta and then moved into the single men’s dorm when he arrived at seminary in the fall.
We’d met at the end of our sophomore year at Furman and had been inseparable for over two years, taking all of our meals in the cafeteria together, going to class together, studying together, and dating every chance we got. The eight months between graduation and our wedding on December 16 seemed interminable. We had been separated all summer with Bill in Atlanta, and then when classes finally started, he had to study all the time, while I was trying to keep up with daily lesson plans and plan a wedding. I was counting the days until we could finally be married and set up our own household.
When Thanksgiving finally arrived, we decided that Bill would go home to Atlanta to his family, and I’d stay in Wake Forest with mine, since it would be our last holiday as singles. I’m normally an optimistic person, but whenever a really exciting or joyful event is about to happen in my life, I get this sense of foreboding that something will go wrong to prevent it. So, when Bill left for Atlanta, my mind filled with dark thoughts. What if he were in a wreck and got killed? What if we’d postponed getting married for these eight months and then he’d be taken away from me and we’d never be together again?
Thankfully, my fears did not materialize. Bill did come back safely, the day of the big event did arrive without incident, and I found myself at the chapel with my bridesmaids, putting on my wedding dress. We were all gathered in a dressing room located in the balcony of the chapel, when Bill’s mother appeared at the door. She had a panic-stricken look on her face, which I immediately interpreted to mean that something terrible had happened to Bill. Oh, God!’ I thought. He made it back from Thanksgiving and now he’s been run over by a train or killed in some awful car crash!” I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just couldn’t shake that feeling that things were too good to be true–that something would inevitably happen to spoil it.
My soon-to-be mother-in-law stood there wringing her hands in agony while I waited with my heart in my throat for her to deliver the bad news. Finally, she let it spill.
“Oh Kathy, I’m so sorry…..We just realized David forgot the ring. Bill gave it to him last night to keep, and he left it at the hotel. There’s not time before the service starts to go back for it.”
Her words brought instant relief. I reached out to her, hugged her, and assured her that I could care less about the best man forgetting the ring as long as he got his brother there safely on time.
She pulled off her wedding band and said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll give this to David and we’ll use it as a substitute until we can get yours back.” So that’s just what we did. When the time came for Bill and me to exchange rings, David handed their mother’s ring to Bill to put on my finger.
After Bill’s mother left, the music started, the ushers began seating the grandparents, and and I left the dressing room with my sister and other attendants and went out onto the balcony, where we looked down into the sanctuary on all of the guests to see and hear it all before we went downstairs to process in.
Our friend Henry Duvall, who’d grown up in Atlanta with Bill and was now in Bill’s class at seminary, was also an accomplished classical guitarist. As our wedding gift, he performed three solo arrangements, one of which was “Greensleeves,” a perfect selection for a Christmas wedding. Standing there surrounded by my sister, my cousin, and my college roommates–except for one, who had assumed the wedding was in Winston-Salem and was still en route to Wake Forest, arriving in time for the reception–we listened to the melodious sound of Henry’s guitar. I experienced a wonderful sense of peace and joy, and was finally convinced that this wedding was really about to happen.
After the reception, which was held in the seminary fellowship hall, Bill and I dressed in our going-away clothes and said our goodbyes amid a hail of rice and cheers. That was before the days we knew to replace rice with birds seed to keep the birds from choking on it. But I’m pretty sure no birds choked on this rice because my mother awoke in the middle of the night after the wedding, alarmed by the thought that one of the older professors might visit his office early Sunday morning and slip on rice that had fallen onto one of the pathways before the custodians got there to clean it off. She got my dad up and the two of them went over and swept it away before it became a hazard.
Bill’s older brother David was mortified that he had forgotten the ring, and he was determined to make it up to us by seeing that we had a clean getaway from the reception to the hotel in Raleigh where we were spending our wedding night. He knew that some of Bill’s fraternity brothers attending the wedding were planning pranks to decorate our car and follow us to our hotel so they could harass us all night with phone calls. David would chauffeur us in their father’s Oldsmobile to our hotel to prevent that from happening.
Bill’s mother and dad had given us a new red Opal sedan as a wedding gift, to replace Bill’s gas guzzling Impala convertible, which he had driven at Furman. On Friday before the wedding on Saturday, Bill had parked the Opal at a friend’s house in Raleigh, near the NC State campus, a block down from the hotel where he had booked a room for our wedding night. David would drive us to the hotel after the wedding and we’d walk over and pick up our car the next day and drive to our honeymoon destination in Williamsburg.
Henry Duvall, the guitarist, was traveling home to Atlanta for Christmas, and he’d agreed to drive Bill’s old car so that Bill’s father could use it as a trade-in for the Opal he’d just bought us. Since the men’s dorms were closing for the holidays, Henry had loaded his bags into the Impala, and had parked it in front of Binkley Chapel to be ready to begin his trip home right after he played at our wedding.
Some of our college friends recognized the car, assumed that it was the one we’d be driving, and decorated it with shaving cream, streamers, tied old tin cans to the bumper, and taped a “Just Married” sign to the trunk. They were caught completely off guard when Bill and I ran past the Impala and jumped into the back seat of the Oldsmobile that David had revved up and had ready to go.
A couple of Bill’s fraternity brothers, determined not to be outsmarted, jumped in their car and tried to follow us. David sped out of the parking lot and onto the road circling the seminary campus that led to highway 98. “Which way do I turn,” he asked?
“It doesn’t matter,” said Bill. “It’s a circle. It’s about the same distance either way.”
The fraternity brothers were in hot pursuit and David had to do something quick to lose them. Counting on the fact that they were unfamiliar with the area–no GPS in that day–he hung a quick right under the railroad trestle leading to the downtown area and then made a u-turn to reverse directions and go the other way around the circle. The pursuing vehicle took the right turn as well, but it was far enough behind our car that the driver was unable to react in time to make a u-turn before he got stopped by the red light at the railroad tracks. David sped the other way around the circle and careened onto highway 98 toward Raleigh. I had my eyes closed, praying we wouldn’t run off the road or get stopped by the Wake Forest police. “Oh, God,” I muttered under my breath. “Have we finally made it to the altar, only to be killed afterwards in a wreck on our wedding day?”
We reached Raleigh in record time, where David let us off at the hotel, thrilled to have redeemed himself for the forgotten ring. He told us later that when he got back to Wake Forest, the fraternity brothers were furious at him and tried to pry the name of our hotel from him. When he refused to tell, they found a Raleigh phone book and began calling every hotel that was listed in the yellow pages to find out where we were registered. Their efforts proved futile and thanks to David, we spent our first night of marriage undisturbed.
When the holidays ended and second semester began at the seminary, Bill ran into Henry Duvall, who had his own story to tell about his drive back to Atlanta. Despite it being December 16, the day had been unseasonably warm and sunny, to the point we didn’t need coats or jackets.
“When I got to the car and saw that it had been all decorated up,” Henry said, “I wasn’t about to take the time to have it washed and cleaned. It was still warm outside and I still had on my wedding tux so I just put the top down and headed on to Atlanta. All the way down I-85, people craned their necks to figure out what was going on. They assumed I was the groom, but what had happened to the bride? When they’d pass by, I’d just smile, shrug, and raise my eyebrows like I was saying, ‘I have no idea.’
“It was so cool, and it kept me entertained the whole way home.”
December 16, 1967 marked the beginning of the fifty year journey that Bill and I have taken together. Along the way, we expanded our little family of two to include four sons, four daughters-in-law, and nine grandchildren.
It’s been a wonderful ride, which fortunately has not been as harrowing as that first ride David took us on to deliver us to our hotel in Raleigh. We both look forward with gratitude to our remaining journey together, and can’t wait to see where the future will lead.