There she is, frozen in quarter-turn, her flowing white dress spread neatly on the floor. The newsprint around the 1984 clipping has yellowed, but the bride depicted hasn't faded a bit.
Twenty years ago today, my knees knocking and my voice quavering, I said "I do" to my high school sweetheart. I had just graduated from college, just moved into a new apartment, just started my first job with the newspaper, and it felt like the waters were swiftly closing over my head.
The Rev. Hubert Flanagan leaned in. "Speak up, son," he stage-whispered. The people on the front row couldn't hear my vows; but even the people in the back pews could see my legs shaking.
Now, I'd learned self-assurance while throwing drunks twice my size out of a south Georgia honky-tonk; for a skinny college kid, that required a strong dose of outsized psychological heft. Before that I'd performed in similar bars with guitar or microphone in hand and hammed it up with uninhibited stage antics. Stage fright didn't exist.
Yet here I was, a bug on a pin, before God and everybody, threatening to faint or throw up, or both.
Knife-waving drunks couldn't do it. Bottle-throwing barflies couldn't do it. Yet Here. I. Was. Brought to quivering anguish by the prospect of pledging forever to a pretty young girl.
The steadying face of Rev. Flanagan pulled back, and my voice cleared for the rise in volume. My knees and my stomach held out, too, and I managed to flawlessly repeat the words of our wedding vows, including the stilted language of the last line: Till death us do part.
In the two decades since, as we've held to those vows, I'm sure she's occasionally thought of killing me to complete them. I have enough trouble living with myself; I really can't fathom how anyone else does it.
Yet day after day, year after year, she sticks around. And now we've hit 20 years. Sure, there are many people who've done more. My grandparents set the stage by cruising well past 60 years together before my grandmother's death parted them briefly until my granddad's death reunited them.
But I'm not other people. I'm me. And, thank God, she's her.
I've known people with long marriages who say they've never had a fight. I figure what they mean is they've never talked. A marriage without arguments is, well, weird; it's like sugar without spice. Just as a failure provides an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson, so do arguments give married couples a chance to stand their ground within the partnership and reach a mutually agreeable consensus that makes both of them -- and the union -- stronger.
We've had plenty of chances to build such consensus. We've built the only two houses we have ever owned, and we're getting ready to do it again. And we're working on raising three daughters, which is like building three houses at one time, blindfolded, with dental tools and duct tape.
All along we've been lucky enough, blessed enough, to provide an example of marital longevity in an era in which society keeps telling our kids that marriage is nothing but a political device designed around qualifying for government and insurance benefits.
Gosh, it's so much more than that. I've never kept count of the number of times that I've counseled some young man about to take the plunge that it's the best decision I ever made. I know his friends will make ball-and-chain jokes and tell him it's not too late to back out, so I feel all the more compelled to praise the value of a good, stable marriage.
Maybe I should carry around that faded old clipping, and tell them how fortunate I am that the beautiful girl in that picture has let me stick around all these years, and how my prayer for them is that they'll be so well-chosen.
And that they won't faint at the altar, either.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times.)
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