Thirty years ago today Matt and I sat down on a rotting log in the mud and dead of winter and he asked me to marry him. I assumed he was joking. He wasn't. We did get married. Fourteen weeks later. It takes some people fourteen weeks to decide on a wedding dress or variety of cake. We do things differently.
A few weeks ago I was telling a young woman the story of how Matt and I came to be. She found it incredibly encouraging and I realized it was encouraging because ours is not the stuff movies are made of. There was no love at first sight or walking on clouds or a moment when either one of us just "knew" that the other was "the one." Ours was a more organic, messy, wild and sometimes sickening ride through relationship dynamics, with preconceived ideas and unrealistic expectations dying along the way.
So, how did we get there, to that log in North Georgia along the Appalachian Trail on a late January afternoon? I really can only tell my side of the story.
I think I was born in love. I was born in love with the idea of being in love. I don't remember ever not being boy crazy. I had a number of "boyfriends" in my early years and some love interests that were not reciprocated. Perhaps the best way to catch the attention of the man of your dreams is not to do what I did in third grade and write "I Love You" with my spoon into the frosting on my plate and hold it up for the cute, blue-eyed boy I was sweet on to see. I wasn't as subtle back then.
I had boyfriends but never for very long. In 9th grade I fell for the first guy who told me he loved me, that lasted a month, and then spent the next year writing really bad poetry to mend my broken heart. The rest of high school and college, I went through a string of guys, most of them nice enough, but no relationship ever lasting more than a handful of months. Yet my dreams lived on.
I spent the summer after my sophomore year of college in Argentina. I went with the stated purpose of bring people to Jesus but, in all honesty, my real goal was for adventure and romance. Emphasis on the romance. I hoped to come home with a boyfriend. Instead I came home with 15 extra pounds.
By the end of college I was looking to get out on my own in this brave new world. I moved to Asheville the week I graduated from college and started my new job. I didn't know a soul. I found a group that met every Friday evening called Fellowship of Christian Singles. It was more of a cultural experience than my trip to South America.
I had grown up rather sheltered. Not sheltered from pain and despair and dysfunction. Goodness no. I had that in spades. But sheltered more socio-economically. Educationally. I grew up in a rather upper middle class, private school, college educated crowd. This was the first time I encountered people who were shocked that I went to all four years of college. This was 1986. The era of the yuppies. I don't know where the yuppies in Asheville were were but they weren't in this group. And yuppies were all I knew. But I was willing to learn.
As most single young adults know, any singles group is, more of less, a meat market of sorts. Each person there clamoring, best they can, to find their mate and any new addition to the group is a nightmare for the same sex and a windfall for the opposite sex. The gals wouldn't speak to me and the guys looked at me like I was a bug in a jar.
I had dates with a couple of different guys in the group. Both of them 36 while I was in 22. One was an overgrown hippy with his van covered in bumper stickers and the other was a song writer who invited me over to dinner in his singlewide, adding manufactured housing to a list of new experiences that year. Both guys were nice and they really did love Jesus but we didn't "click" for a variety of reasons.
I wasn't in despair though. There was a guy, Mr. Missionary, on my radar. But he wasn't in the country...yet. He had spent the last 2 years on a short-term mission project and was returning to the states in December. This guy made sense. We had so much in common and I built him in my overzealous imagination to be the pinnacle of all my hopes and dreams.
In November a neighbor invited me to Trinity Presbyterian Church. They were just starting a new Sunday School class for single adults. I had visited this church once before and liked it so I figured I'd give it a go. Also, another single female said that she thought that church was more "yuppy-ish" so I figured maybe I would find somebody I had something in common with.
So Sunday morning, November 23, 1986, I walked into a classroom at the Eliada Home (for wayward children). Yes, Matt loves to tell local people we met at the Eliada Home and see their reaction. At that time Trinity was meeting in a building next door to the Eliada Home and used one of their buildings for classrooms. So, that morning a young man walked up to me and handed me a penny as part of an ice breaker, get-to-know-you game. I wasn't what he was looking for...me looking like my mother had dressed me in my medium-blue Pendleton wool suit (with Tyrolean jacket) and my black patent leather pumps and a satin bow in my hair (Matt was more attracted to artsy fartsy). And Matt, with his boot cut jeans and non-button-down shirt (who didn't wear a button-down collar?) and really hideous tan suede jacket (I like yuppy, remember?). But we did talk. And he wasn't shocked that I had gone to college. And we discovered that we actually knew many of the same people as he had lived for 8 years of his life on Lookout Mountain while his father was a professor at Covenant College so he had gone to grade school with people I knew from high school.
After church we went to the Shoney's breakfast bar, an entire group of us. I was so thoroughly thrilled to have found a group of people that I had something in common with that I talked nonstop. I mean really, really jabbered. As Matt and his roommate, Gregg, were leaving Shoney's, Gregg (who was practically engaged at this point so not in the market for anyone) asked Matt what he thought of the new girl. Matt's reply was that she seemed nice enough but talked a lot. To that Gregg replied, "She's lovely. Marry her."
That didn't happen right away, obviously. What happened was that we became friends. Good friends. Fast friends. Come over and let's order a pizza and play Trivial Pursuit and listen to The Weather Channel friends. We didn't have a whole lot of options in town so we clung to each other. He had another artsy fartsy girl on his mind and I still was thinking of Mr. Missionary.
Well, I did end up having contact with Mr. Missionary when he came back from the field. I saw him over Christmas when I was back in Chattanooga and again in early January. In fact, he and I went out with a group of mutual friends and ended up sitting in my mother's driveway talking well into the early hours of the morning. He told me he had been counseled not to jump into a relationship immediately upon returning to the states but that didn't mean he couldn't like one woman over the others. I melted.
A couple weeks later Mr. Missionary came through Asheville and we spent the afternoon together talking. It seemed that I was not the only one who had eyed him as a possible mate (the single scene is brutal indeed) and there were a number of other prospects on his plate. Then he told me that he had some hesitation about me because I came from a broken home. And his mother was concerned that my background would bring difficulties into a marriage. And, yes, I felt like the broken car sent to the trash heap. I told Matt about this later that day and he was pretty much appalled. That should have told me something.
But Mr. Missionary still wanted to go out and, since I was going to be in Chattanooga the next weekend anyway, we made a date. Or so I thought. I got in town and waited. And waited. And waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and by Saturday evening I was kinda like "screw this" and drove back to Asheville. And called Matt. And he came over that night to talk me down from my frustration and give me a map he had bought me at an estate sale. (What can I say? The man knows the way to my heart.)
The next day we took a long drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at an overlook in the blowing snow and it was romantic and he didn't kiss me and then went back to my apartment where he did kiss me amid the dishes and The Weather Channel. And so we were dating.
(For the record, the next week I heard from Mr. Missionary that he had bailed on our plans to attend a conference on Christian fatherhood his mother wanted him to attend. I laughed and figured he was never going to get to fatherhood until he could get dating down a little better. That was the last of him.)
So, here we were, dating. But things went up and down. And then, only about six weeks after we started dating, Matt moved to Atlanta to find work. We still talked a lot on the phone. Remember this was way before things like cell phones and free long distance. At one point we had a 5 hour conversation but he only got billed for 2 of the hours, AT&T assuming that there must have been some mistake. Nobody would be frivolous enough to talk for 5 hours straight long distance.
With Matt in Atlanta, life wasn't terribly fun in Asheville and so I followed him to Atlanta and lied and said I wasn't following him. I got a job and an apartment a respectable distance away so as not to seem too clingy. We hung out together. Every day. We would be dating. Then we would not be dating. Sometimes he would break up with me. Sometimes I would break up with him. He wasn't exactly the Marlboro man of my dreams and I wasn't exactly the artsy fartsy woodland fairy of his. But dating or not, we spent every free minute together. And if we were dating we kissed and if we weren't dating, we wouldn't. And that was the only difference between the two.
At one point that summer we both came down with mono. He would come to my apartment and we would rent a VCR (yes, the machine and you picked it up at the store in a little briefcase, like you were making off with cash) and movies and would unfold my hide-a-bed and spend all day in bed together and not touch each other because we were so sick and we weren't dating at that point.
Come fall the roller coaster of "to date or not to date" was getting old. By this point I was pretty sure that I could spend the rest of my life with him, seeing how he was my best friend. I remember trying to think about who I trusted the most in the whole world (I even envisioned myself on The Price is Right and looking out into the audience to get guidance for the right numbers and the only person and who would I trust). And it was Matt. I couldn't imagine life without him.
He wasn't quite so sure about me, though. And he felt bad about that. So he finally decided that if he couldn't say "yes" to us, he would have to say "no." He told me this on Thursday, November 5, 1987 (known in our history as Black Thursday). I still remember the horror and the pain and even the anger, which wasn't something I typically felt. I grabbed my Bride's magazine and stomped out of the apartment and slammed it into the dumpster while he watched. Then he left. (He says he found my gumption impressive.)
The next week was horrible. I was more pathetic than a lost puppy. Finally I called some friends of ours, Wesley and Renee Horne. Wesley had been the assistant pastor at Trinity while we were there. They told me all this sounded normal, not to give up hope, and to contact their friend, Joe Wolstencroft, who lived near us in Marietta and was teaching a class at one of the local PCA churches. We did. And our daily lives began to weave back together.
I don't know when we started actually "dating" again, this time. But we were serious enough that by Christmas I was hoping for a surprise.
We spent Christmas Eve and morning with my mom and family in Chattanooga. Matt's present to me was in a shirt box but he told me he put it in there to throw me off from what it really was. I could shake the box and hear something smaller shaking around inside. I have never been accused of being an optimist but I sure was that day. I was convinced this was it. A ring inside a box inside a box. As we were unwrapping presents on Christmas Eve I braced my giddy self and opened my gift and there it was. A compass. And a book on how to use it. Matt could not understand for the life of him why I didn't seem to be more excited about this. Never a good actress, I failed to hide my disappointment.
But there was still hope. We were flying to Philadelphia Christmas Day to spend a week with Matt's family and he told me that there was another gift for me but it was was so small it could fit in his pocket and he would give it to me when we got there. Of course! Here is comes. So, for the second time in 24 hours Matt handed me a gift. This time it was an envelope. And I opened it. And inside was a 10-session ice skating pass. Again, wonderfully thoughtful gift for the girl who doesn't do jewelry or bling, but woefully far from a profession of everlasting love and commitment.
I got over it, best I could, and went on. We had been doing some pre-pre-marital counseling with our friend, Joe, and things came to a bit of a head again. Joe emphasized to both of us that that perfect person that we might be holding out for doesn't exist. I think we both felt a relief to hear that. It is so easy to turn your mind into a Build-A-Spouse shop and lose sight of the beautiful people who cross your path in real life. Yet I was still more settled than Matt was. So Joe told Matt to get off the fence and not come back to talk to him without having made a decision. I knew nothing of that conversation.
It was January 30, 1988. We decided that things had been stressful enough so we were going to take Saturday to just go hiking and enjoy ourselves. Matt had the idea of eating at Howard Johnson's for breakfast because he had such fond memories from his childhood of eating there on early morning road trips. But even in 1987, Howard Johnsons were a dying bread and near extinction We kept driving and I was getting hungry and grumpy way before hangry was a word. He refused to eat at Waffle House (Matt: "I was NOT going to eat at Waffle House the day I got engaged!") so we found a Shoney's, which I suppose is more appropriate anyway, given that the first meal we ever shared together was at a Shoney's in West Asheville.
After that we headed up the the Appalachian Trail, to a trail head where we had been before, but this time we went the other direction. I was just jabbering away with no clue what was up and he kept looking on the map for a beautiful overlook but there wasn't one. It was just brown January mud. At one point he thought he saw the name Hickory Falls on the map and set that as the goal. If not a view, a waterfall will do! But no water came and the world got flatter and muddier and when he checked the map again he saw it said Hickory Flats. At some point we decided to just stop and sit. On a log. He pulled out a little Bible and read a Psalm (I think something short like Psalm 131, which is only 3 verses) and then asked if I wanted him to read a Psalm and I said Psalm 18 and it went on forever and he said later he was thinking it would never end and was like "Good grief! Woman! Why'd you have to pick that one?" And that is where he started talking and I can't remember all the words.
Somewhere along the way he said he was thinking and asking himself if he loved me and wanted to marry me. And then he asked me. And I asked him if he was joking. Because I couldn't believe he was serious. And he was serious. And pulled out a ring. In the mud. In the dead leaves. On the log.
It wasn't a picturesque moment. There was no friend hiding behind a tree with a camera, ready to catch it all on film for all of social media to see. It was just us. All mud and leaves and flannel and overalls and fog and mist and confusion and certainty and fun.
He says that once he made the decision to marry me, he never doubted it. Well, he didn't have time to. We got married May 7, 1988, just fourteen weeks later.