Engaged! 1979

Jim trudged up the worn carpet steps of Fern’s, the Ashland, Ohio, boarding house where he lived while attending seminary. The steps creaked as he shrugged off his coat and the icy one a.m. air that clung to it.

Downstairs, housemate Tom McConahay, his partner in Pinochle for the evening, polished off the last mini glazed donut from the bag.

Jim opened his bedroom door.

Neon light from the Friendly’s restaurant across Claremont Avenue fell onto his twin bed… and his sleeping fiancé of six months—me.

He blinked, shook his head, shot a glance at his roommate’s empty side of the room and remembered he’d gone home for the weekend. He must be seeing things. Jim hadn’t expected to find me in his bed for another seven months, three days, and eleven and a half hours.

A grin stretched across his face. He must have died and gone to heaven. He sat on the edge of the bed and gathered me, in my blue and white checked Friendly’s uniform, into his arms. “This is a nice surprise.” He inhaled the scents of French fries and Herbal Essence shampoo.

I yawned, then wiggled free and darted to shut the door. “Did you see the bat?”

Jim laughed, thinking I was still half asleep. “No.”

I climbed back under the blankets and told him the story.

Photo by Jesse Bowser

At eleven thirty I’d bundled into my gray wool coat, and exited the restaurant at the end of my shift, grateful Jim had left me his car to drive back to the dorm.

I patted my pockets with gloved hands as a gust of frigid air stung my cheeks. No keys. Great.

A lamp burned in the front window of Fern’s across the street. My gaze traveled up the street toward Ashland College and Amstutz Hall six blocks away. I yanked my hood up, race-walked across the deserted street, and let myself in through Fern’s never-locked side door.

A few minutes later, nestled into an afghan on Fern’s antique sofa, I switched off the lamp to doze until Jim came home to give me a ride.

Tonight, I’d knocked a glass of ice water into Rev. Bill Kerner’s lap, director of church planting for the Brethren Church. If not for Rev. Kerner’s well-developed sense of humor I could have axed my job and Jim’s desired vocation with one clumsy elbow.

My eyelids drooped.

A dark form careened through the room near the ceiling. Air wafted across my cheek. I jerked up and turned on the light. Was it a bird? In Ohio in November? The thing made a second pass through the kitchen, dining room, and sailed into the living room just feet above the couch. A bat, the first one I’d ever seen.

I sprinted up the stairs, dove into Jim’s room, and shut the door as fast as I could without slamming it. Seventy-three-year-old Fern Smith didn’t need to be woken in the middle of the night. Surely one the four guys who lived here could deal with the bat. Where was everybody anyway? I recognized the shirt Jim had worn earlier today on the bed near the window and dropped onto the mattress, my heart thumping. I shivered. The bat easily bested in terribleness The Spider and a battalion of palmetto bugs that beleaguered my childhood.

The next thing I knew, Jim’s voice rumbled in his chest at my ear.

Jim and Tom chased the bat around the house with racket ball rackets while I listened to the commotion from behind Jim’s door. The guys pinned the bat against the kitchen pantry door, scooped it into a bucket, and let it go outside, Jim told me when he came upstairs.

Jim wasn’t the only one who wished I was sleeping in his bed every night. We had fast-forwarded from first date to meeting Jim’s parents in Pennsylvania, mine in Florida, and will-you-marry-me back in Ohio in a little more than three months. But then our romance shifted into slow motion. Thirteen more months would pass before the wedding. More than a year of grumpy celibacy for both of us.

Intellectually we believed our Creator wrote a manual—that nixed sex outside marriage—which would keep our lives spinning smoothly if we complied. We loved Him and wanted to please Him. But our emotions and bodies hadn’t gotten the memo.

Photo by Nathan Walker

We took a thousand walks around Ashland, whose sidewalks were randomly, aptly stamped with keep sweet. We studied in my dorm room, the door propped open, creeping closed as the clock ran down. We nursed dozens of cups of tea across the table from each other at Friendly’s. The last three months we only dared touch lips in our good-night kisses. When we rented our first apartment two weeks before the wedding, the landlady said, “I don’t care if you both move in now.”

Gee thanks. We’d made it sixteen months without doing the deed. Surely we could make it another couple of weeks.

No two people on earth define God’s injunction to refrain from sex outside marriage the same way. We could have used a missive from Him listing hugging, hand-holding, etc. with boxes checked okay or not okay. Figuring it out for ourselves didn’t prove easy or blissful. We argued, cried, misunderstood, and hurt each other. We wrestled with guilt—never sure whether we felt enough or too much or whether guilt was warranted at all. We’ll never write a book on how to date God’s way. Nearly a year and a half of purgatory didn’t make us experts. It wasn’t pretty, but we galumphed over the finish line of our wedding with exhausted glee, the old hymn Victory in Jesus humming in our heads.

June 14, 1980

Easy and blissful were two virgins figuring out what went where on their wedding night. To my friends who wonder how you can marry someone without knowing whether you’re physically compatible, I shrug. It’s not like the pertinent, pliable puzzle pieces won’t fit together. And then, there’s a lifetime left to practice….

During those steamy months before our wedding we didn’t know we were fighting for our relationship for the next 35 years and beyond. Regardless of our ragged road to matrimony, we still reaped the rewards.

We trust each other to be faithful because we know we each have the fortitude to face down temptation. Honor and respect for each other and love of God bedrock our relationship. Sex is unaffected by shame or comparison. We are wholly invested in each other.

Our family 2015

The broken pieces of my heart littered the first thirteen years of my life, the Daddy years. After my parents’ divorce, the next nine years felt happy in comparison—with the subtraction of Dad and only the addition of a noisy stepfather and a bevy of obnoxious pets. Still, home was never the place I wanted to be… until Jim.

God will always be Forgiver and Healer, but the difficult road of obedience kept the fragile things inside me safe and let me walk straight into a healthy, passionate marriage.

For the past thirty-five years, home has been my happy place. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, work-from-home writer, and when we get together with friends, I always want them to come to my house—because here, with Jim, is where my patched up heart found home.

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