Forty years ago today, I received my best Christmas gift ever.
We would have preferred to wait until after the holidays, but the Army wouldn't.
So there we stood in a church before a preacher, family and the few close friends who could make it to the southeastern corner of Texas on Christmas Eve.
Barely 22, it never once occurred to me that I shouldn't marry this amazing woman. We had met two years earlier while in college, and I swear I would have married her then. She took a little convincing.
From the beginning, we laughed at each other's jokes. We sang together when the radio played a favorite song. We danced. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
One day as things heated up, she took me home to meet her dad, a widower who raised four daughters in a house with only one bathroom. That alone earned my respect. He liked that I knew a lot about football. I liked that he cooked ﬁsh better than any Louisiana chef. Aunts and uncles came from all around to check me out. I played spoons to her Cajun uncles' squeezebox songs.
My parents thought I had hit the jackpot. Like me, they saw a woman with deep-rooted values, a beauty who didn't act like it. She made faces and gave big hugs. She was real and perfectly named: Shine.
Being married to her was easy. Celebrating an anniversary on Christmas Eve was another story. It seemed we were always on the road from Florida to Texas to visit family. While most couples planned romantic dinners, we had a hard time ﬁnding an open restaurant.
Ten years into our marriage, we welcomed our ﬁrst daughter, Jennifer. As she hit the six-month mark, we loaded her into the back seat of our 1978 Toyota Corolla and headed for Texas —on Christmas Eve.
We couldn't wait to show off our baby girl. But 500 miles into the trip, fatigue and hunger set in. We found a Ramada Inn off I-10 in Hammond, La., and I set off in search of dinner. It seemed likely we would celebrate our anniversary over McDonald's or Kentucky Fried. At least we thought to bring a good bottle of wine.
Only a few miles from the motel, a light in the sky guided me off the main road and to the front door of an epicurean oasis. We had been conditioned to forget about dining out on Christmas Eve, but here the smell of fried catﬁsh ﬁlled the night air. The woman inside Don's Seafood and Steakhouse cheerfully took my order and in a matter of minutes I was back at the motel with a bag full of shrimp gumbo, crawﬁsh etouffee and some other goodies that made me a hero in the eyes of my Cajun bride.
Now, if we could just get the baby to sleep. We put her in a crib and retreated to the tiny bathroom. A bath towel served as a table cloth atop the commode. We feasted with plastic forks and paper plates. We toasted to our love and good fortune as we perspired beneath a loud blower and heat lamps.
Thirty years have passed since that night. We added another daughter, Carley, 26, and watched them grow into intelligent, sensitive women. In all that time, our attitude about anniversaries — and life in general — has evolved. We have celebrated our wedding date putting together bicycles, wrapping presents, baking cookies for Santa, singing carols at church. Never had there been regret.
Shine and I still make each other laugh and we still sing with the radio. I admire her as an accomplished school teacher and a great mom; she thinks I'm a pretty good writer. Together we make quite a team.
And though 40 years may seem like a long time, I am pleased to say that this year I wrote about two local couples who put that number to shame. Steve and Vickie Wrubel of Holiday have been married 82 years, putting them in rare territory atop the Guinness Book of World Records. And Millie and Jim Coffey of Hudson just celebrated their 70th anniversary — on Pearl Harbor Day.
Shine and I are just getting started.