87: My Valentine

87: My Valentine

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride

My Valentine

Now join hands, and with your hands your hearts.

~William Shakespeare

“Should we marry on Valentine’s Day?” he said. Having lived in America for some time, I knew this was meant to be romantic, but for me, a Russian immigrant, February was still associated with the holiday my former country celebrated on February 23 — Red Army Day. That wasn’t a romantic holiday, but it brought color to the vast whiteness of the Russian winter, as red flags flew everywhere, and Russian citizens felt secure, as the radio blasted endless military marches, including the reassuring “The Russian army is stronger than any!” Also, since we had no Father’s Day, it was an occasion to show our appreciation for the males in our lives. Wives gave presents to their husbands, and schoolgirls handed little souvenirs to their male classmates. All of this quickly went through my head, but aloud I said, “It’s a great idea!”

Then we discussed the place. My American fiancé and I, both middle-aged, had different religious backgrounds, so we decided to get married in a courthouse.

“Shall we make a reservation today?” I asked.

“There’s no rush,” he said. “Americans rarely marry in courthouses.”

The next day, we applied for a marriage license, and I started hunting for a dress. A month before Valentine’s Day, I called our local courthouse.

“We have no space available on Valentine’s Day. Do you want to schedule on the next day?”

“Absolutely not!” I slammed down the receiver and collapsed into a chair. I had already sent invitations, and a perfect dark-red velvet dress hung in my closet.

Why in the world did I listen to him? Well, making a scene even before we got married wasn’t a good idea, so I picked up the phone and called every courthouse within a sixty-mile radius. They were all full except one.

“If we marry on Valentine’s Day, we’ll have to do it in Fulton,” I told my fiancé.

“Perfect!”

Was he referring to the small Missouri town forty minutes away?

“Don’t you see how symbolic it is?” he continued. “That’s where Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech at the beginning of the Cold War, and Gorbachev spoke after it was over. If the Cold War hadn’t ended, you and I would never have met!”

He had a point. Therefore, on a typically gray Missouri Valentine’s Day, we and our witnesses hurried up the stone staircase of the old Fulton courthouse. Everybody was nicely dressed, and I even had a borrowed mink coat thrown over my shoulders.

As we got to the porch, the doors of the courthouse opened, and two policemen escorting a man in handcuffs and leg irons emerged from the building, walking directly toward us. My heart sank. This was surely a bad sign.

“That’s kind of symbolic,” I heard my bridegroom say. “Getting married and losing your freedom, so to speak.”

“That’s not funny!” I wanted to say, but everybody chuckled, and I burst into nervous laughter.

In a minute, we entered a courtroom and joined another couple to be married that day. They were young, dressed in worn-out jeans and Budweiser sweatshirts, chewing gum.

Neither the coldly formal courtroom nor the look of this couple (nor the chained man at the entrance) was what I had envisioned for my wedding day. As I was about to share this thought with my groom, an elderly judge in a long robe with a black patch over one eye entered the room.

“Symbolic?” I asked my almost-husband. “Half-blind justice?”

He winked at me.

The young couple was called first. They got up and, still talking and chewing, approached the judge. His good eye stared at them piercingly until they spat out their gum and quieted down.

“We are gathered here today,” the judge began, and a tingling sensation started traveling up my spine, making me straighten up in my chair and clutch my hands together.

“Marriage is a relationship of love,” the judge’s voice filled the courtroom. “There will be times of stress, sacrifice, and sorrow.”

I was barely breathing.

“For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…”

Suddenly, it struck me. At our ages, forty-five and fifty-three, we could be close to “sickness” already. There was no telling how many healthy years we’d have, or how many years together. We wouldn’t celebrate our sixty-fifth anniversary, as my groom’s parents had done, nor even the forty-eighth, like my parents.

“I pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss and embrace.”

Now, it was our turn.

“We are gathered,” the judge started again. Having just heard the same words, I felt detached, and my mind wandered.

I remembered myself at the Moscow airport hours before leaving Russia — surrounded by my family, my mother crying, not knowing if she’d ever see me again. Then I saw myself in America — a scared immigrant with no English, trying to make it in this new world. Later still, I saw a middle-aged woman warily gazing into a mirror — resigning herself to a life with no love and romance.

Old memories swirled around me. Was I doing the right thing? What did I have in common with this man, born on the other side of the world? Wasn’t it too late to start all over again? I became lightheaded. To steady myself, I put one arm around my groom’s waist and leaned on him; he squeezed my hand with his elbow. This subtle gesture broke the spell. The room stopped spinning, images from the past melted away, and it felt right to stand next to this man in the presence of these witnesses, on this Valentine’s Day — and for the rest of our lives.

Now, the courtroom was quiet. Everybody was watching me. I straightened up, smiled, and still holding on to the man next to me, said, “I do.”

~Svetlana Grobman

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