The bride was as lovely as I have ever seen. The groom as serious. The bridesmaids floated down the aisle like mermaids, the groomsmen lumbered like the men they were. Summerall Chapel was majestic, the flags of the fifty states hanging from stone braces along the ceiling in silent reminder of the fact that The Citadel is a military college, a place where boys go to be educated in the ways of war.
I could not place the priest’s accent, but his tone was familiar – equal parts congratulation and admonishment, celebration and warning. This is a big and wide and wondrous space into which you are stepping, he seemed to be saying, one about which you know nothing, but for which you are fully equipped by virtue of the simple fact that you are standing here.
We witnesses filed down the long aisle back out into the late afternoon sun and waited to watch the bride and groom, the newly married, parade under raised swords and happy cheers into the future.
The next morning I decided to take the backroads, to wend my way home down gravelly highways with lots of stop signs, past all the churches with Bethlehem and Antioch and Macedonia in their names, through hamlets whose only identifying features were boarded up gas stations and single blinking caution lights. I was well into the journey when I saw the road sign proclaiming that I was but a few miles from Ridgeland.
I’d never been to Ridgeland. Never had a reason to go. But Ridgeland is a place I have always known. It is the first town you come to when you leave Georgia on US Highway 301 North and it is the place where my parents, 19 and barely 18, having decided that they would forego the church wedding for which my mother’s sister had painstakingly made the satin dress with umpteen tiny covered buttons up the back, drove to find a Justice of the Peace and get married.
I slowed down slower than necessary as I got into town. There was no traffic. I suspect that most everybody was in church. The downtown buildings were flat-faced and close to the sidewalk, many of them empty. A railroad track cut across 301 at a perfect 90-degree angle, but I suspected that it rattles infrequently these days.
I saw a lot of abandoned motels and truck stops, broken windows and rusted canopies. There really was very little worth noting about Ridgeland beyond a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina that boasts a few new buildings and the confiscation and renovation of a handful of old.
Very little to recommend this town, like so many that had been left behind by the people racing up and down the interstate highways, except for that one small thing.
I tried to imagine them on that Friday afternoon – her tiny waist, his black hair. I wondered what they talked about as they drove. I wondered which building had held the JP’s office and if it was still there.
When people ask me where I’m from, I always know what to tell them. I was born here. I have lived here always. But that Sunday morning on the way home from a wedding that could not have been any more different from the one in which my parents took their own steps into that big and wide and wondrous space, I realized that while here is where I am from, it is not where my story began.
Not in the beginning. Not once upon a time. My story started when two teenagers stood in front of a common civil servant and, in response to his particular version of will you, said they would.
And they did. They still do.