It was evening, and it was sometime early in 1997. I was at my boyfriend’s apartment and we’d probably just had dinner and were hanging out watching TV or studying or whatever we did then. It might have even been my birthday, because my mom called my boyfriend’s house (this was, of course, long before cell phones) to chat with me. It was during that phone conversation that mom broke the news to me.
“Jessica got engaged,” she said.
“What?!” I responded in disbelief. Jessica was my cousin. She was 18, just like me. She’d been dating a boy off and on for a year or so, I’d heard, one that was a few years older. When we were 15 she’d sent me a letter (it was truly the dark ages) telling me that she had a huge crush on this boy, Jimmy, but I shouldn’t tell my parents because she didn’t want her parents to know how much she liked him. Then all the drama happened with other boys and partying and alcohol poisoning and Jessica went back to her pious ways. While I was preparing to go to college, she was suddenly dating that boy she liked way back when she was 15. We’d been about as good of friends as cousins who see one another maybe once a year could be, and as my mom told me about their news all I could remember was the time maybe two years beforehand we shared a bed in the pool house and Jess mentioned how ‘far’ she’d gone and with whom. At that point, all I’d done was kiss a couple of boys, and I remembered thinking she was way ahead of me. I wasn’t ready for any of that sex stuff at 16.
So as I heard the details of her engagement to that boy she’d pined for at 15, all I could think of was that she was crazy. We were both 18 and I was light years away from wanting to make any sort of lifetime commitment to anyone. I hadn’t even chosen a major yet. Apparently, their best friends, another couple, had gotten engaged at Christmas and so Jess and Jim decided if their friends could do it, so could they. A date was set for late in the summer.
As I hung up the phone, the phrase kept going through my head: she’s crazy. Who makes that sort of life decision so young? She’d hardly ever dated anyone else! She was so young! Marriage was a huge commitment! What about college? Were they going to have kids right away? I was at such a different place in my life – staying the night at my boyfriend’s apartment sometimes, sure, but also studying and working toward a degree, going out and having fun with my friends, enjoying a bit of adult-ish freedom for the first time in my life because I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Why would she want to give all that up?
Later that year, we went to Texas to visit my great aunt, and on the way home we stopped in San Diego to go to Jessica’s wedding. My favorite part of the event actually happened the night before, after we got to the hotel. Somehow, my sisters and I got into a silly physical altercation over a shoe on the lawn, and my mom must have taken a photo. My memories of this incident are among the best from that time in my life – just getting to be silly with my sisters when most other people around were stressed out about all the wedding fooferaw.
I cannot for the life of me remember why we fought over a shoe.
The next day, we got all gussied up (I’d had a difficult time finding a dress that was age-appropriate and fit well without showing off a ton of nonexistent cleavage, and so I’d actually sewed a piece of lace to the top of the too-big dress) and drove to the ceremony, which was at a giant megachurch in Del Mar. It didn’t look like a church so much as a big complex, with plenty of southern California styling; lots of palm trees and adobe. Above the entrance to the…chapel? Sanctuary? Place where the ceremony was going to be? was the word Jesus in giant gold script letters. JESUS! Then, we walked inside, and above the…alter? was an even bigger JESUS! in giant gold letters.
I knew that Jessica’s and Jim’s families were both religious, but I didn’t realize quite how much they’d decided to fall in with those beliefs; the last time I’d talked to Jessica, she wasn’t going to church at all. But that was probably a year beforehand. I wasn’t raised with any sort of religious tradition, and while I’d occasionally attended a very liberal low dogma church (mostly so I could sing in the choir and go to youth group) for a while, I was, at 18, very much not religious. I’d attended another wedding that summer and knew I’d need to be respectful through this service, but seeing the giant JESUS threw me off a bit, and then when the ceremony started I didn’t even know how to respond to all the weirdness. I sat in flabbergasted silence while the minister went on and on about Jesus, about how he would be at the center of their marriage. It got to the point where I felt like he was advocating that they have a three-way marriage, and I found that to be exceedingly creepy. As part of the service, we were all commanded to bow our heads in prayer (I did not, and instead kept my eyes on the crowd) and then asked if anyone had decided to accept Jesus as their personal savior as a result of the service, because Jessica and Jim really wanted everyone to do so. I saw a few people raise their hands. It was uncomfortable and kind of gross and I just couldn’t wait for it all to be done so we could go eat (I was hungry).
That was the first wedding where I ate Jordon almonds, and the first time I realized this divide in my extended family: the ones who were super religious (either Catholic or born-again Evangelical Christian) and the ones who were not. My sisters and I were seated at a table with our godless heathen cousins, and we all laughed and commiserated about how weird the service was.
Letting off steam after attempted conversion
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That wedding was 14 years ago today. Jessica and Jim went on to have four kids, the first born nearly two years after they got married. Jessica never did much schooling after high school – maybe an early childhood certification so she could work in a day care. We’ve attempted to stay in touch through the years, but it was more difficult after my parents split up and we’ve really only seen one another at weddings. We went to their house once, during the trip to move me to Colorado, and there was religious stuff all over the place. But we had fun with them and their (at the time) 2 young kids, even going out to dinner with them and were delighted at how well-behaved the kids were. Her husband never did manage to make a paid career out of youth ministry and instead has been managing various branches of a fast food restaurant. Recently, they moved to Texas to facilitate the opening of a new branch of the same restaurant. Jessica’s devoted her life to being a Mom – homeschooling, gestating, rearing children. And now we keep in touch via facebook.
Today she wrote something about their anniversary: “I guess sometimes 18 year olds can make good decisions.” While I’m thrilled it’s worked out so well for them (and it hasn’t all been sweetness and light; they’ve been through their fair share of hard times, health scares, and at least one miscarriage), I think they’re exception rather than the rule. The best friends, the ones who prompted their early engagement, went through a nasty divorce due to infidelity right around the time of this wedding. They’re now a couple thousand miles away from the rest of the extended family. But they’re happy and healthy and it seems like my cousin really did make a good decision for herself. Would I have done the same thing she did, or advise someone else to do so? Never in a million years.