Ray and I never intended to get married. For twelve years, we felt that our commitment to each other had nothing to do with the government. It wasn’t necessary to have a document to certify that we meant to spend our lives together. You’ve heard the story. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt?
This all changed for me, however, during Memorial Day weekend of 2002. We’d visited the graves of Ray’s family members, and as I read tombstone after tombstone it hit me that I wanted to be buried with Ray some day, but that I wanted us to have the same name on the marker. I didn’t want to be remembered as the old lady who’d shacked up with him for all those years.
The subject of marriage had come up a few times already that year, and we were both warming up to the idea. Watching the reruns of Monica and Chandler getting engaged on Friends had spurred on a few conversations, but I’d hesitated to bring up the subject for real for fear of spoiling a proposal he might have had in the works. My birthday in September was coming up, which could have been a good time. Then he had Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve—any of which could have been fine dates for a marriage proposal. I wouldn’t wait any longer than that, however. I promised myself that if he hadn’t asked me by New Year’s Eve, I would do it myself on New Year’s Day.
My birthday came and went without a proposal, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. I woke up a little groggy on January 1, 2003, wiped out (hungover) from the night before. We ate breakfast while watching the Tournament of Roses parade, and afterward Ray put on his coveralls and went out to the barn. He was renovating the fifty-year-old structure, working on raising the floor of the loft. Inside the house, I looked at my sorry reflection in the bathroom mirror and suddenly realized it was the day on which I had intended to propose. Not like that, though.
I started some bath water and ran around the house trying to figure out what to wear. I decided on the pink tiara I’d worn the night before, a purple suede knee-length coat with a purple rabbit fur collar, and black suede boots. After the bath, I made up my face and styled my hair around the pink tiara. For the finishing touch, I grabbed a long-stemmed metal rose that my dad had given me on my 40th birthday. I took a breath and marched out to the barn. It was 32 degrees that day, but I wasn’t cold. I was nervous and sweating and praying he wouldn’t say no.
As I entered the barn, Ray grinned and said, “Hey, check this out,” and motioned me toward his latest project. He didn’t notice my tiara or strange outfit.
“What, right now?”
I didn’t say anything else, but started climbing the ladder into the loft.
“Oh, I thought you meant in the house,” he said, following me. “Hey, you don’t have anything on under there.”
In the loft, I had to work quickly. I hadn’t really thought out how I would do this. Sunlight shone through the two windows near the peak onto the middle of the dusty wooden floor. I hesitated for a second, but then took off the coat and looked for a place to hang it, somewhere where it wouldn’t get too dirty. How he could he say no to me like this?
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, helping me with the coat, “but I think I like it.”
I manoeuvred him a few feet in front of the spot of light and positioned myself in the direct ray. I shivered in my boots and my crown, but not from the freezing temperature.
I held out the rose and said, “Ray Sundstrom, will you marry me?”
His eyes opened wide, and he said, “Are you serious?”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, my heart pounding.
He said, “Okay,” and I about died of relief.
We laughed and talked for a few minutes, joking about my nervousness. He admitted that he’d wanted to ask me over the holidays but hadn’t figured out what to do about a ring. He went back to his work in the barn, and I ran into the house to call my mom. My grandma was on her deathbed, and I wanted her to hear the news before it was too late.
We married the following July in the same barn, in the same loft, with one hundred close friends and family there to witness the vows. I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and Ray had finished the barn renovation in time for the event. There are many stories to recount from that day and the days leading up to it, but I’ll save them for another time.
I will, however, close with a last remark. We thought that nothing would change in our relationship once we were married. The lifetime commitment had been made years before, and we couldn’t imagine loving each other any more or any less. The big surprise? The relationship did change. Even today, nine years after the wedding and twenty-one years since we started the whole thing, somehow we feel more like a family, and we grew closer even though we didn’t think there was any closer to grow into. I’m happy to be called Sundstrom and will be until the day I’m put beneath a stone bearing that name.