I always relish the opportunity to visit the quaint little town where my wife grew up. Her parents were both from small towns nearby, and after they were married, they decided to settle down in Wetumpka, Alabama, and raise a family.
They had five girls. I married the youngest. I know they must have wanted a boy, but I’m sure glad they never had one. We’ve been married almost 38 years- the longest-lasting marriage in her generation.
We met in the summer of 1978. Her youth group came to the retreat where I was working for the summer. In the fall, I returned to Montgomery to continue my college education. Montgomery was only about a twenty-minute drive from Wetumpka. In January 1979, we started dating. Have been ever since.
Between January 1979 and May 1982, I spent every hour possible in that little town. I ate at places like the Little Sam’s and the Tasty Grill, where every Friday, a wonderful man named Floyd Butler made the best chicken pie I have ever had.
When Friday and Saturday rolled around, her parents tried to limit us to going out only one of the two nights. Probably a wise decision. But we kept finding reasons to go out and pushing the envelope until the weekend nights were ours.
By the spring of 1980, I was hired as a youth director and assistant pastor at her church. So Sunday mornings we were together at church. Sunday afternoons were spent with her family. Sunday dinners, followed by a nap, a walk on the hill behind their house, and church on Sunday night. Then back to my dorm room and another week of college.
I was only nineteen when we met and fell in love. And as I look back over the decades that have passed, I still feel the same excitement, joy, and anticipation I used to feel when I go to that little town where my heart came alive.
In May of 1980, I sat in my new navy blue three-piece suit in the high school football stadium and watched her graduate from high school. We went out to eat with a group of her friends at Shoney’s in Montgomery after graduation because there was nowhere in Wetumpka to get food at night except at Hardee’s.
We were married there at the Methodist Church in 1982. I was twenty-two, and she was a couple of months shy of twenty. The pastor I had worked for officiated at our wedding.
Four decades have passed, and the town has changed, and so have we. The beautiful old Presbyterian Church was destroyed in a tornado last year, but I understand they are rebuilding it to look the same. Floyd passed away, and the Tasty Grill has been closed for many years. We have lived most of our lives in three other states, raised three children, buried our parents, and lived life.
My in-laws have passed away, and so has the pastor of the church where I worked. Across the river, there is now a casino and high-rise hotel there. Big Bear Grocery store is gone, and a Super Wal-Mart replaced it. There’s a new four-lane bridge that crosses the river on the north side of town, but I still prefer to take the old two-lane bridge downtown.
It’s called the Bibb Graves Bridge, named for a governor of Alabama back around the Depression Era. Some say he was an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. Anyway, they named the bridge for him when he left office in 1931.
The Coosa River still gently twists and turns as she flows on along her endless journey. In the Spring, she is usually full and occasionally threatens the downtown businesses with floodwaters. In the drought of Summer, you can see the rock platforms on the bottom. Fall brings an eerie beauty and Winter is still and barren. The river is a gentle reminder that time marches on.
But every time I go back to that sweet little town, I fall in love again with the same girl. In my eyes and in my heart, she is still sixteen. And I am happy there because we are together to drive down the same streets we drove down so long ago.
I never thought about the fact that I’d be sixty someday. But I am. One thing I have learned is that as I look back over the seasons of life and the places where I have lived it, is that old memories are increasingly important.
They say that when you work with people, they don’t remember much about what you say, but more about how you made them feel.
When I visit Wetumpka, I remember, and I feel nineteen again. But now, I get to take my girl back home with me, and we get to be together every day of the week.