Know who you're marryin'...
originally published January 2010 in Georgia Mountain Laurel
Nora Garland recounted what many would now
consider a "nostalgic" view of the institution of
marriage: "Most people married at home. You didn't
kiss your bride back then. The usual marriage age
was about eighteen to twenty. Usually a man had
some sort of livin' he could offer his bride." From other
stories told from the same era, though, it becomes
apparent that things were changing even then.
When discussions turn to love and weddings, stories often tend to be flavored with a bit of a nostalgic tint—the beauty of the bride, the elegance of the dress, the freshness of the flowers. When looking back, though, yesterday always seems to come out a little better, in many indefinable ways, than today. Here are some tales from the "Family" section in Faith, Family, and The Land - the Foxfire 40th Anniversary book. Compare these folks' accountings with recent stories or situations and decide for yourself how the past measures up...
How long might a courtship last? Nora Garland said, "A couple would generally court about five years. People didn't get married so early back then, you know." At the other end of the spectrum, Olene Garland said, "We dated for nine months before we got married." Walker Word shared this story, told to him by a friend of his father:
"All of a sudden, your daddy-to-be jumped up and said, 'There goes my wife.' There were two ladies that we had never seen before ridin' in a buggy. I asked him which one, and he said, 'The one under the umbrella.'
"Well, Daddy didn't meet her that day, but he sure found out who she was. [He sent word that] after cotton season was over, he'd like to come courtin'. I think it took my daddy three years to convince my mother to marry him."
What was the "right" age to get married? Most of the interviews that included ages seemed to show younger women marrying older men, but how much older varied. Juanita Kilby related, "I was eighteen and Jimmie was nineteen when we got married." Olene Garland wasn't as close to her husband, telling, "I was fifteen, and he was twenty one when we married." Lawton Brooks was older than his wife-to-be, and worked a little harder than most to get everything lined up so that he could marry Florence:
"I was twenty-three, an' Florence was nearly sixteen, when we got married. I had t' tell a lie an' get two more fellows to tell a lie—had t' have witnesses with me—t' get m' [marriage] license. My first cousin was clerk of th' court 'r somethin', an' he says, 'Now, Lawton, I don't believe that' [that Florence was eighteen]. I says, 'Well, I do. She's eighteen years old.' An' these two ol' boys with me said, 'Yeah, yeah.' One of 'em said, 'Well, I knowed her ever since she 'as a baby. She's eighteen years old.' An they'd never even seen her then. So we fooled around, and I finally paid [got] m' license."
While many of Foxfire's contacts mention marrying at age fifteen or sixteen,
Aunt Addie Norton, who married at eighteen, weighed in toward the upper
end of the range, stating, "I think a woman should be at least twenty-one
or twenty-two years old—maybe older than that—before they marry. These
little fifteen-, sixteen-year-old girls—they don't know the world for nothin'."
Many people think that, in the "good ol' days," the groom always asked permission from the bride's father. That tradition seems to have been drifting in and out of fashion for longer than many realize. Jimmie Kilby admitted, "I left it up to Juanita to tell her parents that I had proposed. I think I was afraid of her daddy. In the beginnin', her parents wasn't especially fond of me. But, after I met them and came to the house, we had no problems." Reverend Carl Henry had a slightly different task, telling, "I had to ask her mother's permission to marry her. She had a good mother." O. S. Garland, whose story follows, was one of several to mention the town of Walhalla, South Carolina, because there were laxer restrictions on marriages across the state line:
"Her mother didn't want us to go together, so we slipped around and got married. I wanted to ask her father's permission, but I reckon she must've been scared that they wouldn't give her to me because she wouldn't let me ask them. So we run away to Walhalla, South Carolina, and got married. Olene started to school early one mornin', and I picked her up about a mile and a half from home. We sent a telegram to her mother to tell her what we had done."
Honeymoons seemed to be a rare occurrence (Julia Alice Stephens Watkins said, "We just got married and left. No honeymoon. That wasn't in style back then."), as were receptions and even church weddings (Harley Gragg mentioned, "We got married right in the middle of the road.") Comments about wedding dresses were plentiful, though, and color was mentioned more than once. Mrs. Watkins also recalled, "My wedding dress...I went to the store an' bought me a pretty piece of blue material. Back then, people wore mostly blue." Nora Garland offered up an old tip, "They used to say if you married in blue, you'll always be true; if you married in red, you'll wish you were dead." Christine Wigington, however, knew a longer collection of those guiding verses, and said, "We always heard [this] rhyme that tells you what color to wear when you get married, [but] I don't guess too many people went by that back then. They'd just wear what they had." In spite of practicality, here are her verses of the rhyme:
Married in pink, your spirits will sink.
Married in blue, you'll always be true.
Married in black, you'll wish you were back.
Married in yellow, you're ashamed of your fellow.
Married in white, you've chosen right.
Married in green, you're ashamed to be seen.
Are things really that different now from what they were 20 or 50 years ago? We'll leave that up to you to decide, and just close with some sound advice that Addie Bleckley shared with the young girls who interviewed her:
"Now, you girls know who you're marryin' before you marry. Know who you're marryin'...and it'll work out..."