When I shut the door to my room, all I could think of was that five gallon lard can Paul and I hid in an old abandoned tobacco barn off Barnes Mill Road. We had buried it beneath a mound of musty and mildewed hay piled in a dark back corner. I had argued that the barn appeared unsafe, that a push of a finger against its slanted side would bring it toppling to the ground, and if not that, the rusty roof would let a deluge of rain pour inside and everything would be ruined. And those mice that scampered from under the hay, what if the lid somehow came off and they chewed my things to make a new home? Paul argued that we had spent every Friday since weeks before Christmas searching for a hiding place, and the barn had been the best we had found.
On those Fridays, after shopping in downtown Richmond, we trekked back to the barn to deposit my purchases; my blue linen suit, white pumps, and nylons. And my birth certificate. Each time, I felt more uncomfortable about the safety of the hiding place, which gave rise to an endless stream of disquieting questions; Was I worried about the safety of my things or worried about marrying Paul? Did I love him enough to cherish and honor him for the rest of my life?
Worry Wart, Paul called me. But he had not been the one who had skipped school lunch four days a week to save the money to buy those things for our wedding.
Paul and I had been dating since the summer after I turned sixteen. My father, a hard-shell Southern Baptist and deacon in the church, had approved of this boy from Poosey Ridge, who drove his father's blue 56 Chevy thirteen miles to Opossum Kingdom every Wednesday and Sunday night to take me to church.
That year and the following, we attended different schools. At the onset of our senior year, due to circumstances beyond my control, I abandoned my classmates and left the high schools trio and quartet without a second alto to attend Paul's school. On Fridays, we always skipped school. The first few times, we were scared we would be found out. We drove country roads, parked to neck and listen to the radio, then drove back to school in time for me to catch my bus home. On one of those Fridays, as we listened to Tommy Edwards sing Its All in the Game, Paul asked me to marry him.
I needed no time to think about my answer. Forbidden to date anyone other than Paul, I had had three long years to think about it. So Paul and I made plans to elope to Jellico, Tennessee on Friday, April the fifth. By then, I would be eighteen. We would keep our marriage a secret until graduation, the last of May.
The morning of April the fifth came in under a steely gray sky with drizzling rain. It had rained all night, a slow drip that tapped on the tin roof while I wrestled with doubts and fears. I took my time getting dressed, the thought of missing the bus detaining my usual hurriedness. Hugging Mom at the door, I wanted to tell her what today would bring, but I could not find the courage.
She handed me an umbrella. "Dont leave it at school."
"I won't," I promised, not meeting her eyes.
As Paul and I drove along Barnes Mill's curvy road, my destiny drawing nearer, I wished the lard can would be gone, so I could call off our elopement. Without my birth certificate to prove my age, there might not be a marriage ceremony.
"Why are you so quiet?" Paul asked, as he drove off the road to cut through the field.
Despite my imagined catastrophes and hopes, the weathered and slanted barn still stood. "Nothing," I said.
He got out of the car and disappeared into the barn through the narrow slot of a hinged board used for circulation when tobacco had been hung inside. I imagined that Paul would discover the lard can missing, that the farmer who owned the barn had found it and given my things to his wife. I thought about the many lard cans of blackberries I had picked as a child, not more than four or five summers ago. Mom always made jam, but this one time, I had been allowed to sell two full cans to Purkey's Market to buy a gallon of ice cream and a bag of cookies for a club my brother and I started. A secret club where we pretended to be spies and told stories of our great adventures, none of which I could remember right then.
Paul exited the barn through the door that hung at an angle, lard can in tow, much to my dismay. He scooted it onto the seat between us and looked at me over the top as he took off the lid. "See, I told you it was a good hiding place."
I took out my wedding clothes and pitched the can into the backseat. Except for the terribly wrinkled linen suit, all were in perfect condition.
The two and a half hour drive took us south down Highway 25, past Renfro Valley and Williamsburg, where the rolling hills became baby mountains, dotted white with an early outbreak of dogwood blossoms. I remembered a saying my mother said my grandfather often used, "You made your bed, now lie on it."
But a marriage bed? Was I ready for that? I looked at the lard can, looming shiny and bright in the backseat. A lard can for my suitcase; what would suffice for a bed?
Paul seemed as tense as I was, and when a good tune came on over the radio, we sang along. I studied my left hand and wondered if he had gotten me a wedding ring like he promised. North of the Tennessee state line, we pulled into a Big Boy drive-in and ordered hamburgers and Cokes. While we waited for a carhop to bring them, we made nervous chatter about this and that. Things were on my mind, like I didn't want to live at his parent's home so he could help get in this year's tobacco crop and I would end up cooking for work hands and babysitting his little sister. But to avoid an argument on our wedding day, I said nothing.
In short time, the carhop appeared with our order. We ate, bobbing and weaving to Paul Anka's "At the Hop" and Elvis Presley's "Don't be Cruel," and were soon back on the road.
Jellico, Tennessee, a town not much bigger than a fly swatter, was famous for elopements. We stopped at a gas station, and while the attendant pumped a couple dollars of gas into the Chevy's tank, I changed into my wedding clothes in the lady's room.
"You look pretty," Paul said when I got into the car.
My eyes brightened. He had never said that before. "Thank you." I felt grown up, courageous. I dared not think about the trouble we would be in when we broke the news to Mom and Dad after graduation. Not with Mom so much, but with Dad, it could be anything from a nod of approval to a jaw-jacking. Still, how could he fault either of us when he had chosen Paul as my one and only?
As we drove down Main Street, an abundance of Justice of the Peace signs swung from front yard posts. Paul pointed out one on the lawn of a beautiful Victorian home. It looked romantic, perfect for a wedding. We parked on the street. I took my birth certificate from my clutch and folded it to carry in my hand. Paul slipped on his navy blazer and we got out, straightening our clothes and trying to look at ease as we climbed the steps to the porch. We were about to knock when the door opened. A nicely dressed woman smiled and asked us to come in.
"You all lookin to get married?" she said, leading us into a large living room. It was lit by a lamp on a piano in a corner.
Paul said, "Yes," in a strong voice, while I thought, no, we aren't, and gazed over my shoulder to the front door.
"Well, now." She inspected me with a frown. "You of age?"
"Yes, Ma'am." I handed her my birth certificate.
She held it close to her eyes for a minute, then handed it back. "I'll go get the Reverend and a witness."
While we waited, we tried to find ways to occupy our hands so they wouldn't tremble. Paul finally stuck his in his pant's pockets and threw back his head and shoulders, like he had answers for everything, a grown man.
The woman came back, pushing an old woman in a wheelchair. "This is my mother; she will play the piano during the ceremony." An old man hurried in, dressed in a black suit and red tie, a Bible in his hand. "This is my father, Reverend Bicknell," she said.
He smiled at us like he was ever so happy to see us, then he gave the old woman in the wheelchair a kiss on the cheek and pushed her in front of the piano. I remember thinking how happy they both had looked when he kissed her.
I don't recall much of the ceremony, as the woman played the piano so beautifully, and I had been too nervous for anything to stick, with the exception of when Reverend Bicknell asked Paul for a ring. I watched Paul's hand and hoped he would slip it into his trouser pocket and pull out a ring. But he didn't.
Reverend Bicknell must have seen the disappointment on my face, because I saw it in his eyes. He winked at me, then looked at Paul and said, "Son, there's times when its hunky-dory to be unprepared, but this ain't one of 'em."
Moments later as I walked down the steps in my husband's shadow, I felt the weight of what I had done. I knew I was unprepared for the adult step into marriage. He reached out his hand and I took it. In the car, he kissed me with a tenderness that I trusted. Yet my mind tumbled with regrets; I should have waited, had a church wedding, worn a wedding gown and left the church with rice in my hair. I should have said I do because I believed with all my heart that I would always love the man at my side.
For a moment, I longed to be that child who had plucked berries from the vine and filled a lard can with them to sell and buy ice cream and cookies.