I’ll admit to the butterflies swirling inside me as Bill, our new friend-priest, wrapped our right hands with my scarf. It was our wedding anniversary, and my husband, Rick, and I stood at the altar of a small chapel high above Portofino, Italy, with Bill staging a recreation of the marriage blessing, the closing prayer of the rite we celebrated 36 years ago.
Nobody spoke. Someone snapped a picture. I giggled as fellow tourists took their seats and watched.
Then I looked at the man beside me and thought about the last time our hands were wrapped in a priest’s stole in my home church when we were in our 20s, and the moment became more meaningful.
But on this day, far from home, we were joining the continuum of couples who had stood at the altar of the Chiesa di San Giorgio (St. George Church) for centuries for their own marriage blessing. What a voyage we’d taken to get here.
Last month, we were tag-alongs on an anniversary river cruise hosted by Bill and his wife, Mary, whom we’d met the day before. Our fellow travelers came from all parts of Bill and Mary’s life, who in their 50th year together, wanted to create a celebration not to be forgotten. Raleigh friends invited us to join, and our only link to everyone was our Episcopal roots.
Mary asked us for wedding pictures ahead of time, which we sent, unsure of their intended use.
In the early days of the trip, we explored the coast of the Liguria region of Italy on foot, tasting pesto from Monterroso and traveling by boat to San Fruttuoso, home to an 8th century Benedictine monastery. Eighth. Century. (People get married underwater there in front of an immersed statue of Jesus. Really.)
And I took pictures. Thousands of them. The images took on two important themes: food — and laundry — which we found hanging from windows all over Italy. And we walked. Some days 20,000 steps or more, many of them straight up, exploring the tiny passages that had carried Italians from their cliffside homes into town and the market for centuries.
Ours has been an ordinary voyage, but a remarkable voyage, too.
As we traveled through France from the Old City of Nice to the Rhone-American cemetery Draguignan, to the Roman ruins in Arles and the winding streets of Old Lyon, Bill’s blessing stayed in my mind. How did our small family history fit within the context of the world’s? We were not even a speck in comparison.
On our first night on the boat, we found our wedding picture on display with two other couples who were the first to be recognized, and as the crew served cocktails, Bill arrived, his neck draped in scarves. He gathered us in a circle and wrapped our arms once again, this time paraphrasing the marriage blessing: “You have committed yourselves to one another in love, joy and tenderness. May God bless you in love so you may be faithful to the promises you have made and live together in joy and love until your life ends.”
By day, our adventures continued as we feasted on history: stories of World War II told by a member of the French Resistance; “Amazing Grace” sung by our guide in the Pope’s Palace in Avignon; a classroom visit with school children in Vienne.
And each night, Bill presented a short homily about marriage before gathering another three couples, wrapping their hands together for the blessing, the rest of us gathered around for the prayer.
Friends new and old gussied up for the celebrations — from eight years of marriage to 60 — caught up in the meaning of the moment.
The Queen of England recently celebrated her 70th year with Prince Phillip. Highly unusual, that. It’s not likely we’ll make it to 93 and 98 for our own 70th, yet I suspect some of the best celebrations are ahead of us, in some ways. This was one of them, surely, to be on this small boat halfway across the world, reminding ourselves that somewhere in the center our our aging selves, the two kids we once were still exist.
Back then, we were thinking only of the joy and love, not the life ends part. Now, of course, we do see that, and simply the thought of it fills my heart with ache. Ours has been an ordinary voyage, but a remarkable one, too. Though it hasn’t always included good traveling weather, we’ve somehow stayed the course.
This month, we’ve been guests at two weddings, and at the moment of the blessing at each, I’ve wondered if these young couples filled with such joy and hope for each other can see through it all toward the journey ahead. Maybe they don’t need to. I wish them favorable traveling weather, and bright days for tossing their laundry into the fresh air.
Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words.” She can be reached at email@example.com.