(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)
My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.
One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.
At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.
Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.
I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.
My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.
In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.
The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.
The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.
“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”
That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.
I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.
It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.
For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.
I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.
Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.
Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.
She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.
I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.
Those 358 days were the happiest of my life.