These are not Internet love stories, or tales of arranged matches. These are tales of soulmates finding each other the old-fashioned way by living their lives and leaving the rest to fate.
Eric and Gretchen Kozen
The Scene: Oakdale Cemetery, June 25, 2004.
A long overdue ceremony to mark Grave No. 5, Row No. 8 and honor Sgt. Broughton, Union soldier, 2nd West Virginia Cavalry, who died April 10, 1865. Gretchen is Sgt. Broughtons second great-niece. Shes flown in from Pennsylvania for a beach vacation and this ancestral gathering. Shes holding a box of handwritten letters from Sgt. Broughton to his mother and family, dated 1862-1865. Eric is the superintendant of Oakdale Cemetery and has outdone himself to give Sgt. Broughton a proper burial. And hes helping Gretchen maneuver the video camera.
He: OK, Ill tell the story.
She: And Ill provide the colorful commentary.
He: So, I get a call in January 2004, from a gentleman named Carl. He tells me hes doing some genealogy research and that one of his ancestors is a Union soldier. I tell him Im really sorry, hes not here; the Union soldiers bodies had been moved to the National Cemetery. I even call over there, but, unfortunately, they have no record of him. Then Carl tells me he has proof of his relative being buried in Oakdale Cemetery, a handwritten postcard with a picture: Sgt. Broughton Grave No. 5, Row No. 8, buried April 10, 1865. So, we fill out the form for a Veterans Monument and I tell Carl Ill call him as soon as it comes in. Carl calls me probably ten times in the next four weeks and finally it arrives. And I assume thats the end of it. Nope.
Carl calls a few days later and says, Id like to do a family-reunion ceremony, bring in ancestors from England, relatives So I get a bagpiper who plays Amazing Grace, the preacher finds a bible from 1865, we bring in the Daughters of the Confederacy
WBM: For a Union soldier?
She: Oh sure. If they can put on a hoop skirt, and go to a funeral, theyll do it!
He: Next day, Monday, just another typical day. Im getting ready to head home when a car pulls up and a woman gets out. I remember thinking, Oh, thats the girl with all the letters. Shed been kind of squirrely, trying to juggle the letters, videotape the ceremony Id tried to give her a hand in the heat. So she comes in, and my secretary [is] in the room. Gretchen makes a little small talk, then she says, I dont usually do this but would you like to go out to dinner? And you could hear the noise, as my secretarys jaw dropped and hit the desk.
She, with a laugh: Oh, yeah. Because Im so Yankee, and the secretary was so Southern, you know, I wanted to thank him for getting the hoop skirts, and the bagpipes. And my cousin Leslie thought he was cute and poked me and whispered, He doesnt have a ring on.
Fast forward to dinner by the water, a kiss on Wrightsville Beach and a message on Gretchens answering machine by the time she landed back in Pittsburgh, with Erics home number.
He: I flew to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving and asked her dad for her hand. Sure, it was pretty quick, but hey when you see something good, you dont want it to get away.
She: Dad was like, Take er!
She relocated to Wilmington and got a job at Laney High School. Almost nine years later, Mr. and Mrs. Eric Kozen have fond memories of that hot summer day in 2004 with those hoop skirts ringing round Sgt. Broughtons headstone.
She: The Daughters of the Confederacy have kind of adopted me.
Terry and Phoebe Bragg
The Scene: A college dorm room.
Phoebe is visiting with Terrys roommate. Terry walks in, carrying an intricately crafted model ship. Phoebe has no interest in model ships but has an instant interest in Terry and tries to sound informed about his prized possession.
She: I thought he was aloof and disinterested, but he was actually just shy. Later that spring, we all went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans that was 1976 and when we got back, we started to date. About a year and a half later, he joined the Navy; he said he wanted to take care of me. He got a ring and we got married in Boone, about a week after his commission. People called us Ken and Barbie, because we were so young!
After he left, I would get a packet of letters and have to put them in order. Sometimes the hand radios would patch him through, or Id get telegrams. If he thought joining the Navy was a good way to take care of me, good thing he picked someone so resilient. I was raised on a farm in North Carolina and I knew nothing about the military, or protocol; it was definitely baptism by fire. I had some long, hard, cold, lonely winters but marriage is all about compromise and hopefully, those compromises are always given with grace.
He: And after 30 years, and 21 moves, we arrived in Wilmington. Im now Captain Bragg, Director of Battleship North Carolina. And I always told Phoebe, After we get out of the Navy, youll get your dream house.
She, with a laugh: I had a pretty good idea of what that would look like, after all that. I wanted an old house, but with livability downtown, sunny. And while Terry was renovating the battleship, I renovated our house.
He: After almost 35 years of marriage, our life and travels together have been like an all-you-can-eat buffet, a sampling of America, from sea to shining sea. And weve had some times: Canada, Europe, Chile, driving through Mexico, looking for hotels in the dark with two little dogs; Phoebes been sprayed by a water cannon belonging to Pinochets storm troopers!
She: But of everywhere weve lived, Wilmington is my favorite place of all. We go for runs on the river together and after youve been here a while, you need to factor in the visiting time.
He: Its an unsuccessful run if we dont run into someone we know.
She: Ive never lived anywhere so friendly, and Terrys always home. Right, baby? Now, I tell him, You can go back to the ship, just not overseas.
The model ship he was holding when they met rests on a shelf in their study overlooking the Cape Fear River, not far from the Battleship North Carolina, which has come to symbolize their shared destiny. Back in 1963, Phoebe came with her family to Wilmington and joined the schoolchildrens nickels and dimes campaign to save the battleship. Nearly 50 years later, Terry became its director. Just after he got the job, Phoebe showed him that girlhood picture of her saving the Battleship.
He: Life with Phoebe Bragg is always fun.
She: And life with Terry Bragg is never boring.
Dave and Catherine Yearwood
The Scene: A surf shop in San Diego.
Dave is a pro surfer; Catherine is an East Coast girl from Wrightsville Beach. They are West Coast co-workers. She thinks he is a player, and he thinks he wont date her. He has much respect for her faith, her pure spirit and he thinks that she thinks hes an idiot. Guy talk with other surfers interrupted as Catherine walks by and his friends say: Whoever marries that girl is going to be very lucky.
Fast forward to 2013.
He: Wearing pink and black-striped socks and who painted a neon skull and crossbones on the backyard trashcan: We dont have any kids. I painted the neon skull and crossbones on the trash can myself. Why not? I always thought Id be a young surfer dad at 26, you know? But she and I have a lot of fun together. Every day, when we get excited to come home and hang out, we do. Nothings going to add more excitement to us, than us, because shes the coolest person Ive ever met.
She, in a faux-fur vest, with a laugh: We got married at 22, 23. And we love being married. One day, I said, Maybe for us, its not about having kids. Maybe its just about being married!
The very first time he kissed her was about two years after they met, when the preacher said, You may kiss the bride.
She: He gave me flowers, he held the door for me, he was totally present, and one day he asked: I bet youre wondering why I havent kissed you, arent you? And I was like, um, yeah?
He: I just wanted to get to know her. And I knew kissing her, anything else, would take away from really getting to know her.
She, with a smile: I tried to lure him into breaking the rules, multiple times.
They dated every day for two weeks until it was time for her to catch her plane; she was headed to a six-month study abroad program in Spain. Dave was neither fazed, nor deterred.
He: Her dad did business in the Bahamas and had a good calling card, so I would stay up until 11 p.m. in San Diego and wed talk for about an hour every night.
She: I was scared by it all. I am a very independent person, but he was so intentional about it, and the way he pursued me. I fell in love with him.
He: Men should be intentional and have convictions speak their minds. Men need to know their minds. We need to be serious about our relationships. Her dad gave me the greatest wisdom about marriage. He said, Dave, you being a surfer, someone who has a fun occupation you should know, marriage is work. But who says work cant be fun?
Theirs is a lifestyle: as a pro surfer, Dave makes custom surfboards, travels and models surf-style clothing. He also works side-by-side with Catherine at Hallelu, meaning praise the LORD, the couples chic Wrightsville Beach clothing boutique.
She: Our commitment is to celebrate what is, and how blessed we are, and how we dated; that really set the tone for our marriage. We are here to serve something higher.
He: And ten years later, I still want to be with her. Im blown away by her every day.
Tracy McCullen and Dorothy Papadakos
The Scene: Easter Sunrise Service on Wrightsville Beach.
Dorothy, the organist at the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, New Yorks St. John the Divine, is visiting some friends around Wilmington. Her late father had two main passions: inventing helicopters, including the Gyrodyne QH-50 (newly-delivered to the Smithsonian), and cultivating tropical horticulture. To honor his memory, Dorothy has just returned from four months traveling around the equator researching her fathers flora, plus some indigenous music along the way. She is very tan. Tracy, owner of Landscapes Unique, is with friends for Easter Sunday at the beach. Hes about to embark on a three-week trek to Nepal for his 40th birthday, but first, he just has to know: Who is that gorgeous, dark, exotic creature walking down the beach?
She: I was actually engaged when we met and I remember, I saw him on the beach, and I took my chin in my hand and literally turned my head away. He was so handsome. He looked like Mr. National Geographic with his hair, his camera but I was burnt out on the man thing. I was about to marry the wrong guy. It was kind of like the gods were up there saying, Not himHIM!
He: Id only been with her a few days when I went to Nepal, and I told my fellow travelers, Im going to marry this girl. I called my travel agent this was back when they had travel agents to see if he could re-route me through New York on my way back and he actually spoke first, apologizing for the inconvenience: Im sorry, I meant to tell you: they need to re-route you through New York. I hope thats not a problem.
She: Our whole relationship has been full of these little serendipities. When he came to visit, I sent my fashionable friend, Aaron, out to do some home shopping. He bought these fabulous sheets, French Country-style, blue and white, and then he showed me the receipt. There was the name Tracy, over and over. Aaron said hed thought it was the name of the sales clerk, but then realized it was the name of the sheets! He said, Youll never believe this. Theyre called Tracy sheets.
He: Ok, now, the proposal.
She, holding up her thumb and forefinger and shortening them together: Short, love. The short version.
He: Three months after we met, it was July Fourth weekend. I love the number three. I knew I wanted to ask her to marry me at some point, so I decided this was the time. I wanted to do something special. I called the choirmaster at her workplace to line up a live performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow for Dorothy. An artist friend painted a rainbow on a canvas, which was 10 by 20. And then I put it in a duffel bag, and went to the airport. But I thought, I need something else. I needed 100 helium balloons in rainbow colors. It was tough, because it was Fourth of July weekend, but I finally found a woman who would do it. She was all excited. I sat with Dorothy during the service while she played the organ she really takes the roof off with her jazz improvisational piano.
She, with a laugh: And all through the service, I kept hearing these booms. It was the balloons, popping in the heat, and there was about an eight-second echo every time they popped. He blew my mind.
Their over-the-top wedding ceremony featured Renaissance costumes; bagpipes and Phillipe Petit famous World Trade Center tightrope walker and a close friend of Dorothys, performing for the guests with handfuls of gold dust, a long-stemmed red rose balanced across his nose and, for the first time ever, whispered words from the wire.
She: The wedding was off the charts, but the marriage just keeps getting better. When you find the right person, its incredible.
Since then, Dorothy has put the finishing touches on Bacchus, a musical shes worked on for 10 years thats headed to Broadway. Now, Tracy is headed back to school, soon to launch a daring new venture of his own.
She: Bacchus, the musical, is our first child; its gone from a toddler to a wild and crazy teenager, ready to head to college. For the last ten years, hes been supporting my writing and now, Im supporting Tracy in his Academy of Imagination, our second child.
He: When youre constantly striving to support each others dreams, and work together as a team, theres that spark. We like to think were sophisticated people of the world, but after 13 years of marriage, we still feel like were on our honeymoon.