I can still remember the moment I first saw Jennifer Joy McGowan. I never could have imagined at that first glance that 14 years later she’d be my wife of 13 years. As I look back on those 13 years of marriage–and about 10 months of dating/engagement–a hundred memories come to mind. Here are 13 of my favorites, in no particular order.
1. One Foggy Sunset: I don’t remember which anniversary it was, but somewhere between anniversaries two and seven, I thought I’d had everything planned out for a romantic evening. We went to dinner at our favorite restaurant, Le Gare. As far as Jen knew that was it for the evening. But being the clever guy I was, I had secretly packed up the Jeep with a couple of blankets, some beach clothes, and some snacks and was planning to take her right from the restaurant to the coast to watch the sunset. As we drove out west, I could see the clouds were starting to move in long before we reached our destination. By the time we got to the Pacific we were socked in with fog like pea soup. It was not the romantic setting I was hoping for. But at least I got points for trying.
2. Watching Movies…Alone: Our courtship did not last long before we tied the knot; a little less than a year. During that time our standard weekend would consist of at least one night of renting a movie and watching it on Jen’s tiny 13 inch TV. Well, at least one of us would watch the movie. On all but one occasion I can remember, Jen would be asleep within the first 20 minutes. Being we were still in that courtship period, the movie selections were not usually ones I would be so willing to accept once our relationship had established some roots. I remember specifically being less than excited to be watching Kevin Costner drown in Message in a Bottle, while Jen sawed logs while sleeping on my shoulder. The one time I can recall that she actually stayed awake for the whole movie was for the first one we ever watched together, Swingers. I only remember that one because we were probably three-quarters of the way through the movie when she asked, “Aren’t there some, like, dancing kids in this movie or something?” I replied that there was a brief scene near the end where Jon Favreau and Heather Graham’s characters swing dance. She said she thought there was supposed to be a lot of dancing and may have said something about Nazis. That’s when I realized she thought we were watching Swing Kids, a very different movie which did in fact feature Nazis and kids dancing.
3. We’re Having a Baby: Too hard to separate this into two different events. Plus, if my kids ever read this when they’re older, they’ll think the one I list first was the favorite, despite the “in no particular order” disclaimer.
3a. Getting pregnant with our first was not easy. I remember the moment we found out so vividly. It was a Saturday and I was working out in the yard, moving dirt from one pile to another (don’t ask). Jen had some tests done earlier in the week and called the doctor on Friday to find out the result, but the doctor was out for the day. Whoever Jen talked to on the phone had the results but said she couldn’t tell Jen and she’d have to wait to speak with the doctor on Monday. We’d already been trying for months, and this had been a last-ditch effort on a particular medication. If it didn’t work, then we were going to have to up the ante. On that Saturday, I came inside for a glass of water in between wheelbarrowing loads of dirt. As I was heading back out, Jen called be over to the couch where she was reclining. She said she had something to tell me. Even though it was a Saturday and the doctor didn’t usually work on Saturdays, for some reason I knew that Jen was going to tell me she was pregnant. She put her arms around my neck, her eyes welled up with tears and that’s exactly what she told me. The doctor was so excited for us, she called on her off day to let us know. I moved a lot of dirt that afternoon, and didn’t even mind it.
3b. I came home from work on New Year’s morning. I was on my third day of the FTO program and had spent New Year’s Eve running from call to call and standing in the pouring rain. As I walked in the living room, I saw the camera on the coffee table with a note attached to it. The note said to look at the pictures on the camera. I don’t know how many people take pictures of things they pee on, but there were several of three home pregnancy tests Jen had taken on New Year’s Eve, all reading positive. Not a bad way to start the new year.
4. Boys Don’t Cry…Usually: Six months or so after that third night of FTO, I was still in the training program. I came home one morning from a particularly rough shift. Jen was getting ready to go to work. The school year was winding down and Jen would not be going back to work next year so she could stay home with the baby. She would get a paycheck until mid-August and then I would be the sole bread-winner for the family. Now, it seemed like that check was jeopardy. Things had not been going well on training. The training had been extended indefinitely, I was stressed out, not getting nearly enough sleep, and was terrified I was going to lose my job. As I stood in the doorway of our tiny bathroom where Jen was doing her hair and we were talking about all these things, the prospect of having a brand new baby, plus another child and a wife, and not being able to provide for them became more than I could bear and I broke down and cried. Up to that point Jen had seen me cry probably three times. Once at our wedding, once when my grandpa died, and once when my high school best friend died. I was so afraid of the future and I felt like a failure. She put her arms around me and told me that no matter what, she would never think of me that way. She knew I would do what I needed to do to provide for her and the kids. She believed in me. It meant the world to me to know I had her support and that she had faith in me.
5. High Karate: I was fast asleep one night, when all of a sudden I shot up to a sitting position. I don’t remember that part so much, but everything else I remember clear as if it happened earlier today and I was wide awake, and yet I had no control over my actions. I leaned over Jen as she slept and just stared down at her face. After a few moments, as if sensing something really weird and creepy was occurring, Jen opened her eyes. She saw me staring wildly at her and asked, “What are you doing?” As soon as the words were past her lips, with expert precision, I executed a sharp karate chop right into the middle of her face, the edge of my hand striking the length of her nose and her forehead. It wasn’t a powerful blow, but very quick and precise. More surprised than injured she cried, “Ow! Why did you do that?” At that moment, whatever trance I was in was broken. I quickly laid back down with my back to her. “I don’t know. Sorry,” I said and went back to sleep. Hands down one of the weirdest moments of my life.
6. Paper Hearts: On one of our early Valentine’s Days I came home from somewhere, and found the walls of our bedroom covered in paper hearts. On each one Jen had written some memory or phrase or something she loved about me. There must have been about 50 hearts. Maybe more. This was pretty early in our marriage, so I’m surprised she could come up with that many memorable things to write down. But she’s smart like that.
7. The Sticker: We hadn’t known each other long and probably weren’t even officially dating yet. We talked often in her classroom, since I was her janitor and all, and I’d be lying if I said her room didn’t get just a little more elbow grease than the others. One day we were talking just outside her classroom door. I don’t recall what the conversation was about, but she was holding a strip of stickers, as all good elementary school teachers do. As our chatting was winding down and just before we parted ways, she took a sticker from her strip, one that featured a cartoon airplane and said Good Job!, and stuck it to my shirt. It was the first time she touched me. And I still have the sticker.
8. Ronald McDonald Is a What??: Jen has a natural fear of clowns, as all decent people should. So it wasn’t surprising to learn she did not care for Ronald McDonald. However, it was surprising to learn that she wasn’t sure why she didn’t care for Ronald McDonald. We were at our house watching TV with some friends, when a McDonald’s commercial came on featuring their famous spokesclown. As the ad ended Jen declared, “I don’t like Ronald McDonald. He looks too much like a clown.” There was a brief pause, then one of the other three of us said, “Well, Ronald McDonald is a clown.” This revelation had somehow never occurred to her before. She knew she didn’t like Ronald, but until that moment she just couldn’t quite put her finger on it. This is all sort of amazing, but my real question is why on earth did she think he was dressed that way! I love my wife.
9. Burgers, No Cars, and Dough Art: When Jen and I first met I did not own a car. I was 21, lived on my own, but had to bum rides off my roommates and others. For our first date, a lunch date at a local burger joint, my roommates dropped me off and I had to ask Jen for a ride home. Just what every woman wants, a car-less janitor. After some very pleasant conversation and some tasty burgers, we headed toward my house. On the way Jen asked if it would be OK if we stopped at Ross so she could get her aunt a birthday present. So there we were after our first date at Ross, me without a car and tagging along with this girl while she shops for a birthday gift for her geriatric aunt. She finally settled on a book highlighting the finer points of dough art. Yes, you read that right. She bought her aunt a book about dough art. For her birthday. She explained her aunt enjoyed crafts and such and asked if I thought that was a good gift. Not wanting to ruin an already memorable ride-hitching, burger-scarfing, birthday-present-for-aunts-shopping first date, I said “Sure!” I mean it’s a first date. I can’t exactly tell her that may the worst gift of all time, could I? To this day, I’m not sure how the gift was received by Aunt Gloria, I think I’ve always been afraid to ask, but I can say Jen’s gift choosing intuition has improved immensely.
10. Sweet Ride: When I did finally get a car it was a little blue Toyota Tercel. And it was a stick. I had never driven a stick. For the first couple months after getting the car I refused to drive Jen anywhere. I would drive to her house, but if we were going somewhere else we always took her car. I did not want to the new stick driver stutter in her presence. Go-stop-go-stop-go-stop. It’s just embarrassing. But of course, the stars were aligned against me. As I was leaving work one day, Jen walked out of her classroom and across the parking lot just as I got caught between first and second gears. We was watching and giggled as I jolted forward, all the while trying to wave her away. Just what every woman wants, a janitor with a car, but who doesn’t know how to drive it.
11. Laugh It Up: I don’t remember when she said it and I don’t remember why she said it. I just remember that she said it and I just about passed out. I was probably laughing at some mistake she’d made or teasing her about something she said. Whatever it was, she turned to me and with a straight face said, “Laugh it up, Chuckles.” I almost wet my pants.
12. Death March: We went took a spur of the moment trip to Yosemite for my birthday one year. I had never been and Jen hadn’t been since she was 14. We wanted to see the sights, waterfalls and such, so we decided to try the Mist Trail that leads to Vernal Falls. This was supposedly one of the most popular hikes and the sign said it was only 1.5 miles. What the sign fails to mention is the 1100 feet of elevation change over that 1.5 miles. It was November and we started our journey way too late in the day. I insisted we didn’t need our rain coats because that cloud up the valley was just fog. Oooops. When we finally reached the base of Vernal Falls our legs were already on fire. It was not long before dusk and other wiser, more experienced hikers were starting to head back down the mountain before dark. Jen suggested we do the same. “But,” I said, “we’re so close to the top. Look, it’s just up those granite steps. We don’t know when we’re going to get back here. Let’s just get to the top so we can say we did it, then we’ll go back.” Because it was my birthday and because she is the best wife ever, she agreed. We hiked the granite stairs, steep and slippery granite stairs, to the top of the falls. Pretty much immediately we turned around and headed back down. We were wet, our underused muscles were starting to seize up, it was dark and we had no flashlight. We somehow managed to get off the mountain trail just as darkness swallowed up the valley. But we still had a long walk back to the parking area in the pitch black. When we finally made it back to our hotel and were resting our weary bones, I picked up the guide we had been given when we entered the park and noticed the Vernal Falls hike was labeled “Strenuous.” Guess we should have read that before we left.
13. The First Time (Don’t Worry It’s Not What You Think): We had only been married a couple of months. It was a Monday night and I had just returned home from playing basketball. Jen was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, and I stood in the doorway as we talked. I came into the bathroom to give her a kiss before I went into the bedroom to change. After I kissed her I said “I love you.” No sooner had the words left my mouth, when my body, tired from an hour and a half of basketball, relaxed a little more than I intended and a little bit of fragranced air escaped my insides, eliciting a high-pitched squeak. That’s right. The first time I farted in front of my wife was literally a second after telling her I loved her. And if I ever wondered if she loved me in return, that was the perfect test. It’s been 13 years and she’s still here.
Who says 13 is unlucky?