It happened simply: I saw Neil Maneck for the first time in a Barnes & Noble coffee shop. "Oh he's cute," I said to my friend Catherine Gray, who had befriended him in high school. "Is he single?"
Lucky for me, he was. Catherine invited Neil over that evening, and we got to talking. Over the course of the next week, she invited him over a few times more so that we had an opportunity to get to know each other in a low-pressure environment.
After a night out listening to AJC at Underground 119, Neil asked for my number. Our first date was at Cups Fondren before one of his ACT tutoring appointments. We squeezed in lunch at Babalu Tacos and Tapas and a walk through Woodland Hills. When we parted, I had a pretty good feeling about him.
It wasn't long before we were spending most of our time together, but some uncertainty lingered. Shortly before I met Neil, I had volunteered teaching English at a rural university in Haiti. The combination of hard work and compassionate service was exhilarating so I applied for the Peace Corps and got accepted. It would be almost a year before I could depart for service. In the meantime, I was falling in love with Neil. We spent evenings taking walks through his neighborhood, playing board games and getting together with our shared friends.
After six months, I knew there was no way I could leave, so I stayed. It wasn't a hard decision. My life was better with Neil. He found beauty in aspects of myself that I doubted, and he brought out my most playful side.
One year from our first date at Babalu, Neil proposed to me at the reservoir overlook off the Natchez Trace, on April 29, 2014. We had been talking about an engagement for several months. I wanted to wait a year before considering marriage, so we waited one year and not a day longer.
The day of the proposal, it was cloudy, and the chances of rain were high. I thought certainly Neil wouldn't propose to me at the reservoir, where I had once hinted would be a perfect place to get engaged. He looked at me slyly. "Did you think I would forget that?" he asked.
We went early to beat the rain and found a little cove by the water. In wet sand, Neil dropped down on one knee, and asked me to marry him with a diamond ring worn by his great-grandmother. Of course, I said yes.
We still weren't sure if we wanted to have a ceremony. Neither of us is affiliated with a particular church or religion, but we wanted to share our union with close friends and family, so we decided to have a small, intimate ceremony. There were definitely budget considerations. With retired fathers and mothers looking to retire, we didn't want to upend their financial lives with a lavish wedding. Besides, it wasn't our style.
We decided on a rustic theme, and what better place than the chapel and lodge at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum? Growing up, the chapel had been a place of beauty and wonder to me.
During the seven months between our engagement and wedding, working with a budget of $5,000, we came in under budget. We worked tirelessly on beautiful details and a wonderful experience for our guests. For example, we made the fan program using a template we found online, designing the wording and fonts ourselves, including a back page commemorating our deceased relatives. We tied a ribbon on the front and stamped a heart made from our thumbprints.
The Rev. Chuck Culpepper, pastor of St. Alexis Episcopal Church, officiated. Our parents are from different religious backgrounds and were eager to see us married in their respective churches: the Greek Orthodox Church of mine, and the Bahai Church of Neil's. The Episcopal Church allowed our interfaith union, and Neil's mother read from Bahai scripture during the ceremony.
We also included 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 and a beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda, "Sonnet XVII." Throughout the ceremony, I wore the bracelet Neil made me during his brief stay in the hospital, when we knew we were better spending our lives together than spending them apart.
After the ceremony, we celebrated with dancing, cake cutting, a beautiful toast made by our friend Andrew Harris, and photographs. Violinist Tom Lowe and cellist Nancy Bateman of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra provided all the music, including a special arrangement for our first dance of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" by Elton John.
My life with Neil is just beginning. We have a year and a half of dating behind us, and now we are newly married. My attitude towards marriage has evolved over the years, and Neil has played a large part in that. I used to think of love just as an emotion; it is still an emotion, an incredible one, but also a commitment, a commitment we made to each other on our wedding day.
Wedding planner: bride and mother of the bride, Virginia Halkias
Day-of planner/coordinator: Virginia Halkias, mother of the bride
Officiant: Rev. Chuck Culpepper, St. Alexis Episcopal Church (650 E. South St., 601-944-0415, stalexisjackson.org)
Reception location: Masonic Lodge, Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum (1150 Lakeland Drive, 601-432-4500)
Caterer: Virginia Halkias, mother of the bride
Photographer: Rob Motley, uncle of the bride
Music: Tom Low and Nancy Bateman, Mississippi Symphony Orchestra
Hair and makeup: Christina Nievas, Trim Salon (419 Mitchell Ave., 601-982-5575)
Bride's attire: David's Bridal (1039 E. County Line Road, 601-957-0505) heirloom veil