Along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, La., stands the largest southern live oak in the country. The Seven Sisters Oak is estimated to be 1,500 years old.
As a tree endures through the hard times, it becomes a symbol of strength: something you can lean against when you're weary, with its deep roots anchoring it to the ground. The same thing can be said for marriage.
Before a single note of the wedding march was played and amidst all the lace and satin, Jessica Fleming and Drew Armitage had the end in mind. They planted their roots, so that over time their marriage can endure and mature as the Seven Sisters Oak has.
Prior to exchanging vows on Oct. 7, in front of 150 friends and family, the couple studied the financial teachings of Dave Ramsey and attended pre-marital counseling.
"The wedding was beautiful and magical and the perfect day, but when I look back at it, that's what I value. I value the marriage counseling. I value everything that helped prepare us for our marriage. We always had that in mind; we're not going to go into debt for a wedding, for one day. It's really important to us that our marriage is set on the right track," Jessica says.
They received 13 weeks of pre-marital counseling as a wedding present. Licensed marriage and family counselor Nicole Martin asked the couple if they were looking for "fluffy marriage" counseling or if they wanted to dig deep and possibly get their feelings hurt.
"Hurt our feelings," an emphatic Jessica told her. "We would rather you hurt our feelings now than be dysfunctional (later)."
Drew, 27, agreed. "Better to pay now than pay later," he added.
During their once-a-week, three-to four-hours sessions, the couple discussed conflict resolution, practiced active listening and communication role-playing, worked through marital expectations, and delved into family and childhood experiences and past relationships.
"It was the most valuable thing we could have ever done for our relationship," Drew says now.
The couple met in 2008 when Jessica, now 22, began a year-long youth ministry internship at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, where Drew had previously interned and worked. During the same year, Drew was beginning his second year at Louisiana State University, pursuing a degree in communication studies with a minor in business administration. They went on their first date the day after her graduation from the internship in 2009.
For the next year and a half, Jessica and Drew maintained a long-distance relationship. After graduating from LSU in 2010, Drew made the decision to move to Madison to help plant Highland Chapel Church with Troy Costanza, who officiated their wedding. In January 2011, Jessica moved to Jackson as well, taking up residence with several families from the church, while the couple continued to develop their relationship.
Drew proposed to Jessica on May 18, 2011, on top of the 34-story, 450-foot Louisiana capitol building. In the green lawn space below, in front of the building, Drew's friends laid out neon green signs that read, "Will you marry me, Jessica?"
"I didn't think it was for me. I looked back to see (if there was) another Jessica. ... then I looked back, and Drew was on one knee," Jessica says.
Because the couple's family and friends don't live in the area, they planned the wedding on their own. However, the church family at Highland Chapel came together to help make the day memorable.
"Every aspect of the wedding was totally a hook-up from God. Whether it was the caterer, the photographer, the venue, the circumstances around everything, the weather, just one thing after another after another, it couldn't have been more perfect," Drew says.
Drew and Jessica had a sunset ceremony in Township Park under a towering tree adorned with antiqued gold placards of their initials, D. & J. Black gothic-style lanterns hung from the branches and lined the aisles where guest were seated. The bridesmaids wore plum-colored sheath dresses with soft draping in the front, and the groomsmen wore matching dark gray suits and whimsical colorful socks.
Jessica wore a strapless white trumpet-style gown with a sweetheart neckline and an embellished sash at the waist. The bride did her own make-up and wore her hair pinned back with soft flowing curls. She completed her look with simple jewelry, white satin lace-up ankle booties with a peep toe and her "something blue," a bracelet one of her bridesmaids gave her.
The couple recited vows they wrote together. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a friend performed an acoustic version of Christian artist Phil Wickham's song, "Divine Romance," while they took their first communion together as husband and wife.
"All our family, his family and our pastors through the years (from Highland Chapel and their Bethany internship) ... circled us and prayed a prayer of blessing over us," Jessica says.
It was important for the couple to have a family-oriented and kid-friendly wedding. The couple recalls seeing one of their guests' children playing during the wedding.
"Most people would be mortified, but this is what it's about ... everyone coming together." The attire of the two ring bearers echoed the playfulness of the wedding. They wore black bow ties, Chuck Taylor Converses, suspenders and pageboy hats. The hats were a last minute addition when the younger of the two boys, Joshua, took a pair of scissors to his bangs a week before the wedding.
The overall color scheme for the wedding was creams and grays, which were more masculine, with various hues of purple as an accent. Friend Melody Eubanks helped Jessica choose flowers for her bride and bridesmaid bouquets and the arrangements that decorated the tables at the reception. The assortment of flowers, including roses, ranunculus and hydrangea, were striking against the black tablecloths, white tealight candles and elegant candelabras garlanded with crystal jewels.
The guests feasted on a meal of beef brisket, seafood pasta, grilled green beans, rolls and an assortment of fresh fruit and cheeses.
During the reception, Drew's mother, Charmaine Russo, surprised the couple with a traditional second-line dance. When performed at a wedding, the New Orleans tradition of second line symbolizes the beginning of a new life for the bride and groom. It involves guests forming a line behind the couple, dancing and strutting to New Orleans jazz music while waving handkerchiefs or parasols. Russo had white handkerchiefs made with Jessica and Drew's printed initials on them, which were given to the guests as favors to keep.
For their first dance, they chose Coldplay's "Green Eyes." As they danced, Drew sang all the words to Jessica with reckless abandon. During their long-distance courtship, Drew would sing "Green Eyes" to Jessica if she was feeling sad or missing him.
"From the reception, that was my favorite part. ... It was like no one else mattered," Jessica says.
The couple resides in Madison with their 14-week old Catahoula Leopard dog, Petey.
Day-of coordinator: Megan Johnson ([e-mail missing])
Officiant and reception location: Troy Costanza, pastor at Highland Chapel Church (201 Northlake Ave., Ridgeland, 601-707-7880)
Groom and groomsmen's suits: Thomas Wilson, Men's Wearhouse (1039 E. County Line Road, Suite 103, 601-977-0188)
Photography: b.mo foto/Beth Morgan Photography (http://www.bmofoto.com); J. Caraway Photography (601-405-6969, [e-mail missing], http://www.jcarawayphotography.com)
Photo booth: Donavan Perry, Mississippi Mojo (601-551-6656, [e-mail missing], http://www.rentmojobooth.com)
Caterer: Bob Copeland, Culinary Concepts (108 Bent Oak Cove, Clinton, 601-613-2983, [e-mail missing])
Bridal attire alterations: Custom Tailoring by Al (111 Colony Crossing Way, Suite 280, Madison, 601-607-3443)
• V. Guardado of Solve Design Studio (195 Charmant Place, Suite 2, Ridgeland, 601-607-3292, http://www.facebook.com/solvedesignstudio) designed their wedding invitations. As a unique twist, he scanned leaves to a photo of the tree they were married under. Above the leaves, read the words, "So they are no longer two, but one," from Matthew 19:6. Guardado also created an elegant, scroll design of their initials. Once the couple had the invitations printed, Jessica hand-cut each invitation and added a purple ribbon accent.
• The wedding cake was a three-tiered almond-flavored white cake with almond butter-cream frosting. Dawn Hyman of Creative Cakes and Other Sweet Treats ([e-mail missing], http://creativecakesandcatering.blogspot.com), accented the cake with plum-colored satin ribbon and purple and white flowers. It sat on an antique silver cake stand. As a cake-topper, the couple decided on a small picture frame with the initial "A" in it. Three fleur-de-lis groom's cakes—red velvet, strawberry and vanilla—celebrated Drew's Louisiana roots and love of sports. Each fleur-de-lis was different, with colors representing the New Orleans Hornets, New Orleans Saints and the Louisiana State University Tigers.
• As an alternative to a guest book, friends and family hung well-wishes for the couple off the branches of a wishing tree. The tree greeted guests at the entrance to the reception and was made from Manzanita branches and sparkling crystals similar to the ones on the tabletop candelabras.
• To cover up an unsightly "for sale" sign at the ceremony site, friends Aaron and Tiffany Messer (http://www.facebook.com/creategenesis) created a customized sign stenciled with Drew and Jessica's initials.
Before you take the stroll down the aisle, click over to the Fly Blog and check out more tips to create your ideal wedding.