License in hand on New Year's Eve, Robert Smith and Mary Hartman just wanted to get married.
He's 58 and she's 80, so parental consent presented no obstacle.
They didn't care about flowers, a wedding gown, a tux, invitations, a photographer or any of the other costly nuptial trappings. They merely planned to say their "I dos" before a justice of the peace and get on with their life together.
But where? The pastor at their church politely declined to officiate, citing personal convictions because Smith and Hartman are divorcés, albeit many years ago. Both later remarried and then lost their spouses to illnesses. Smith and his wife, Ann, lived in an assisted living facility where Hartman also stayed while recovering from cancer surgery. After Ann Smith died in September, Robert Smith and Hartman grew close. They ultimately figured they could save money by moving out of the assisted living home and living together.
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"We just decided it would be better for both of us in God's eyes and the church's eyes if we got married," said Smith, who attends the Oasis Southern Baptist Church in Riverbank.
So they went to the Stanislaus County clerk's office to get a marriage license Dec. 31. They wanted to be married right then and there. Wait until mid-January, they were told. No chance, Mary said. She's ready now. An employee at the clerk's office suggested they try one of the flower shops, because some of them hold weddings.
They went to one. The manager asked if they could wait three or four hours, until an already scheduled wedding in the courtyard finished up. And, by the way, it would cost them $175.
Forget it. Robert has multiple sclerosis. Mary just recovered from cancer surgery. They live on fixed incomes. And they needed to be indoors because, baby, it was cold outside that day.
So they headed off to find another florist. On the way, Mary got an idea.
"We were driving by Salas Brothers and she said, 'Do you mind getting married in a funeral home? They've got to have a minister in there,' " Smith said. "I said, 'No, a minister is a minister.' "
They pulled into the parking lot. Robert, who uses a motorized scooter to get around, stayed in the car. She went inside and said for all to hear, "I want to get married."
Staff members wondered if they'd heard right: Did she say "married" or "buried?" Salas, after all, isn't a wedding chapel. It's a mortuary with a funeral chapel. Salas Brothers director Dan Sandoval is an ordained United Pentecostal minister who officiates funerals and weddings. It's just that he'd never conducted the latter where he normally does the former. So this would be a first.
When a staff member summoned Sandoval and told him what Hartman wanted, he said, "Are they serious?"
"She heard him and said, 'Yes, I'm serious,' " Salas secretary Carrie Landes said.
Even so, Sandoval said he needed convincing.
"I had her come over to me and blow into my eye," he said. "I thought she might have been drinking. She hadn't been."
Of course not, Hartman said. She told the Salas staff they'd buried her husband, Carl, in 1998, her mom a few years before that and that she also had purchased a funeral plan from them for herself.
"She said, 'If I'm going to let you guys bury me, I might as well let you marry me,' " Sandoval said.
OK ... .
"Where's the marriage license?" Sandoval asked.
"It's out in the the car," Hartman replied.
"Where's the guy?" Sandoval asked.
"He's out in the car," Hartman replied.
Sandoval then agreed to perform the ceremony.
"(Hartman) came out and said, 'Come on in,' " Smith said.
A few minutes later, the bride and groom prepared to say their vows. But first ... did they want to do the ceremony in the chapel?
"We said no," Smith said. "Right there in the office would be fine."
There were some flowers available. Did they want them?
"They said, no, they didn't need that," Landes said.
Secretaries Landes and Annie Sandoval -- pastor Dan's wife -- stood up as witnesses. Other Salas Brothers employees watched as well.
Sandoval didn't have his prayer book that contains wedding vows, so he winged it.
"I gave 'em some Scriptures," he said. "I tried to help them fulfill their wishes."
He avoided the traditional line, "Until death us do part," though. The bride is 80. They got married in a funeral chapel. I mean, there's a time and a place for everything, and this wasn't it.
Smith and Hartman said their "I dos," tipped the preacher and went home. They'll spend their first Valentine's Day together Saturday by hanging out at their Modesto apartment and later going to church.
And perhaps the new Mr. and Mrs. Smith gave the folks at Salas Brothers Funeral Chapel a way to weather the recession:
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org