once upon a time…
(from our wedding program)
Merritt: It was September 30, 1996, and both our families were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park .
Gretchen: I’ll never forget my embarrassment when my mom went up to the Achesons and asked, “Are you homeschoolers?” But they were, and we shared a faith in God as well. I was just 13, yet from our first visit to their home, our first conversation, I knew Merritt was someone special. Our siblings teased us from the beginning, but Merritt always treated me as a friend. Visit by visit, I discovered what a truly precious thing his friendship was. And I grew to like him very, very much.
M: Gretchen and I have been good friends from the moment we met. Whether we were discussing our beliefs or our hopes and dreams, I felt we were kindred spirits from the very beginning.
G: The first time I found a letter from Merritt in my mailbox was November 2000. I was ecstatic. He asked questions, so I had to write back! We exchanged literally hundreds of letters through the next few years. His were often signed, “love your friend, Merritt.”
M: As we wrote back and forth, I learned that I could trust Gret with my heart. Looking back over the years of friendship, I am so thankful for the time we’ve had as “just friends.” For out of that came the deep assurance that this was the girl my dreams were made of.
G: On January 22, 2004 , Merritt told me the words I’d been waiting so long to hear: “I do love you, very much.” And soon I whispered back the knowledge that had been growing in my heart so long: “I love you, too.” In that next year of waiting on the Lord, I came to appreciate so many things about Merritt—but especially his practical wisdom and his patient trust in God.
M: I have grown to love Gret more each passing day, realizing that I can’t live without my best friend by my side. Her devotion and love for me are so inspiring and yet so humbling at the same time. On February 23, 2005 , I made it official by asking Gret’s dad for permission to court her.
G: I think Merritt sent me every sweet card Hallmark made during the year of our courtship, but the words of love he penned to me were the most precious gifts of all. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2006, Merritt asked me to go for a walk over to his property. After showing me where he planned to build a home for us, Merritt got down on one knee, pulled out a beautiful antique diamond ring, and asked me to be his wife. Through tears of joy at the thought of spending the rest of my life with my best friend, I said yes.
M: And we will live happily ever after…
“Someone asked me to name the time our friendship stopped and love began. Oh, my darling, that’s the secret. Our friendship never stopped.”
the first chapter…
Was it just nine and a half years ago, when the memories of us began? I’ll never forget the day I met you. And I’ll never tire of answering the question, “How did you meet?”
I laugh as I answer, “We met in Yellowstone National Park, when we were just 13 years old.”
Yes, it was September 30, 1996, and Yellowstone was the last place I wanted to be. (Little did I know I was about to meet my husband!) My uncle was at our house pouring sidewalks, and I wanted to be playing with my cousins. Instead, my parents decided we should take a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park. The trip in our maroon Ford crew cab was long, the trails were never-ending, and public restrooms were few. But despite my original reluctance, I had been enjoying our time at Yellowstone National Park. I was making the best of it, and taking lots of pictures. In fact, as we approached the Riverside Geyser, we ran out of film.
We were exploring the Upper Geyser Basin on the last day of our trip. Mom had seen a sign in the gift shop advertising that the Riverside Geyser was due to erupt soon. But it seemed we had been sitting there the entire six-hour interval. My brother William and I trudged down the path to see the brilliant Morning Glory Pool, but when we returned to the hard wooden benches, the celebrated Riverside Geyser was still nothing but a big gray rock on the opposing river bank.
Then I saw you. Or rather, your family. You had joined the group of spectators by the as-yet unseen geyser. We didn’t notice you were throwing rocks at each other. We just counted five children and wondered if you were homeschoolers, too.
I looked away in embarrassment as my mother approached this strange family and asked: “Are you homeschoolers?”
But your answer was yes, and almost immediately, we discovered that you shared our faith in Christ as well. Introductions followed, and I learned my future last name (but that’s getting ahead of the story). All your names started with M’s, and Mom wrote it down so we could remember: Melanie 20, Megan 17, Merritt 13, Marlys 9, and Mason 5.
“We ran out of film. Do you happen to have any?” You did. And just in time, because the Riverside Geyser began to erupt magnificently over the Firehole River. The reflection of the sunlight created a rainbow in the mist, a colorful symbol of the promise of a beautiful friendship.
After twenty minutes, the geyser subsided and the cameras stopped clicking. We took a quick picture of this family we’d met (you were so cute!), and then began to walk together on the boardwalk back to Old Faithful. Our parents talked nonstop; we kids did not say a word. I pushed the stroller carrying my little sister Jessica, listening attentively to the discussions of politics, theology, and of course, homeschooling.
Mom asked for your address, and your dad casually remarked that we ought to come visit you and see the town where you lived. An hour later, you took our picture in front of Old Faithful Inn, and we said goodbye.
No sooner than you went inside the Inn, my mom put an idea in my head that would never leave: “Gretchen, we were just talking about how we didn’t know any homeschooled Christian boys your age…” Her voice trailed off, but I caught her meaning. And it caused me to wave at you, stealing a final glance over my shoulder, when we saw you once more inside Old Faithful Inn.
I don’t remember what my imaginative mind was thinking after we met. I only have the letter I wrote to my cousin Melissa:
“Daddy and Mr. A. hit it off right away. You could tell they shared a lot in common. Merritt is 13, he is good with Jessica and seems like a nice boy… It seemed wrong for us to leave them, it seemed like we were supposed to get to know each other better. …We may never see them again, but then you never know how God will work in our lives…..”
When we got home, we put one copy of your family picture up on our refrigerator and sent the other to you. Every time I opened the refrigerator, I saw your smile—and the family reunion t-shirt you were wearing, which had your last name in big letters, just in case I forgot.
Your dad wrote back to thank us for the picture:
“It was a joy to meet your family at Yellowstone; even a greater joy to have some remarkable fellowship with ‘strangers.’ Isn’t it remarkable that total strangers can immediately be open and honest with one another because of our bond in the Lord Jesus Christ? How that brief time uplifted our spirits! It was the highlight of our trip.”
He also assured us that you were serious about wanting us to visit, so we took him up on the invitation.
March of 1997 found us driving 300 miles to visit you “strangers.” People who heard about it thought we were a little weird. And, as we found out later, you kids thought it was crazy, too. After all, we kids hadn’t said a word to each other at Yellowstone. But while our parents discussed church worship styles in the living room that night, we discovered kindred spirits in our own way. You and William spent your time sledding in the snow drifts outside, while Megan and I sat around the kitchen table talking about guys and our beliefs in courtship.
Then you joined us at the kitchen table. And from our first conversation, I knew you were something very special. Then we discovered that you and I were only six days apart in age, born on each other’s due dates no less. Before that first visit was over, you had claimed a special place in my thoughts.