Edward Pratt: A church wedding, 50 years later

My friend Rita is getting married again, sort of, this evening. She’s never been divorced. In fact, she and Linnis have been married for 50 years.

The first time, Linnis and Rita Vallery got married in a relative’s backyard. The ‘do-over’ will be in a church.

“I am surprised he’s going along with it,” she said.

Now, at first blush, you probably don’t think this is a big deal. But it is if you know Rita’s story.

Rita (Her real name is Bertha) is from Woodville, Mississippi, where she lived her early years with her sharecropper grandmother in a house with no electricity and no running water.

Folks in her family picked cotton and did whatever they could to survive. By the time she was 15 years old, she was not a fan of picking cotton, and Rita moved to Baton Rouge to unite with her mother and her other siblings.

There wasn’t money in that household, either. But there was love and discipline.

Rita was in her late teens when she met her first and only boyfriend, Linnis. At 19, they married in a no-frills event in the backyard of a relative’s house.

Linnis was earning $35 a week working at a car dealership. “We were dirt poor,” she said.

They moved into one half of a duplex and set up house. But they left after their neighbor shot and killed his wife.

“He came over and told us ‘he had to do it.’ Then he asked us to give him some time to get away before we called the police … We moved that night,” she said.

Their next stop was her husband’s aunt’s backyard utility room.

They would live there for a year “while we saved money to get us a house,” she said.

During this time they didn’t own a car, so they would take a cab to a Nicholson Drive supermarket and budget $5 for groceries. “Back then, you could buy a lot of beans and rice and things with $5,” she said, laughing.

To make ends meet, Rita worked an extra job cleaning houses for $1 an hour, four days a week.

When she got pregnant with her only child, Rita was determined not to have her child in a charity hospital.

Linnis got a night job to earn extra money. Her child was born at the staggering cost of $150 at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. “It took awhile to pay that off, but we did,” Rita said, chuckling.

They moved into a house on South Acadian Thruway, and Rita was a successful beautician. Linnis, who painted automobiles, started to do well at both his regular job and side jobs.

Soon, they would own five houses and several vehicles.

Now, we return to this church wedding thing.

Rita said she was talking with her granddaughter several months ago about planning for the granddaughter’s wedding. Then the thought arose: “How come I can’t have a church wedding” to mark her 50th wedding anniversary? Until then, her goal was to purchase a car to mark her big anniversary.

A few days later, Rita passed the idea on to her younger siblings. They got excited and jumped into assisting with the planning.

“You know, I never dreamed of having a church wedding. But this is just that something happened,” she said. “I never really thought that a church wedding would determine the success of a marriage.”

And something else remarkable happened. While looking through an old suitcase in her attic, “we found the very dress I wore to get married in 50 years ago,” she said. “I had not seen that dress since I got married.”

Her youngest grandchild will wear the dress in the wedding.

“I’m nervous about this. I don’t have anything to compare it to,” Rita said. “But I am going to do it.”

Rita reflected on a question about how much her life has changed from living on a sharecropper’s farm, to a utility room, to not having a car and living on less than $100 a week.

“I know I’m blessed,” she said.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.