“Hold on. This story gets weird.
This is what happens when two families dare to raise their children differently. Their children grow up with a ton of stories most people don’t understand. But, if they are lucky, they handle their unique childhoods and find someone who gets them. This is our story.
Chris and I have a photo of the first night we met. I’m wearing a green silk dress that looks like it came from the set of Pride and Prejudice. He is wearing breeches, knee-high socks, and a navy coat straight out of Broadway’s Hamilton.
One of the unusual but fun things you do as homeschoolers is find hobbies the general public has never heard of. My family’s hobby was teaching colonial dancing — you know the high society balls from Jane Austen movies? I could teach you those dances. We dressed up in costumes and hosted colonial balls and traveled all over the country teaching people and dancing with other colonial dance groups.
I saw Chris at one of these balls we hosted for a large, international homeschool group. He was the best-looking guy there, and at that point, he was also three inches shorter than me.
We were 14 and 15 years old.
One year later, my family was invited back to teach colonial dancing at the same homeschool retreat. Turned out, Chris’ family ran that retreat, bringing families together from all over the country to learn and play in historical Colonial Williamsburg. I noticed he had grown in the last year. And dang it, those cheekbones and that jawline.
I warned you our story gets a little weird, but I promise to share it as honestly and authentically as I can. My mom says that year, while Chris was helping my parents move equipment for the colonial ball, she felt God say in her heart, ‘Start praying about him now.’
Her reaction was extremely reverent — something along the lines of, ‘Heck no, God. He lives half-way across the country. My daughter doesn’t need that.’
However, eventually, she started praying. She didn’t say anything to me because (1) she is a smart, loving mom, and (2) she definitely didn’t want anything to become of this. Chris was a nice kid, but he lived too far away. To me, Chris was just the guy with the awesome jawline, and we danced one dance together at the end of the night.
From ages 14 to 18, Chris and I saw each other once a year at the homeschool retreat. Nothing spicy or exciting. We’d meet at the Colonial ball, pretend we forgot the other person’s name (at least I pretended), then dance once or twice.
Our senior year, my family attended the full 2-week retreat as guests as well as teachers, and we stayed in the rooms next to Chris’ family.
Chris’ mother has never confirmed nor denied it, but I am 98% positive she was trying to set us up that year. For two weeks, Chris and I kicked a soccer ball around, played guitars, and talked. We never hung out alone — that was kind of taboo in the conservative culture we grew up in — but we spent a lot of time together. The main thing I remember is even before I liked Chris, I respected him.
In an extremely unromantic way, the word integrity came to mind. Chris never pretended to be better than he was, and he was honest without being confrontational. On that note, one of the main things he remembers from that year was that my acne was really bad but he still thought I was cute. So, there you go. Honesty.
At the end of the retreat, we exchanged numbers. However, I was planning to move to West Africa in a few months, so I doubted anything could come of this.
That summer, Chris flew out for a college program and stayed with my family for a few days. He told my parents flights were cheaper if he came a few days early (which was totally true), so would they mind if he stayed with us until the program started?
At this point, my mom had given up her fight and was already praying about him, so they said yes.
We have a photo from this visit that is proof of how much Chris already liked me. He is exactly as outdoorsy as you would expect from a city-raised, computer programming, slightly obsessive-compulsive human with a military crew cut. Milking goats was never on his bucket list, but here he is, milking a goat.
I grew up on a hobby farm and raised dairy goats (homeschooled, remember?). I milked them, bred them, helped them deliver their babies, and fell in love with good, local homegrown food in the process. On our farm, we had chickens, ducks, guinea hens, sheep, goats, and a giant garden. Looking at this photo, I remember the smell of the alfalfa hay, the rough splintery wood when I opened the gate to let a goat up to the milking stand, the rhythmic sound of milk spraying into a frothy bucket, and the warm, furry side of my goats as I leaned against them and they nibbled my hair when they finished their food.
At the same time, I remember the acrid smell of manure, the mice, all the times my goats kicked a full bucket of milk over, freezing cold mornings, dumping poopy water out of their water troughs (because the chickens perched directly over the water at night), and milking at midnight because I stayed out too late with friends. This photo conjures lots of feelings.
Chris got a peek into my rural, homegrown life, and it didn’t scare him. However, because I was moving to West Africa in a few weeks, I tried not to hope.
Eight weeks later, West Africa was my new home. I worked as a nanny for a family of ex-pats, helping them homeschool their pre-teen daughters and babysit when the parents did service work around the city. I moved there with very few expectations: I love learning about other cultures, expanding my worldview, and listening to other people’s stories. I came to serve my employers, love their daughters, and decide if my future waited for me in another country. I hoped it did.
Chris emailed me two days after I arrived in Africa. He was volunteering with a non-profit and would be traveling by boat with very little internet access for the next few months. He added, ‘Since we won’t be able to talk or email, how about we write letters and exchange them when I get back?’
Officially, we were still just friends, but this was one more hint he was thinking about something more. I agreed.
One of the only times I heard from Chris in the coming months was an email with a photo attached.
It said. ‘Now, I want to see my name on a camel.’
Part of Chris’ job before shipping out was to help repaint the vessel they were taking across the ocean. Chris took some creative license, painting my name on the side, snapped a quick photo, then continued painting it.
Here is my response several weeks later. All it took was a couple of extra coins and a permanent marker to write his name on the side of a camel.
Living as an ex-pat is a humbling experience. Suspended between two worlds, I struggled to find my place in a country I wasn’t born into, and a culture I experienced as a guest. I loved the country I lived in while still identifying with the one that birthed me. Add to that being a Western white girl in a country with a history of colonialism, I felt I had stepped into a story that had been established long before my feet got there — a role I did not want to play and which exposed the ugly parts of my own culture. It was humbling and devastating.
But my new home was also beautiful, powerful, ancient, and awesome. I respected and loved this country and the people who called it home.
I knew moving away from the US would change me, but I did not realize how much. And I certainly did not know if Chris would have a place in it.
After Christmas, I flew back to the US for a short two-week visit. It was mostly to show my parents I was still alive. This was before social media and smartphones. The world was a lot bigger. The only contact I had had with my family in the last 6 months was email and the occasional $1/minute international phone call.
Chris had just come home from his service work, and he flew in during my second week home.
We went for a walk, and as we sat, Chris took my hand and told me he had thought and prayed a lot while we were apart. If I was interested, he’d like us to talk about the possibility of getting married.
If that seems like a strange way to start a relationship, remember what I warned you of at the beginning. We had both grown up in a very conservative culture, so this was kind of a thing. We have also always been what you could call ‘old souls,’ so it worked for us. Chris knew I wasn’t interested in wasting my time unless he was serious.
And he was serious.
I flew back to West Africa, Chris flew back to the Midwest United States, and we tried to figure out what our relationship would look like. At this point, it was mostly instant messaging at ungodly hours because we were in opposite time zones. But it worked for us. Unable to do anything else, we talked about everything: childhood, faith, money, life goals, careers, family — all of the do-you-have-any-issues-that-will-require-therapy-later topics.
Meanwhile, since we were serious about possibly getting married, my dad asked Chris to come up with a creative, symbolic way for my dad to tell him he thought Chris was ready to propose.
I don’t know how Chris came up with this, but it was the greatest idea:
Chris bought four silver charms (like for a charm bracelet) which each represented how he believed a husband should serve his spouse in marriage — protect, provide, lead (in faith), and love.
He gave the Protect charm to my dad. It was a tiny silver gun. My dad liked to joke a little too much about getting his gun out whenever boys came around the house, so this seemed appropriate. Chris’ dad received the Provide charm — a hammer. Lead, which was two praying hands, Chris gave symbolically to God. He didn’t tell anyone to whom he gave Love. He told each keeper of the charm when they thought Chris was ready in that particular area, they could give it back to him. When Chris had all four charms back, he would propose. Until then, we would keep getting to know each other.
Was it a little out there? Yes. But was it amazing? Also yes.
When I moved back to the US, I flew out to visit Chris during his family reunion. I met the rest of his siblings, we had conversations not via a computer screen, and I inched a little closer to, ‘Yeah, I could actually marry this guy.’ I don’t know what all makes the difference between relationships that work and ones that don’t, but I will say again I respected Chris before I liked him. Obviously he was cute, but I distinctly remember being attracted to his integrity, his painful honesty, and his matter-of-fact, slightly nerdy personality. I was pretty sure wherever this guy was going in life, I would probably like it. And I think that makes a difference.
We certainly liked each other — anyone in the same room with us during these early days could tell you that. But I was less sure of those feelings. What I was sure of was this was a solid human being and probably worth trusting.
For some reason, being in different countries was a lot easier than being in different parts of the same country. I came home, got a job at a local coffee shop, and dealt with some re-entry issues. Chris had a full-time job and an apartment in his hometown 14 hours away. We were not ready to move across the country to be with each other. Not yet. But we did not like being apart. We talked every evening. I would fall asleep holding the phone to my ear then fight to stay awake the next morning on my drive to work.
Long-distance relationships usually fail, and as the months dragged, I finally told him I was done. I couldn’t just keep working at a coffee shop and waiting. I had to make a plan for my future — was I going to college, or maybe back overseas? I wanted him to be a part of my future, but some of my decisions might require us to change our expectations.
He listened quietly and said he understood. Then he added, ‘Can I make one request? Don’t make any decisions just yet. Just think about them for a few weeks before moving forward.’
I didn’t know that hours before, Chris had been driving to his parents’ house and suddenly heard (or felt? Or sensed? Or something. I don’t know exactly how it works) the words, ‘You’re ready.’
He didn’t know what they meant or even where the thought came from except it had that ‘God feel’ (you know what I’m saying? Maybe you do.) After stopping to pray, he decided that was the sign he had been asking for when he gave the Lead charm to God. One charm down, three to go.
He was late for dinner with his family. He didn’t tell them why. When he arrived, his dad brought out the Provide charm and told him he was ready. Two charms to go.
When I dropped my, I-don’t-want-to-do-this-anymore bomb, I had no idea what it took for him to listen quietly and ask me to think about it for a few weeks.
By Thanksgiving, I was frustrated. We both had family plans for the holidays, so it would be another three months before I saw Chris again. When he called that morning, I let a few tears fall. It had been a few weeks. I had thought about everything, and I was tired of being in limbo. I wasn’t going to see him for three months. What were we even doing?
As we talked, his voice grew clearer, and I heard footsteps behind me. He appeared around the corner, phone to his ear.
He came in for a hug, and I pushed him. Then, I pulled him in close.
Chris didn’t tell me this, but my dad had given him the Protect charm when he picked Chris up at the airport. It was in his pocket with Lead and Provide. One to go.
That evening, we gathered with several families for Thanksgiving Dinner. We went around the table sharing what we were thankful for this year. Chris said he was thankful for me. Then, he told our story to the families at the table, pulling the three charms out from his pocket and setting them in front of me.
‘There’s just one left,’ he said, and he took out Love. It was a small silver heart engraved with the words, ‘I Love You.’
He held it out to me and told me I was in charge of that charm. If I took it from him, that meant I believed he could love me the way a husband should love his wife.
Everyone cheered. He grinned, then shrugged, ‘Now if I just had a ring, I could propose.’
‘Hey, Chris, I think I can help you with that.’
A friend who was sitting across the table tossed Chris a little square box. Chris got out of his seat, dropped to one knee, and asked, ‘Stephani, would you bless me and be my happily ever after?’
We got married three months later. That was over 12 years ago.
When you look at it from the outside, our marriage probably shouldn’t have worked: we were babies — barely 19 and 20 years old. We had never dated anyone else before, and we lived in different countries for most of our pre-marriage relationship. From the night we met to the day we exchanged vows, we barely saw each other a dozen times before we got married.
We didn’t even kiss until our wedding day — another one of the weird aspects of our relationship and conservative upbringing. Now that I think about it, it is extremely awkward to have your first kiss in front of all of your best friends and family. But it’s what we did.
It must have been okay, because when the officiant tried to move on with the ceremony, Chris interrupted and asked if we could do that again.
We had no idea what we were going to do with our lives, and we had no money and no college education.
But I think the difference was this: we both chose each other. We thought the other person was pretty awesome. I respected Chris and how he approached life. Chris thought I was smart and cute and kind. We finished growing up together and kept choosing each other even when life got hard. And it did. Really hard.
We were broke, we were committed to living debt-free, but we had no careers. We found out we were expecting our first baby when we were living with his parents. When our third child was nine months old, Chris was hit by a truck while on his motorcycle and we spent the next 4 years back and forth between recovery and major surgeries.
We don’t get to choose everything in life. Chris and I didn’t choose the way we grew up. We didn’t choose the mixed bag of crises and blessings that highlighted the next 12 years of our lives. But we got to choose what we did with them.
Even if we had grown up in a completely different environment, even if we had not done all of the weird things we did in our relationship — homeschooling, traveling, the charms, no kissing — I hope we would still choose each other.
I still choose him.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Steph and Chris Jenkins. Together, they run CheapskateCook.com, where they talk about saving money, eating healthy, and living intentionally. You can follow Steph on Instagram or Facebook. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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