Our days are often ruled by schedules, calendars, and timetables
that guide every step along our way. Or
at least they try to. However, life is
not obliged to color within the circles we draw. Although, I’m fairly certain it would simplify
things quite a bit!
Sometimes the most unexpected days are ones we look back on as the worst of our life and sometimes they are the best of our life. You live long enough and you realize, you are bound to have your fair share of both of these kinds of days before you breathe your last. How you handle them defines who you are and who you are growing to be.
It’s in these days that we learn the deepest lessons God means to teach us. Shannon and Justin’s love story has taken an unexpected, bumpy path, one that refused to color within the lines.
Love found them when love refused to follow the timetables we would prescribe as ‘best’. Instead, they met at Shannon’s lowest possible point in life. A point in time where falling in love was the absolute last thing on her mind.
She was neck deep in grief. Her husband, Tommy, had passed away in a farming accident a year earlier. The love of her life was gone and she doubted she would ever find love again. The void that was left encompassed her and found her sitting in an ache that only a widow can know. Shannon felt an ache that refused to lift and was made stronger with every passing day of minus one.
Friends and family worried about her. She wanted them to know she and the kids were ok. They weren’t just surviving but that the kids were happy. She contacted me to hire a family portrait session on the the one-year anniversary of Tommy’s death, 2 years ago. This was her way of letting everyone know she was going to be ok.
The farming community is a tight knit one in Carroll County. Many would say Tommy was one of its princes. He was loved by everyone and the loss of his young life brought the community to its knees in grief. You've probably seen the TFD's on the back of trucks as a show of solidarity. Tommy's smile was magnetic and his love for Shannon was plainly written. He fell for her the day he met her. He told friends right away he would marry her. They did just that and started their family.
Losing Tommy was the hardest thing Shannon has ever had to walk through. To look into the eyes of their children, Grady and Josie, and see constant reminders of what would never be is a pain most young women will never know. There are certain aspects to grief that you can only know when you walk its road, a road that we spend our whole lives trying to avoid.
Shannon has walked through more pain and loss than most women will ever know in this life. She and Tommy had a baby years earlier that only survived a few hours. They grieved their loss and rather than be sunk by the grief, Tommy encouraged Shannon to remember that grief and loss would not define them. He encouraged her to embrace life again and find joy. Grief does not follow neat timetables but it can easily overshadow all present joys if unwrangled.
This lesson would stick with Shannon when she met Justin. She tried to deny the feelings that were emerging; but love won’t keep a convenient timetable. It comes at the most inconvenient times. She had a choice to make---stay mired in her grief or embrace the joy that was set before her. Misery was familiar and safe, new love was treading on unchartered rocky waters.
She remembered the lessons Tommy taught her and lept into the arms that provided a comfort a widowed heart craves. She found rest from the pain that only a widow can know. Their love would cause a hailstorm of controversy. No one wants to see Tommy’s widow finding love apart from him. There’s a piece of Shannon that completely understands. She recognizes she would probably feel the same way as those who challenged her decision if she were in their shoes. What everyone most wanted was Tommy back…but no amount of wishing could make that happen.
It’s been two years and these two have weathered the storms that swirled around their decision to be together. Justin has stepped into Shannon, Grady and Josie’s life and thrown his lot in with them and all that means. His friends teased him, ‘are you sure you want to do this—you really want a cougar with kids?’
Other friends have joked that Shannon is full of ‘piss and vinegar’ so she needs a young buck to keep up with her and Justin is perfect for that! Shannon is full of spunk for sure. She brings passion and determination to everything she lays her hand to. This is one of the reasons Justin fell in love with her. She’s like a wild pony, refusing to be broken, blazing her own trail and now Justin will be blazing right along side her. She has gone through the fire and is emerging stronger for it.
Justin asked Shannon to be his wife and shortly after Shannon messaged me asking if I would photograph her wedding. I reminded her that I don’t photograph weddings and sent her on to Kimberly Brooke, a great local wedding photographer I refer all my weddings to.
Shannon messaged me back saying she knew I didn’t shoot weddings and was hoping to convince me otherwise. She said she didn’t trust anyone else to capture the moments of the day; she was certain they would miss things most precious to her. She wanted me to continue telling her story that I had begun with her family portrait session on the one year anniversary of Tommy's death. How could I say no?!
What I saw when I met with Shannon to plan the portraits was a woman who was alive again. The spark had returned in her eyes. The veiled sadness was lifting. She was living again. It was clear she was in love.
When I met with Justin and Shannon together, I saw two people deeply in love. Justin brings maturity well beyond his years to their relationship. It is a testament to him how he has stepped into an incredibly difficult situation and risen to each challenge it has presented him.
We met on several occasions to plan the wedding walk on the newly renovated farm and future home of CJ and Tanya. CJ pulled together a complete renovation of this farm with incredible speed. The transformation the location went through in the last month was mind boggling. I had no doubt he would accomplish it, but I knew it was a giant task ahead.
Most couples pick a venue and leave the preparations to the venue staff. Not this crew! Justin and Shannon along with countless others, were neck deep in preparations to make the location not just usable for a wedding, but beautiful, until the very last second. Friends even loaned and delivered their fall mums to the site!
CJ and Tayna envision many wonderful memories being made at their barn….just imagine the number of farm weddings and celebrations that will happen here! Something tells me that Shannon's Pap's blue Ford truck will be there for future celebrations! Shannon and Justin’s wedding was the inaugural christening. CJ and Tanya were happy to share their space and in all the planning kept saying, ‘treat it like it’s yours’ as decisions were made.
The rehearsal dinner at the farm was like something right out of a country song! Family and friends enjoyed steamed crabs and fried chicken. Paps blue Ford sat waiting to be a part of portraits. Little boys lined up for their turn at a pre-wedding day buzz cuts at the hands of Tanya. Sadie raced around chasing after the kids on the Gator. Kids ran around enjoying the farm, oblivious to the 1001 things still left to do on the ‘to do’ list. Anyone looking for new song material just needs to hang out with the Miller’s, Stambaugh’s, Dell’s and Franklin’s for an afternoon!
As we walked to plan lighting for the day/night I said to Justin, ‘I hate to add something to your plate, but if you can remember to put the two pieces of wood on the wall for me to clamp my lights to, that’d be awesome.’ His response, ‘Jennifer you tell me whatever you need, I will make it happen.’ Seldom is graciousness our first response when stress is mounting….this simple statement spoke volumes about the man Justin is and the man Shannon knows him to be.
The wedding day arrived and everything progressed as we had meticulously planned---that never happens! We didn’t need all the back up planning we had done for rain. We stuck to our schedule. I don’t have to be a wedding photographer to know how rare this is! It was a whirlwind of a day that went as smoothly as anyone could have asked. There was just joy and celebration all day long. It was a brides/ photographers dream-wedding day!
It was the smallest of things in the day that spoke volumes. There were special songs performed by Josie and other friends. The toasts were heart felt. The laughter was raucous and contagious. Friends volunteered to be parking attendants and added their own brand of humor in cut of jean shorts, CJ Miller work crew vests and farm boots—nothing else!
The joy was plainly written on faces all day long, but especially on Grady, Josie, Shannon and Justin’s.
Justin has stepped into the role of father to Josie and Grady, a big challenge for any man. Followers of my portrait work know I am all about the storytelling…I want my portraits to be a launch pad for our stories to be told. While I’m photographing I am always looking for the unfolding story and my favorite one is the one that is so often easily missed.
A special moment that stood out to me is reflected in a photo earlier in this blog. Grady is looking up at Justin. I was preparing to photograph all the groomsmen for their formals. We were gathering everyone, getting boutonnieres pinned and doing out best to stick to the schedule. Grady had just arrived. He walked right up to Justin, bursting at the seams to share a joke. He began to tell the joke and I remember thinking, ‘really not a good time Grady’. I expected Grady to be shooed away so preparations could be made. Instead, Justin stopped and listened.
I’m 99% sure Justin couldn’t recall that joke today, but he stopped and listened. That was a beautiful moment! The moments continued through the whole day. The close knit bond between family and friends is plain to anyone looking in.
The ceremony was beautiful and full of personal touches from hand written vows to a hand made arbor. Justin crafted the arbor for them to stand beneath. The white birch along the top is from a downed tree on the farm. So much hard work went into making this farm wedding a day they will never forget!
Shannon and Justin would like to share their wedding vows, which so plainly speak of their great love and passion for one another. After reading them, you'll realize why most people looked on through tear stained eyes as they watched the exchange of vows.
Shannon is hopeful that her story will encourage other people who walk through devastation and loss to know it is possible to find love again. No matter how hard that can be to imagine, you never know when it may be waiting right around the corner from you!
Shannon.. they always say you will find love when least expected and when you do, you know it right away. Even though the circumstances were a little out of the ordinary we truly connected from the beginning.
You are the strongest, most honest and driven women I know.
I have always loved your beautiful smile and those big brown eyes looking up at me.
There was always that special bond. It started from the late night phone calls to the early morning texts and the casual check in at lunch time…
I will never forget the evening visits, and especially meeting Grady and Josie. I fell in love with you and knew it was not only you, it was those precious little kids too... I knew it from playing ball with Josie and being a big help to Grady playing with his toy tractors and having a common interest in the outdoors.
I always thought to myself we fell in love at the hardest time of your life and there were so many other things going on and decisions being made but yet I loved you, and knew that brighter days were ahead for us as a family.
You introduced me to the best way to start the day… a beautiful smile and a very sweet cup of coffee. And the best way to end the day by taking time with each other and reminding each other of our love.
I promise to always be our family’s rock, to give you guys my heart and soul. I promise to hold u when you cry and listen when you need to vent. I promise never go to bed mad at you. I promise to say I love you every morning and every night.
I love you Shannon and look forward to spending the rest of my life with you.
Justin…I believe God gave me you!
You were a miracle to your parents and you came into this world to be the miracle I needed.
Life is full of choices. You came into my life when I least expected, at the lowest possible point. But you made a choice early on that you were going to put yourself in a tough situation.
I was broken and my faith and trust were gone and I made the choice to love again and to risk another broken heart.
But you held my hand and somehow I just trusted you right from the beginning. We were in unchartered territory but it always seemed so natural.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I can promise you I will love you for every tomorrow there is meant to be.
I promised you from the beginning that life may not be easy but as long as we are together it would be worth it. Loving someone when things are good is the easy part, it’s loving someone when life presents tough or unforeseen circumstances that is hard.
When people doubted our love and with the odds stacked against us, at times our love continued to grow. You not only chose to love me but also Grady and Josie. I admire you and how you have become such a loving parent to Grady and Josie and putting their needs first.
My main priority will always be the happiness and contentment of you, Grady and Josie. Today we officially become a family even though in our hearts we have already made that commitment. We will build a life together with Grady and Josie. We will teach and support them together and always include them as we set goals and dreams for the future.
I promise to try and keep balance and routine in our lives as I take care of you and the kids and our home, but to be spontaneous and adventurous when we need a break from the routine.
I promise to make our home a loving place for family and friends to gather. I promise to stand by you during the ordinary days and the ‘never saw that coming’ days. I will help you accomplish your dreams or rebuild and pick up the pieces when necessary.
Your opinion matters above anyone else so I promise to listen and respect your opinion. I will make time for you at the end of each day even when life is busy and hectic.
I want you to be the one who will wipe my tears and calm my fears and hold my hand. I will be the fast paced to your slow and steady. If we are presented with things that are out of our control then we will just hold on to each other and have faith and take it one day at a time. I choose you to grow old with, even though I will get there a lot faster. I’m thankful everyday for you and I will love you until my last day.