Phil Gulley: Some Marital Advice

Although I’m not allowed to plan our son’s wedding, I’m happy to offer the bride and groom a few tips.
My wife and I were married 34 years ago this month, but we’re too busy helping with our son Sam’s wedding to celebrate. Sam and his fiancée, Kelsea, are getting married in Danville, but reside in Georgia, so some of the preparations have fallen to us. More accurately, they have fallen to my wife, who has given me strict instructions to keep my distance from any and all arrangements. I have to be involved a tiny bit, since I’m conducting the service, but even then my wings have been clipped. I’ve already been told I can’t wear my favorite motorcycle T-shirt, the one that says “The Police Never Think It’s As Funny As You Do.”

I’m fond of the two women who grace my sons’ lives. They laugh at my jokes and forge my sons’ signatures on the birthday cards they give me, which is the mark of true love. I sign my wife’s name right and left, on medical documents, checks, lines of credit, tax forms, parole papers. She does the same for me. In our 34 years together, this convenient fraud has saved us countless hours.

Marriages are like fingerprints, no two are alike, so it seems unlikely my sons’ marriages will be anything like mine, which suits me fine. There are, after all, lots of ways to be happily married. My wife and I, after trial and error, have discovered a pattern that works for us. It’s a simple arrangement, built on the premise that I can spend Saturday mornings at the Roachdale Hardware visiting Charlie Riggle, as well as purchase the occasional motorcycle, so long as I make room in the garage for her car. The other half of our garage is the clubhouse for my motorcycle gang, the Quaker chapter of The Sons of Silence. It’s a men’s-only club, by virtue of the fact that no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in the place. This is another key to a happy marriage—clearly stated boundaries, mutually respected.

That Kelsea decided to get married in Danville and not Georgia makes me love her all the more, but then I always look favorably upon people who save me from driving a thousand miles. Their wedding is only a half-mile from our home, at Mrs. Blanton’s old house, which was given to our town after she died, along with 80 acres for a nature park. When my boys were little, I convinced them an Indian named Screaming Eagle lived in Mrs. Blanton’s woods by hiding arrowheads under trees, then “discovering” them while on hikes with my sons. I know I shouldn’t have called Screaming Eagle an Indian, but it would have seemed odd to tell my 3- and 5-year-old sons that an “indigenous person of the Americas” lived in Blanton Woods.

Like many young people these days, Sam and Kelsea met online. Though they only lived a few blocks apart, they inhabited different worlds. Sam was serving as a medic at a training camp for the Army Ranger program, and Kelsea was studying elementary education at the University of North Georgia. They probably wouldn’t have met were it not for the internet. Their first date was lunch at the Smokin’ Gold BBQ in Dahlonega, Georgia. It turns out a lot of marriages are launched at barbecue restaurants in the South, where men, seduced by the ambrosia of the grill, confuse the sensation for love. When my son told us how they’d met, he seemed embarrassed, though I’m not sure why. I know couples who met while drunk at Indiana University, so I see nothing wrong with finding someone on Not everyone can be on their knees praying for God to send someone they can marry, then look up and see their future wife walking down the sidewalk carrying a baseball glove, like I did. My life is one act of humble piety after another.

Having felt positively exotic when I married a woman from Paoli, I never imagined one of my sons would wed someone from Georgia. That state might not be the buckle of the Bible Belt, but it’s easily the hole on the belt that gets all stretched out of shape when too much flexibility is required of it. So you can imagine my joy when I learned Kelsea was one of these wacky Southern Millennials who believes in universal healthcare and free public education through college. I can’t wait until they have children so I can sit the little ones on my lap and tell them stories about Eugene V. Debs, then sing them to sleep with a round or two of “Solidarity Forever.”

After their wedding is over and my son and his wife have returned to their Georgia home, my wife and I will celebrate our anniversary with a motorcycle trip through the back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee. We might even make it as far south as Georgia, and drop in on the newlyweds, which I’m certain they would love. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t suggested it. Then again, they’ve been busy planning their wedding, so the lack of an invitation is probably a simple oversight. Plus, the first few years of a marriage can be difficult, adjusting to life with another person, so maybe we’ll extend our visit and give them the benefit of our experience, offering a pearl of wisdom here, an observation there. I’m confident I speak for all parents everywhere when I say how rewarding it is to help our adult children navigate their personal lives.

One has all sorts of hopes for one’s children when they strike out into the world, but when Sam left for the Army, I was heartsick, thinking no good could come of it. We were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, two conflicts I fervently opposed, and I was sickened by the thought of my son, and the sons and daughters of others, dying in a rash and pointless war of empire. Instead, in the capricious way of militaries worldwide, he was sent to live in a charming Southern town, fell in love with a young woman of inestimable common sense, who will salvage the family name I have tarnished. We Gulley men have a knack for marrying people who set about smoothing the waters we have roiled.

Even though I belong to a motorcycle gang, I’m a softie at heart, and I hope I don’t cry during my son’s wedding. In my mind, he’s still 3 years old and sitting on my lap at the kitchen table, his hand in mine, tracing letters with a crayon. Then, it seems like the next day, he joined the Army, and the boy I used to see every day is now a man who lives 541 miles away and I’m lucky to see him three times a year. Every night, while lying in bed, I think of him and his brother, who lives so close I can hear his cows bawl when they’re separated from their calves. It is a sentiment I thoroughly understand.