In the small white church with thick wooden pews, 14 couples stepped to the altar one at a time. "To have and to hold," each couple promised, "from this day forward." Fourteen blessings were bestowed by the silver-haired rector, and 14 kisses exchanged.
What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with a renewal of wedding vows?
For nearly a decade, St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mount Airy has offered a special Mass on the Sunday before Valentine's Day. Yesterday's service appeared no different from years past: Newlyweds and couples holding children and men and women who have been married for decades all came forward to repeat vows. Then the 14 couples posed for photographs and sliced into a three-tiered cake.
But one thing about yesterday was different. For the first time, the 15th couple was missing.
A few miles down the road, Herbert and Dorothy Streaker sat in their tidy living room. They didn't skip the service because they lack romance. Today, as he has every Valentine's Day for the past 59 years, Herbert will give his wife red roses.
Their story began when they were introduced at a party one night. Herbert asked to see her class ring and refused to give it back. Though it was snowing hard, he drove her all the way from Mount Airy to her Baltimore home in his Chevrolet, the one without a heater. He had to stop every few minutes to clear the windshield. The same night, he told his cousin, "I'm going to marry that girl."
"Love at first sight," Herbert declared.
Her mother wanted Dorothy's older sister to be the first daughter married, so the first time Herbert and Dorothy exchanged vows was when they eloped at what is now the United Evangelical Church on Dillon Street in Baltimore.
"When we told my mother," Dorothy recalled, "She said, 'Well, you'd better stay married.' " They never considered an alternative.
They worked together on his family's cattle farm and raised two sons and a daughter. When college rolled around, they started a catering business to pay for their children's education. Dorothy baked wedding cake after wedding cake, and when arthritis struck her hands, Herbert made sure he was the one to lift the heavy pans in and out of the oven.
Their rules for a happy marriage sound like cliches but are anything but easy to practice for six decades: "Never go to bed angry," Dorothy said. "Realize no one person is right all the time."
They've been together for richer and for poorer, when Herbert couldn't afford to buy her even a single rose for Valentine's Day but did so anyway, and for better and for worse, though they'll tell you there really haven't been any terrible times.
Now Dorothy and Herbert, at ages 78 and 81, are experiencing the "in sickness" portion of their vows.
It's why they didn't make the three-tiered cake for the Valentine's Day church service. It's why they didn't stand at the altar and repeat the promises they first pledged nearly 60 years ago, as they have every year since St. Paul's began the special service.
Her back is giving out, and his shingles make it too painful for him to stand. So they went to the shorter 8 a.m. service, the one without the wedding vow renewal.
"Each year," she said, "we find we can do a little bit less than the year before."
While 14 couples exchanged vows, the 15th couple remained home, where the doorways have been widened to accommodate wheelchairs they may need someday, and where a plaque affixed to a wall reads, "Rich is not how much you have, or where you are going, or even what you are. Rich is who you have beside you."
"For Valentine's Day," said Dorothy, "the important thing is you celebrate it every day of the year."
And her husband, who was siting so closely beside her on the couch that their knees touched, looked at her with faded blue eyes and smiled.