This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Alma Reid received the ultimate Valentine’s Day present this year: She got to attend two of her grandchildren’s weddings in the same day.

Part came as a surprise just a week ago from her grandson, Christopher Clark.

“He called me and said, ‘Grandma, you want to go to a wedding?’ And I said, ‘Whose?’ and he said, ‘Mine and Sam’s,’” Reid said.

Reid agreed, but she already had another wedding on her schedule for that day: the marriage of her granddaughter, Tosha Reid, to Jamison Oxford.

But she didn’t have much traveling to do because Clark, Samantha Blevins, Reid and Oxford all took advantage of the Caldwell County Register of Deeds’ Valentine’s Day Wedding Extravaganza on Thursday in the city-county chambers in downtown Lenoir.

This was the ninth year of the Valentine’s Day weddings marathon, which is based on a long-standing reality of American life: When the day of chocolates and Cupid rolls around, couples will get married at City Hall — or, in this case, the register of deeds office.

Couples who sign up for the wedding extravaganza pay very little, just the $20 fee required by the state (the magistrates who perform the marriages volunteer their time) and $50 for a marriage license, but they get the works. This year’s ceremonies featured donated gifts, decorations, live music and a modest reception spread. The event is the brainchild of Diane Dunn, assistant register of deeds. Over the years, other counties — including Catawba and Stanly — have started hosting their own ceremonies on Valentine’s Day.

In the hour before this year’s first scheduled wedding, Dunn and her sister-in-law, Sharon Robbins (also volunteering her time), flew about setting up the final touches. They lit candles behind the makeshift altar, strung white Christmas lights throughout the room and set up a bubble machine to blow on the newly married couples as they marched out of the room.

Shortly before 1 p.m., the couples started showing up: 13 of them by the end of the afternoon, down one from last year’s total. The attire ranged from casual to semiformal, ripped jeans to wedding dresses, and held everything from 2-year-old children to Unity candles as they walked into the room.

Each had a story.

If anyone exemplified the fresh energy and exuberance of young love, it was Richard Brookshire and Bonnie Sourbeer, getting married more than 50 years after they first met as teenagers in Kings Creek.

But they had not been a couple when they were young. In fact, Sourbeer’s first marriage was to Brookshire’s best friend, Fred Waters. Over the years, they went their separate ways. After Brookshire’s wife, Charlotte, died a few years ago, Sourbeer “remained in my mind, for some reason,” at least by her maiden name, he said. He needed help finding her under her married name.

Eventually, Brookshire was able to look Sourbeer up, and they have been seeing each other for about three years. Or, as Sourbeer put it, “We’ve been putting up with each other for a while.”

After considering marriage, eventually a TV news story about the Valentine’s Day event here caught their attention, Sourbeer said, “And I said, ‘Well, let’s go up there.’”

Jennifer Anderson said she and Mario Garcia have been together for nine years. Their children, Donte, 6, and Isabella, 3 months, were among the family members who came for their ceremony.

Donte, dressed in a black shirt and green tie, fidgeted in his seat while smiling broadly. “I’m so excited,” he said.

The couples met in the usual ways: in school, through mutual friends, online. Some had been together only a few months, others for more than a decade. Many had seen the event on public access TV or read about it in the News-Topic. Some had decided just days before the event to participate.

Before couples could walk down the aisle, they had to produce two witnesses over 18 and pay their $20. Some fished crumpled bills from their pockets. Others clasped crisp $20s, freshly drawn from the ATM, between their fingers as they waited for their witnesses to sign.

During each ceremony, the magistrates read vows from duplicate slips of paper, with the individual names scrawled into the blanks.

The event is more light-hearted than a traditional wedding, in many ways.

“My daddy’s not talking to me for a year!” one bride joked gleefully as she ran to take her place at the head of the aisle. During one ceremony, names got swapped — Alma Reid’s grandson Christopher was referred to as Jamison, twice. During another, a blonde boy in the front row cried “Yuck!” when the bride and groom kissed.

About halfway through each ceremony, though, the room quieted. Tears slipped down cheeks and voices cracked. The magistrate prayed for happy days ahead, for unity, for the faithful safekeeping of promises made before God.

When Douglas Carlisle married Teresa Clemmons, he gripped her hands tightly. After the first kiss was over, he leaned in for a second.

When Terry Colvard married Misty Coffing, he hesitated just before the kiss. “I love you, woman,” he said, and broke into a grin.

Not long after the event started, by 4:30 that afternoon, all of the couples had cleared out. Some were bound for home, some for local restaurants, others for honeymoons in towns like Blowing Rock.

But if they’re anything like the previous years’ participants, they’ll be back.

During the early weddings, out in the reception area — otherwise known as the hallway — Wayne and Elaine Bolick manned their usual post by the punch bowl. The Bolicks were married in the Valentine’s Day ceremony in 2008. They were the reason the ceremony has since moved down to the city-county chambers from the hallway upstairs — they had 76 guests in 2008, which the hallway could not accommodate well.

They’ve returned every year to donate and serve punch.

“To be honest with you,” Elaine Bolick joked, “we didn’t like the punch they had that year.”

She said they enjoy spending part of each anniversary donating their time.

“What better way to celebrate than with people who’s about to get married?”