An attractive blonde caught my eye as she walked across the church fellowship hall where we were hosting a Murray County Family Connection lunch meeting.

“Who is she?” my mind asked myself. Per usual, there was no answer.

As a disabilities coordinator with Head Start, it was part of Teresa Smith’s duties to attend the collaborative meetings I hosted as director of Family Connection, a state-funded agency that seeks to bring social services, business, government and church representatives together to plan and implement programs directed at societal ills. For example, our local goals addressed teen pregnancy, substance abuse, domestic violence and the high school dropout rate, the same as many other counties in Georgia.

A couple of monthly meetings later, she noticed I hadn’t brought a lunch with me — I’d gotten too busy preparing for the session — and asked if she could get one for me since she was going with a colleague to pick up some sandwiches.

“Sure, thanks,” I said, and gave her a $5 bill. (Keep in mind, this was around 12 years ago.)

She came back with my lunch and gave me a receipt for $5.01, noting I could owe her a penny. Not long after that, we began dating. I planned to ask her to marry me on Valentine’s Day in 2007 at Little Rome Italian Restaurant in Chatsworth. A longtime family friend, the late educator Elaine Butler — who helped us get the Gilmer County Reading Program started — was at the restaurant that night.

She knew Teresa, and on the way to the salad bar, I told her what I was up to. Elaine was excited, and left with her family in a little while. She called the next day to ask if Teresa had accepted. She did, I told her happily.

I know God brought us together. For months, I had been studying the Scriptures about marriage, wanting to make sure I made the right move. On her side, Teresa was praying about me as I was about her. Then the Lord told her to begin reading verses about marriage, she later told me.

Less than four months into our marriage, my father passed away. Teresa didn’t know him well, but cried with me. Then relatives on her side of the family died, and I learned how to get to many of the funeral homes, churches and cemeteries on back roads in Athens, Tenn., and its nearby burg where she grew up, Riceville.

Then Mom left us, and last year my stepson also died, and I don’t know if I could’ve made it without Teresa. It would certainly have been more difficult. I don’t mean to dwell on the negative here, but having a helpmate to share what once was a turbulent life is a true blessing. There have also been the fun times we’ve had hiking and traveling, just being together and holding grandbabies as they’ve come into the world one by one.

Wednesday night, we’ll have our corner booth at Little Rome — the same one where I proposed 11 years ago. And oh yeah, even though I’ve tried to pay that penny back, she won’t let me. She says I still owe her — and I do. It’s a debt I’ll gladly continue to incur.

Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart, I love you!

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen-News staff writer and is news editor of the Times-Courier in Ellijay. He can be reached by phone, (706) 635-4313; email, tceditor@timescourier.com; or via Twitter, @extrabymark.

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