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Jennifer Dobner and her husband write a love letter to each other each year and keep them all in the wooden box. (AP Photo/Jennifer Dobner)

Sending love in a letter

The task assigned by the minister ahead of our May 1999 wedding seemed simple enough: a letter from each of us telling her why - out of all the possible people in the world - we had chosen to marry each other.

The answer, too, seemed simple: love, of course.

"But you can't use the word love," the Rev. Constance Redding Sidebottom said. "That makes it too easy."

Sidebottom, 68, a retired United Methodist minister and my aunt, always asks couples for wedding letters, and is certain they have transformative power.

"Often weddings are for show," said Sidebottom, of Polson, Mont. "The sacredness is removed by the glitz and the money spent. But when couples are asked to write the letters, they often move to a deeper place. Their effort to be honest and genuine for one another is honored by God and made holy."

Beyond the ban on the word "love," Sidebottom has other rules about the letters, which she reads out loud during the ceremony. Bride and groom are forbidden from sharing their letters with each other ahead of the wedding, and Sidebottom won't officiate without receiving them.

Over her 11 years of full-time ministry, not one person has failed to write the letter, although some have cut it close, Sidebottom said. One groom delivered his to her door at 7 a.m. on the day he was to be married.

"Every single bride and groom says they agonize over writing the letters because they understand how important they are," Sidebottom said.

Nearly every faith tradition has a well-scripted formula for wedding ceremonies. There are specific prayers to be offered, scriptural passages to be read and vows to exchange.

But the letters bring something different.

Through their own words, the couple essentially writes their own sermon about life, love and their expectations for marriage, Sidebottom said.

They add a personal touch to a ceremony much like self-written vows, a trend that began in the 1960s as some couples moved away from religious tradition, said Diane Warner, author of the "Complete Book of Wedding Vows" (New Page Books, 2006). Warner had not heard of Sidebottom's letters, but said that, especially in stricter faiths where customized vows are discouraged, they might be a way to satisfy both clergy and the couple.

"And for those who have children, someday those letters will be a really valuable gift," said Warner, of Tucson, Ariz.

The letters can reveal more about a couple's individual personalities and tell the "truth about what's really going on" between hearts, Sidebottom said.

A carpenter she married some years ago, for example, scrawled his thoughts on a bid sheet, while his bride carefully penned hers on beautiful stationery. The contrast made the congregation giggle.

Another groom, a Naval officer, compared the bride to his favorite sandwich, peanut butter and jelly.

"He said all these things about the stickiness and the sweetness and the savory, how all the right elements for a perfect dish had just happened to show up in her," said Sidebottom, who confesses the letter is her all-time favorite. "We couldn't stop laughing and we couldn't stop crying."

The simple act of reading the letters out loud can add emotional heft to a ceremony.

"It's like the Holy Spirit infuses the place and it becomes (the couple's) wedding with God," Sidebottom said. "Everybody that is there is affected."

She said many wedding guests have told her their own stories of transformation. Some have been inspired to begin writing anniversary letters to their spouse.

Sidebottom often hears from couples she's married that the letters have had a lasting impact on their marriage. At a visit to a church where she once was pastor, Sidebottom was approached by a man whose wedding she performed more than 16 years ago.

"He and his wife are still married - always a relief to me - and they read their letters every anniversary, and at times in between when life was so hard that they had to remember why they wanted to marry," she said.

Thirteen years after my own wedding, my husband, Bill Keshlear, and I are also still married, and still writing letters. We write a new one each year and read them out loud to each other on our anniversary.

"It seems to help us re-commit somehow, through the ups and downs," he said.

We keep our letters in a wooden box carved with X's and O's, on the dresser in our bedroom. The box was a gift from Sidebottom.

Even now, the letters aren't easy to write.

Some read like long book reports that chronicle the years' events - the job loss, the death of our parents, our struggle through infertility and a failed attempt at adoption.

Others are shorter, more literary and sweet. I'm not sure if that's a function of how much time we made for writing or some sign that we had fewer hills to climb that year. I doubt it's the latter.

Some are messily scrawled on lined, yellow notepaper (mine), others (mostly his) are neatly typed and printed from the computer. Neither of us has ever skipped writing, although Bill likes to tease me each May by saying he's not going to do it this year.

What's most interesting to me is how the threads from those first letters continue through each of the 24 we've written since.

Our commitment to the idea of marriage hasn't changed, despite our mistakes and missteps. We love each other and like each other. We respect each other, and in each other we have found a comfortable place to call home.

- By JENNIFER DOBNER, Associated Press