For at least a decade, Bridgette Haffner routinely ran into John Grant.
Her parents emigrated from Sierra Leone in the early 1970s, before she was born. In Washington, the family found a thriving community of immigrants from their country. And almost any occasion — birthday party, graduation, baby shower — was cause for a giant, boisterous celebration.
Grant was quickly pulled into the same circle when he moved to the area in 1994. He left Sierra Leone at age 18, went to the University of Maryland and became an accountant. He knew Haffner only well enough to say hello, but he was always looking for an opportunity to continue the conversation.
“She was beautiful, and I liked her character,” says Grant, now 40. “But she was always with her mom and sister, so she was inaccessible. She was hard to get.”
Haffer thought Grant seemed like a nice guy — he was always smiling, even if he never said much. But she didn’t think much more about him. After college, she’d lived in Spain for a year before returning to the United States to help her mother and grandmother, who were both ill. Unsatisfied with the care they received, she enrolled in nursing school and started working in health care. Once they were healthy, she focused on becoming a lawyer and living abroad.
At a gathering in 2010, Grant asked Haffner if he could call her. She was surprised by his interest but gave him her number. They began to talk almost nightly.
The conversations were “very lively,” recalls Haffner, now 37. “We had a lot in common, and we could talk as friends.”
They were both devoted to their families, their careers and travel. When Haffner mentioned she loved soccer, Grant invited her to watch a World Cup game at Lucky Bar near Dupont Circle. Haffner, who grew up in a very conservative family and doesn’t drink, had never been to a bar. She was delighted by the invitation and soaked up the raucous atmosphere — and Grant’s company.
“I liked him a lot,” she says. “We clicked, and it wasn’t a forced thing.”
Still, she was skittish about moving too quickly. Haffner’s family doesn’t believe in casually dating; if she were to bring a man home, it would need to be because they hoped to marry.
The two began meeting monthly at Busboys and Poets. They would claim a couch and talk for hours. Grant loved Haffner’s sweetness, extroversion and sense of fun. He considered her his girlfriend, but there was always a question of “how committed she was.”
It was a year before Haffner agreed to give Grant a kiss. They continued to talk frequently, and when Grant hadn’t seen her in a while, he’d flip through pictures of her, reminding himself of what he was waiting for.
Slowly, Haffner grew more secure in their relationship. “I thought that he would be a really good husband,” she says, “because he’s really a nice person and he goes out of his way to make you feel comfortable.”
In March, she felt certain she was ready to marry Grant. “I had studied him enough. It had been enough time that I had seen how he was as a person, and I liked him. And I knew that I was developing stronger and stronger feelings. I knew that I loved him.”
She was hoping that her family would see the goodness that she saw in Grant, but she knew that even if they didn’t, she wanted to be with him. Haffner told Grant it was time to approach her parents.
That month, he talked with them about how much he loved their daughter, how he hoped to marry her and start a family.
Haffner’s parents were skeptical at first, but after several hours of discussion, getting to know Grant and evaluating his seriousness about the relationship, they granted the couple their blessing. Grant took Haffner to visit his parents, and within weeks a date was set.
On Oct. 26, more than 100 of Haffner’s relatives and friends gathered at Oxon Hill Manor. In suits, dresses and colorful hats, they drank wine and danced under the lights of a large patio overlooking the Potomac River. After several hours, a large group of Grant’s aunts, uncles and cousins knocked at the door.
Introductions were made between the two families and soon a bantering negotiation began. Grant’s uncles told the guests that they’d come seeking Haffner’s hand in marriage, and they began offering gifts of money to sweeten the deal.
The guests knew that the tradition was being acted out mostly for show, but they still egged on the exchange. Soon a parade of women with scarves over their faces were brought before Grant’s family to see if they would pick the right bride.
Finally, Haffner emerged and sat veiled before the crowd. Grant’s family offered a container of gifts, called a calabash. Her mother inspected the offering, which contained a ring, clothing, needles and other goods meant to represent all she might need in married life.
Once her family accepted the gifts and consented to the marriage, Grant emerged. A pastor blessed the ring before Grant put it on Haffner’s finger. The crowd danced until 1 a.m. and gathered the next day with more friends and relatives for a second party that lasted almost until dawn.
When the celebrations died down, Grant finished packing his bags and moved into Haffner’s home in Oxon Hill.
“I’m in my own world when I’m with him,” says Haffner, who is excited to explore the world with a travel partner. “When I’m with him I’m only thinking of him, and when I’m not around him I think of him.”