Till Death, or Clerical Muddle, Do Us Part

By John Kelly
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

For a fleeting moment last month, it looked as if maybe I had never actually gotten married.

"Are you sure this is your wife's maiden name?" asked a clerk in Room 4485 of D.C. Superior Court, pointing to the name I'd written on a slip of paper.

I said it aloud -- "Pritchard" -- and suddenly it felt strange in my mouth. Was that her name? Suddenly, I wasn't so sure.

I was at the court -- in the Marriage Bureau -- to get an official copy of our marriage license, one of the multitude of documents I was gathering to get visas for my family's move to England. A sign instructed visitors to sign in and wait to be served. That's never a good omen in a government office. How long would it take? One hour? Two? Four?

But really, I thought, how hard could it be? I had the date of our wedding, the license number, our names. A few keystrokes on the computer and out it would pop, right?

No. Evidently we were married before computers, and we weren't showing up on the microfilm.

"I can find John Kelly," the clerk said. "But none of the women connected to that name are Pritchard."

He said he'd keep looking. I settled into my seat.

A young couple talking to each other in Spanish walked in. On the inside of each right arm was a ball of cotton held in place with a Band-Aid. Those needle pricks were as much a declaration of love as a diamond engagement ring. Officially declared free of syphilis-causing spirochetes, it was time to for the couple to get their wedding license.

The pair looked a bit lost. "You need to put your name on the list," I said. "And fill out one of those forms."

My clerk continued peering into his machine.

A courthouse can be a dreadful place. It doesn't always bring out the best in people or, in fact, the best people. But the Marriage Bureau is about hope. When you walk into that room, you're saying, "I've found someone I can spend the rest of my life with."

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