Sarah and Russell

Image 1 of Sarah and Russell

How We Met

It was the day before the start of my freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. My roommates and I were all at convocation when the Chancellor introduced the head of the student fan base (called Carolina Fever) to teach us some of UNC’s well-known cheers. Russell walked out on stage. I leaned over to my friends and said “that guy is CUTE”…to which they smiled and rolled their eyes. Fast forward to spring semester. My new friend Michael had convinced me to sign up for a general ed class with him and his best friend. Unbeknownst to me, that friend was Russell and they’d been best buddies since 7th grade. For the rest of the semester, Russ and I walked to our next class together. I spent those 10 minutes every week trying to impress him and get to know him. Nothing worked! It wasn’t until the last day of class that we really hit it off. One minute, we were sitting on the roof at a party making small talk and the next we were lost in deep conversation.

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Image 11 of Sarah and Russell

A first date quickly followed and he completely blew me away. I’ve played soccer my entire life and through his leadership in Carolina Fever, Russ managed to unlock Kenan Stadium at night. We played soccer under the stars, with the entire 62,000 person football stadium to ourselves. It. Was. Incredible. After that, we spent the majority of the summer together. We hiked, hammocked, played tennis, and painted. With his senior year rapidly approaching, it seemed so illogical to dive into a relationship. But we kept coming back to each other. Everyone seemed to know there was something there except us (who vehemently described the other as “just a friend”). Eventually we gave in and things just sort of fell into place. Russ took a job near my family, which meant long distance for us. It was the biggest blessing in disguise because he really got to know and appreciate them without me around. Once I graduated, I accepted a job doing anxiety research and Russell was admitted into a master’s program…both in Nashville. Our life this year has been full of adventures and things just keep getting better and better!

Image 2 of Sarah and Russell

Image 12 of Sarah and Russell

how they asked

It’s been exactly 2 weeks since this day and I still can’t stop smiling. It was better than I ever could’ve imagined. My family has a place on the lake in a small, northern Georgia town tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains. The land was a wedding gift to my grandparents and as the family has grown, the lakehouse has grown with us. My mom spent her summers and holidays there as a kid, and I was lucky enough to do the same. It holds my most cherished family memories and the favorite parts of my family history. It’s also where my dad proposed.

Every year my family plans a work week in May to get the house ready for the summer season. Russell left on Sunday to help with work week at the lake, while I was stuck working in Nashville. My parents and my sister were down there working with him. The plan was for me to leave on Friday and join them at the lake so we could spend Mother’s Day weekend together. It felt like the world’s LONGEST week. Friday took forever! When it finally came, I hopped in the car and started the 4-hour drive.

As I drove up to the property, I smiled at the chestnut trees planted in the field along the side of the road. My grandfather planted these when my sister and I were little so we could see how much they grew each time we visited. They’ve always been such a sweet reminder of the history of our place and all of the love that’s been poured into our life there. When I pulled up to the house, I saw Russell sitting on the front porch. After being in the same city for almost a year, even a week away was a little tough (how on EARTH did we make it through 2 years of long-distance?!). Russ met me in the front yard and told me there was one last job for work week- the two of us needed to plant a tree. But before we planted it, there was something he wanted to talk to me about. The next thing I know, he’s talking about spending the rest of our lives together and is down on one knee.

Image 3 of Sarah and Russell

Image 4 of Sarah and Russell

My heart melted. It was all a big, beautiful blur. So much so that I completely forgot about the ring and immediately dropped to my knees for a hug. Afterwards, Russell told me to wave to Michael- our best friend and favorite photographer who was hiding away in the bushes. We grabbed the tree sapling and walked around the corner. Not only was my family waiting for us, but his entire family was there too! After hugs and happy tears, we went to plant the tree…the significance of which I now understood. It was a weeping willow sapling and Russell wanted to plant it in the backyard, so as our kids grew up going there, they can look and see how much it’s grown. Russell smiled and said he wanted to have something we could point to and say- “hey kiddos, look how big this tree is! We planted it the day we got engaged.” Similar to my grandfather’s chestnut trees, but just different enough to make it our own.

Image 5 of Sarah and Russell

Image 6 of Sarah and Russell

Our dads helped us dig the hole for the sapling. Our moms helped us water it. It was such a sentimental way of acknowledging the blending of two families. Right about then, I looked down at the new ring on my finger, finally taking a moment to admire how beautiful it was. Everyone kept asking Russell, “have you told her the story yet?! Have you told the story?” He smiled and started to explain. It turns out the diamond on the left side was from my great aunt, the woman my mom and I were both named after.

Image 7 of Sarah and Russell

She had two rings, one of which my mom wears every day. The left stone on my hand was taken from the other ring. The diamond on the right of my ring is from Russell’s parents. The one in the middle is from him. Of course, it was beautiful, but the ring was even more special knowing the meaning behind it. Now every time I look at my hand, I’m reminded of the enormous support system we have and how very much we’re loved.

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I couldn’t imagine a day better suited for us. The rest of the weekend was spent celebrating our engagement and our sweet mamas! It was the perfect, family-filled weekend.

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Special Thanks

Michael Thornburg
 | Photographer