Dec. 31, 2016 — Jan. 1, 2017 in Philadelphia
They met in 1995, in fifth grade at the Hartford School in Mount Laurel, became friends at Harrington Middle, and, as part of the same big group of friends at Lenape High, attended sporting events, dances, and house parties together.
During all those school years and summers off in Mount Laurel, there was no romance between Melissa and D.J. She had a boyfriend and was off-limits.
After graduation, Melissa earned a degree in gemology and jewelry design from the Gemological Institute of America in California. D.J. earned a bachelor's degree in business finance from Stockton College. They kept in touch, and saw each other — always with the old Lenape High gang — on breaks. After college, D.J. started his career in finance at Penn Capital Management in the Navy Yard. Melissa, now a senior account manager at Garfield Refining, also in Philadelphia, worked at a jewelry store in Alberta, Canada, for about four years before returning to New Jersey and a job at Billig Jewelers in Marlton.
In April 2014, D.J. walked into P.J. Whelihan's in Cherry Hill, and there was Melissa. "She was with a guy, and I was with some girls," he said. "She kind of caught my eye, and I made up a reason that I needed to see her again."
Their little reunion included a career catch-up. "I asked if she could fix my watch," D.J. said. She could fix just about any watch, but this was the first time a would-be customer wanted to bring his watch to meet her at a restaurant.
A month later, D.J. took the watch and two of their mutual guy friends with him to P.J. Whelihan's in Haddonfield. "His watch was fine," Melissa said.
"Yeah," D.J. admits. "But I got a date."
Their mutual friends, wise to what was happening, disappeared. It was a bit awkward, yet fun. The couple, now both 31, kept in touch by text and tried a real date a couple of weeks later at Farm & Fisherman. "Melissa was late by about an hour, and as I continued to sit at the restaurant by myself, wondering what the hell I was doing, that's when I kind of knew I really liked her," D.J. said. "Then she came in, and she's drop-dead gorgeous, and laid-back, and super-funny, too. It was like, 'I could take this one home to mom!' "
Melissa figured out that night that D.J. had moved her out of the friend zone. His "humor and his personality and his bright blue eyes" made her glad he did.
In their earliest days of dating, D.J. wondered whether Melissa was seeing someone else. Sometimes they met up a little on the late side, and she didn't want wine because she'd already had some. "She told me she was sneaking wine into the nursing home to have happy hour with her grandmother. I thought, 'Yeah, sure!' " D.J. said.
Then he met Mom Mom Helen, 91, and understood.
When Helen's health started to decline, Melissa spent more and more time at the nursing home, and that dedication made D.J. love her more. When Helen died in December 2014, "He was my shoulder to cry on, he made me laugh, and he took care of everything, running errands and things," Melissa said. And that made her love him more.
In mid-December 2015, D.J.'s brother-in-law Adam invited him and Melissa to join him and his wife, D.J.'s sister Brittany, at Comcast's holiday party at Xfinity Live!. Melissa was running late at work. When she reached their Cherry Hill home, D.J. rebuffed her attempted hug. "Go get ready," he scolded.
This was unlike D.J. His behavior was also off at the party — why was he spending so much time in the men's room? She pulled Brittany, a nurse, aside. "Can you ask him if he's OK?"
The four left the shindig for the Oyster House restaurant. Parking close to Broad Street was part of D.J.'s plan.
"He offers to take [Brittany and Adam's] picture in the middle of Broad, when that's my favorite shot," Melissa said. "I asked, 'Can we get a picture?' and I was so excited about getting the picture that I didn't really notice anything else until he got down on one knee."
Melissa started yelling, "What are you doing? What are you doing?" Even though she knew. Right there on the median, with City Hall all lighted up behind them, she accepted his proposal. Then D.J. led the way not to the Oyster House — that reservation was for later — but to the bar at the Ritz Carlton, where her parents, Jim and Cindy, and his, Don and Barbara, plus other family members and friends were waiting.
"That's where my grandma would take me and my cousins for a champagne toast during the holidays every year, so it was just incredible," Melissa said.
The ceremony and reception for 125 were both held at the Franklin Hotel at Independence Park. Considering it was New Year's Eve, the couple wanted a celebratory vibe, but conveyed in a way that was uniquely them, and in their gold, black, and silver palette. From the save-the-dates and invitations to a beautifully detailed infographic of their love story to hotel door hangers and suggestions on the table assignment display, designer Megan Magis of MKCreative nailed it, the couple said.
Young cousins Quinn, Brayden, and Caleb threatened to steal the show with their walking-down-the-aisle cuteness. "D.J., here comes your bride!" Caleb's sign announced.
The candlelit evening featured a wine ceremony in which the Rev. Schleper poured a glass of wine and Melissa and D.J. each took a sip. "A good wine, like a good marriage, is the result of many years of hard work," he said. It might taste sweet to one, and dry to the other, he said, and that was OK. "Let the drink you share today serve as a reminder, although you may perceive things very differently, being right is never more important than being happy."
During the vows the couple wrote for each other, Melissa promised D.J. "that my dreams will always have everything to do with his," and D.J. promised Melissa "to always make her my first priority."
The cocktail hour featured the couple's signature drink — an extra-dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives.
At the reception, the three cute cousins were again in the spotlight, wearing sparkling Converse shoes with their Superman, Superwoman, and Spider-Man costumes. But all eyes were back on the bride and groom for their entrance and first dance to Nathan Sykes' "Over and Over Again."
"When that music starts, and you see the person you know you're going to spend the rest of your life with walk down the aisle, your heart skips a beat," D.J. said. Nervous Melissa had the church giggles to the point where the minister asked if it was OK to continue, but taking the vows calmed her. "I was just full of smiles, because I was finally his wife," she said.
A bargain: Joe Moser, aka DJ Per4m, was "phenomenal, for both the price and the value," said the groom. "He had everyone dancing and wanting more, even after 1 a.m., and his prices were about half of the other quotes."
The splurge: Melissa tried on dresses hoping to get an idea of a style to order from an online purveyor for cheap. "But then I fell in love," she said. "My mom and I were there, and it was like a movie moment I didn't think would happen in real life." She paid at least double what she planned.
The couple, who recently moved to Medford with their dog, Sunday, spent 10 days in Aruba and Curacao.
BEHIND THE SCENES:
Officiant: Brian Schleper, Tabernacle.
Ceremony Venue: The Franklin at Independence Park, Philadelphia.
Food: The Franklin.
Music: Joe Moser, DJ's Available Sound and Light, Moorestown.
Photography: Matt Soult, Soult Studios, Mount Holly.
Flowers: Silk flowers by Kate Said Yes, Boston.