Thai-ing the Knot: The Agnews’ journeyed love story

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Thai-ing the Knot: The Agnews’ journeyed love story
Elizabeth and Pen Agnew’s wedding day in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo/Elizabeth Agnew)
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By Kaitlin Murphy

 Pen and Elizabeth Agnew went to the same college at the same time, had overlapping circles of friends and their roommates dated. Their fate was sealed to include a journey around the world to find one another and find love. 

Both Elizabeth and Pen attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All through their college years, they didn’t meet, but they knew of one another. It wasn’t until a college football game – after their undergraduate years – that they first properly met. 

Pen is from Lynchburg and upon graduation, moved back home to work, and Elizabeth moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to work as a paralegal. They each kept their roommates from college and since the two were still dating, get-togethers were inevitable. 

Pen and Elizabeth became close friends post-graduation. They would attend football games together and continue socializing with the same circles of friends. When Pen got a job with the State Department in Foreign Services in 1983, he moved to Washington, D.C., and then in 1984, he moved to Central America. 

“He called to tell me about his new job and we talked for hours. I was devastated because we had become so close,” Elizabeth said. 

In 1987, Pen returned to the District for one year to study Thai before his next assignment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He sent Elizabeth a letter inviting her to his townhome on Madison and Fayette Streets in Alexandria. That weekend, they enjoyed a Georgetown Halloween and football games. 

Then, in the summer of 1988, Pen moved to Thailand. 

“During this time, our best friend, Andy, was getting married and I was supposed to meet up with Pen at the wedding since he would be in town for that. But I didn’t go,” Elizabeth admitted. 

Pen was sympathetic, recognizing that long-distance dating was challenging. 

“There was no social media and no text messaging so I didn’t let him know. It was a total blow-off,” Elizabeth said, recalling their communication dwindled after that incident. “As time went on, I couldn’t get him off my mind, so I sent a card at Christmastime to his mother for her to forward to him in Thailand. I was honest, and I told him what I was thinking.” 

Pen received the card and wrote back. 

“What I said to her was, ‘Sounds like you need a break for six weeks in the lap of luxury in Thailand. We could add to the itinerary and take a trip to Australia or Hong Kong,’” Pen recalled. 

To which Elizabeth wrote back, “What would you do if I took you up on it?” In late January, Elizabeth spoke to her boss requesting a sabbatical. 

“My boss was very supportive when I said I needed to take six weeks off. The trip was set for July 8, 1989, and the trip would last until September 16.” 

Elizabeth had an established life in Charlotte which she quickly had to sort out for the next six weeks. And she had to tell her mother. 

“I told my mother last minute that I had already bought the plane ticket, I had everything lined up and someone was renting out my condo. I took care of all my expenses and travel details, but she thought I was crazy,” Elizabeth said. “I told her, ‘You understand because you love to travel and with this trip, I have a tour guide. I want to see places in the world like New Zealand or Australia.’” 

With no holes in the plan her mother could identify, Elizabeth went. When she arrived in Thailand after a long series of flights, she thought this was just a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Pen and Elizabeth’s first week together in Thailand was filled with adventure. (Photo/ Elizabeth Agnew)

“She was an intrepid traveler, and she took off all over Thailand via tuk-tuks [a form of urban transport] and caught rides with monks. She helped host parties and events with me,” Pen said. 

They traveled everywhere together and went to Australia for three weeks for a vacation. When it came time for Elizabeth to return home, Pen suggested she stay with him. 

“We clicked so well it was like we had our honeymoon before our wedding,” Elizabeth said. 

“It was the best way to date. Out of public view and away from the pressure of inquiring minds like family and friends. We got to know each other and it was so great to be together on the [other] side of the world,” Pen said. 

Elizabeth went back home to North Carolina. What she didn’t know was that Pen had slipped $1,000 in her bag to ensure she could buy a return ticket to Thailand. Little did Pen know that Elizabeth had also left a memento for Pen: a cassette tape with John Denver’s song, “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” 

Elizabeth’s scheduled return to the United States coincided with Hurricane Hugo, a massive hurricane that killed more than 80 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage, according to the National Weather Service. There were disruptions and damage in North Carolina caused by the hurricane and with things in flux anyway, Elizabeth’s return to Thailand was inevitable. 

She had enough time to reconnect with her mother and introduce herself to Pen’s mother. 

“I had dinner with [Pen’s mother] and his brother and his brother grilled me asking me all kinds of questions like how would I make money? All the while he was whispering to me on the side that his mom made him ask those questions,” Elizabeth recalled. 

Elizabeth thought through all of the steps to allow her to return and she had even secured a job with paralegal services for refugees in Thailand. 

“When I told my mother the whole plan, all she could say was, ‘Well, if you don’t come back engaged, you are out of the will,’” Elizabeth said. 

She bought her one-way ticket to Thailand right in time for the Marine Corps Ball, which marked the start of the next chapter of their relationship. Friends often visited, including their best friends, Andy and Mary. 

“During their visit, I took a day trip with them while Pen set off to ‘run some errands.’ He was actually out getting a friendship ring to surprise me with,” Elizabeth said. 

“Our friends were surprised it wasn’t an engagement ring, but they thought the amethyst ring was nice and when their trip ended, they reported home to inquiring minds,” Pen remembered. 

The official proposal followed shortly thereafter: an engagement ring at the bottom of Elizabeth’s stocking on Christmas morning. They called their family immediately to share the news and wish them a Merry Christmas. At this point, Pen had never met Elizabeth’s mother. 

“The call to my mother was both an introduction to Pen as well as an ask for help to plan the wedding,” Elizabeth said. 

Before the official ceremony, the couple picked up a marriage certificate when they secretly married on February 2, 1990, in Thailand. The wedding was to take place in Elizabeth’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, on May 12, 1990. All Elizabeth and Pen required was good music and their friends. The couple designed and picked out a custom wedding dress and a suit in Thailand. 

“That meant a lot to us that we could be ourselves and express our sense of humor together. We thought it would be funny to have our first wedding be on Groundhog Day,” Pen said. “That way it would be easy to remember.” 

The humor of the official wedding being around Mother’s Day weekend was not lost on Pen and Elizabeth. For the rehearsal dinner, Elizabeth had to write her mother’s speech since she didn’t know Pen. 

“The first time that Pen had met my mother was on Mother’s Day! It was also three days before our wedding,” Elizabeth said. “It was so strange writing the toast for myself and Pen.” 

Just before the wedding, Elizabeth received a family ring from Pen. It had been his father’s ring that he had given to his mother for their 1953 wedding. 

“It included their initials and ours. It showed us that we had people in our corner supporting us from here and afar,” Elizabeth said. 

It was a large wedding with about 420 guests. Elizabeth described it as an event where “two hometowns came together.” 

“Since we had been away and hadn’t seen a lot of people in a while, all of our friends showed up. The wedding was a big bash, like a reunion. No one had sent their regrets,” Pen said. 

The reunion continued in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where Elizabeth’s mother had a summer house. 

“Since everyone was having such a great time at the wedding, some of our friends decided to join us at the beach to keep the party going,” Pen said. “Since our wedding was also like a homecoming, there was an ongoing series of parties and dinners and catch-ups.” 

After the wedding festivities, the couple returned to Thailand and lived there for two more years. They constantly hosted visitors, including friends and friends of friends. When Elizabeth was seven months pregnant, they moved to Alexandria. 

“Being back in the [Washington,] D.C. area was helpful during this phase of our lives where we could focus on our young family,” Elizabeth said. 

They had another big work move to Prague in August 1994 with their children, Pen Jr. and Stuart, but eventually, Elizabeth returned with the children to Fayetteville in January 1995 to take care of her sick mother while Pen stayed abroad. Having had their fill of long-distance relationships, they missed each other greatly and Pen cut his time short. He switched jobs in August 1995 so they could set down roots in the United States.

Elizabeth and Pen Agnew in 2024 in their home in Alexandria. (Photo/ Kaitlin Murphy)

“We are hometown people and we wanted that for our children. We made Alexandria our permanent home,” Elizabeth said. “Thailand was meaningful to us both. As our family grew, we embarked on our new adventure with our children. The home we created and live in together is where we enjoy being which is the most meaningful.”

“These are not rational decisions. Today you over-rationalize everything. What we did, we did for romance,” Pen said. 

Elizabeth smiled at Pen, “We wouldn’t have our wonderful life now if we did not take that risk.” 

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