Freshman orientation in college. All the excited/nervous feels, right? Unpacking, figuring out where classes are, making friends…the very last thing you’d expect is to also meet your partner for life! When Zach and Ainsley were settling in at Ithaca College, the two met and stayed friends through graduation but then lost touch for four years. As Zach says so beautifully, “It’s easy to think that those four years were missing something; that we could have spent them together if only we’d have known. But I like to think the opposite: we spent that time growing towards each other, not growing apart. We traveled and we made new friends. Through failed relationships, we learned what we needed in a successful one. We grew into ourselves, and became who we are now. Above all, we figured out what we were looking for in life and love.”
The two reconnected, a long-distance romance bloomed, and, in time, Zach and Ainsley brought their story full circle to upstate New York with a heartfelt wedding at the LakeWatch Inn!
We love a good proposal story, and this one is extra special—it’s told by the groom! Read on to get the dish on when he knew Ainsley was The One, the lengths he went to in order to conceal his plan, and how their wedding was planned.
How did you propose?
“Every person that has ever met Ainsley knows that she loves sea turtles. Not everyone knows that she also loves penguins; specifically the Adelie. When a male Adelie falls in love with a female, he searches the entire beach to find the perfect pebble to present to her. And when he finally finds it, he waddles over and places the pebble right in front of her. If she accepts it, they’re mates for life.
So it seemed fitting that the elaborate plan to propose to Ainsley be called “Project Pebble.”
Project Pebble started in December 2014 with some casual trips to jewelry stores. The topic of marriage had come up a few times, and each time afforded the opportunity to gain a little more insight into the pebble that Ainsley would find acceptable (though she promised each time that even a Ring Pop would suffice). With that knowledge, the search was on. Work travel in Israel included visits to Tel Aviv’s Diamond District. Long layovers provided shopping opportunities.
After numerous trips to jewelry stores and countless hours reading everything I could about diamonds, I finally ordered a ring. I had thought the hard part was behind me, but then remembered the only tradition that predates the diamond. I had to talk to her dad.
If you have ever talked to Ainsley’s mom, Laurel, you know it’s always an absolute pleasure. If you have ever talked to her dad (which is still an absolute pleasure), you know that he is a man of few words. It took about an hour of delaying while speaking with Laurel before I finally found the courage to ask if I could borrow a few minutes with “Mr. Smith.” Any guy that has been though this knows what comes next: the silent eternity between asking your girlfriend’s dad if he trusts that you’ll take care of her forever—just like he has—and his response. You realize in that moment that there is no reason for him to say yes. No amount of time spent together will ever be enough to convince a father of that. So when he said yes, I understood it to mean that he trusts Ainsley’s opinion of me in place of his own.
Blessing given. Ring ordered. It was time to bring the other actors into the play.
First was my dad. The ring was being shipped to my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, so it seemed wise to give him advance warning that a signature-required delivery was on its way.
The plan involved surprising not just Ainsley, but also my mom. I’m fairly certain I had her convinced that I was never getting married. I know this, because there were repeated admonitions that “Ainsley is a wonderful girl” and “if you didn’t plan to marry her, you should be up front about that.” To this day, I continue to insist that each and every time I said that I would never get married, I meant it. When I think of marriage, five couples come to mind: my mom and my dad, my Aunt Bernie and my Uncle Greg, my Aunt Delray and my Uncle John, and my four grandparents. Those five couples define what marriage is to me. And until I started dating Ainsley, I never thought that I would find for myself what each of them had found in their spouses.
To surprise my mom, my dad had his work cut out for him. But if there’s one man that will always rise to any challenge, it’s him. Not only was he in charge of hiding the ring, he had to pick me up at JFK airport and get me to my parents’ house in time for me to pick up my car and drive to Ithaca…and it all had to happen before my mom got home from work. Days earlier, he had crafted a story about my car’s “check engine” light being on, just in case he had to explain to my mom why my car was no longer in the driveway.
Surprising my mom also meant devising a way to get her to Ithaca (or at least pretty close) before arousing suspicion. Arielle, my younger sister, found a local 5k race in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania—right by the New York border—and “invited” my parents to be spectators. It was a clever way to get my mom in a car at 5:00 am in the morning.
Getting Ainsley to Ithaca was as simple as having my older sister Jessica, who was about to move to Florida with her husband, suggest a girls’ wine-tasting weekend before her migration. The plan was almost foiled when Ainsley found out my sister was pregnant with her second child, calling into question the wisdom of partaking in a wine-filled weekend. Cleverly, Jessica confessed that her plan was to be the designated driver while enjoying time with her ladies.
I knew Ainsley would want to share the moment with her parents but I also wanted the engagement itself to be an intimate moment. Taughannock Falls, just outside Ithaca, would be the perfect setting. I would wait at the bottom of the falls, while her parents and mine would have a clear (although distant) view from an overlook a few hundred feet above.
Ainsley’s parents came up with backstory of their own (a motorcycle event in New York) to explain why they would be out-of-town that weekend.
The hardest part of the whole operation was convincing Ainsley that I was still in the Middle East while spending 60 hours traveling 6,000 miles across seven time zones. Every track that could possibly need covering was covered: Hotel Ithaca created a fake reservation in case Ainsley called to verify where the girls were staying, a fake wine tour itinerary was generated, a fake meeting agenda for a series of fake meetings in Israel was ready, I kept my watch and cell phone set to the time zone I was supposed to be, and not the time zone where I was.
On June 20th, the whole plan came together. Mom and dad got into their car, along with Jessica and her baby son Jackson, to go watch Arielle run a race. Arielle was already in Ithaca with me. Jessica was playing a double-role—pretending in the car to be going to the race while pretending (via text messages with Ainsley) to be on her way to the wine weekend. Ainsley was on her way to Ithaca, and so were her parents.
Ainsley met both of my sisters in Ithaca for the planned girls’ weekend. Unfortunately, Jessica’s imaginary friends were still en route, a perfect opportunity to spend some time exploring the nearby waterfalls. My sisters suggested Taughannock Falls, loaded up the car, and drove Ainsley towards the surprise.
Ainsley will say that she suspected something was going on, but she was legitimately surprised to see me standing at the foot of Taughannock Falls. Initially, I think she was just thrilled that I was not actually on the Syrian border, where the itinerary had placed me that day. Once that shock wore off, she realized what was happening.
I spent every flight, every layover, and every night practicing what I would say to her. I was happy to stumble my way through about ten percent of it out before I could not wait any longer.
And then she said, “Yes!”
Ainsley wanted to call her parents immediately afterwards. Not knowing that they had been watching through binoculars from high above, she reached for her phone. I handed her a two-way radio, the only hint she needed that her parents were much, much closer than she thought.
Arielle, Jessica, Jackson, Ainsley and I slowly made our way back to the park entrance. By the time we got there, Ainsley already had half of the wedding planned. We knew it would be in Ithaca, in the spring or summer of 2016. We knew we wanted to have the ceremony at the Ithaca College chapel. We narrowed the reception venues down to two or three. We decided to ask Fr. Tom (a relative of mine) to marry us. But what I’ll remember most from that walk—what I’ll always remember from that walk—was holding hands and feeling, for the first time ever, a ring on Ainsley’s finger.
Both families reconvened at The Boatyard Grill in Ithaca (my favorite restaurant in college) for a celebratory lunch. Ainsley and I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting our favorite spots, walking around campus, pretend-marrying ourselves in the chapel, and strolling the commons.
Flashback: July 13, 2013 was the first time I was sure that Ainsley would someday be my wife. We were spending the weekend camping at a mosquito-infested lake in North Carolina. The park ranger warned us during check-in that, if we stayed the whole weekend, we’d be the first people to do so that season. We learned that hours of pouring rain won’t keep mosquitoes grounded. We learned that our tent was neither waterproof nor bug-proof. And we learned that we really are at our best when we’re together. So it seemed fitting that we spend our first night as an engaged couple camping, though we upgraded to a “glamp-ground” near campus with free wine, luxury linens, and lounge chairs by the campfire. It was a pleasant change, but by the next morning we both decided that, in camping and in life, we prefer adventure. And we can’t wait for whatever comes next.”