Hello there

Bonnie traveled north from Collingswood to watch New York's June 2000 Gay Pride Parade, then marched herself into a Hudson Street lesbian bar.

Rita, a graphic designer who then lived in New York, had marched in the parade and was in need of a cold drink when she walked into Ruby Fruit and spotted a vision standing in the crowd.

What happened next "was almost an out-of-body experience," Rita said. "I just watched myself going up to her."

Bonnie's T-shirt proclaimed her a "Good Catch."

"Is that true?" Rita asked. "Or are you lying to me already?"

"The person who gave it to me thought it was true," said Bonnie, then a program director for what is now the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health.

Rita bought her a drink, and the conversation flowed. They were surprised and delighted to learn both were 1969 graduates of the small Douglass Residential College, a part of Rutgers University. Too quickly, they had to part. They got to know each other better by phone, and set up a dinner date for early July. The discussions and chemistry they shared over a French meal left both feeling optimistic. "We were telephoning, e-mailing, or calling every few days," Rita said.

And then it suddenly stopped.

Rita at first worried something had happened to Bonnie. Then Bonnie told her she had reunited with an ex-girlfriend. "I really like you," Bonnie said. "But I feel like I owe this relationship another chance."

Despite her heartache, Rita felt pretty confident. These two had broken up previously for a reason. "This was in August, and I thought by the holidays this would all be over and we would be back together again," she said.

Rita dated other people. December passed and then January. By February, her resolve was gone. "I think about you. I hope you're doing OK," was all she wrote.

Bonnie said her girlfriend was going through an enormous struggle, so even though the relationship wasn't right, it wasn't the right time to end it. Then that June, Bonnie's girlfriend broke up with her.

In August 2001, Rita and Bonnie had their second first date. Bonnie invited Rita to her Collingswood home. Based on the sparks flying around, take-out seemed the best option.

Smooches happened. Plans were made. Rita worried. She wanted to be more than Ms. Rebound.

Her caution evaporated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. "After that, for me, it was, 'We might die tomorrow,' " she explained.

From then on, the couple spent most weekends together.

How does forever sound?

By 2003, Bonnie and Rita were tired of long-distance love. They found an apartment in East Falls. On Valentine's Day 2004, they exchanged rings in their living room to mark their engagement.

In 2007, the couple bought their Mount Airy home, from which Rita works as a graphic artist and Bonnie now works as a caregiver and manager, and a model and voice-over actor.

Each time same-sex marriage became legal in another state, they pondered traveling for a ceremony, and having a reception back home. But the thought rankled - why spend money on a party in a state that discriminated against them?

They wanted to marry, legally, at home. And because marriage equality seemed inevitable, the couple, who are now both 67, vowed to wait it out.

"We didn't think it would happen here this quickly, honestly," Bonnie said. "We thought we might be 77."

They were not prepared for the emotions that arose when the Corbett administration announced it would not fight the court decision allowing same-sex marriage. Rita thought back to a conversation she'd had with a college friend about her decision to be openly gay. "You'll have to live someplace like the West Village or San Francisco, and you'll have to be careful, but you'll be OK," her friend said.

Rita knew at the time her friend was probably right, "but it crossed my mind that I was about to embark on living the life of a criminal."

Then in May 2014, she and her fiancée were in line at Philadelphia City Hall to get their marriage license, and everyone around them - other people in line, city workers - offered hugs and cheers and congratulations.

"That's the trajectory of just one lifetime, and it brought us to tears," Rita said.

This was so them

With all the emotion over the license alone, the couple decided to wed privately. Siblings and a few other witnesses joined them in the chambers of Court of Common Pleas Judge Ann Butchart.

"I got as far as 'I, Bonnie Strahs,' when I broke down," Bonnie said. "I had a hard time getting through the vows."

But then they were really, truly married, and in a limo stocked with champagne that took them and seven guests to a fancy lunch at Keating's River Grill.

The brides' eyes stayed a bit drier at the more-public Sept. 13 celebration at Curtis Hall Arboretum in Wyncote. On the way into the tent where the ceremony was held, each of the 71 guests took a small river rock from a bowl. Later, officiant Barbara Gindhart asked them to infuse the stones with love, caring, support, and good wishes for the couple and the entire lesbian and gay community, then return the rocks to the bowl. It now sits on the couple's mantel.

Instead of numbers, reception tables were named for famous lesbians, from Billie Jean King to Ellen DeGeneres. Bonnie and Rita shared their first dance, to "Tenderly," with three other lesbian couples who had recently wed.

During dinner, Bonnie's voice coach, Joanne, sang while her husband, Kevin, played guitar. After dinner, the DJ transformed the room into "Disco Central."

Awestruck

Taking their vows in the judge's chamber was even more amazing and overwhelming than the women predicted. "It became so real," Bonnie said. "Finally, at last, we were recognized as human beings, and we had equal rights. It was profound." When Bonnie cried tears of joy at the start of her vows, Rita thought, "Oh my God, this woman really loves me."

Discretionary spending

A bargain: Bonnie got good deals on both wedding dresses, and Rita already owned one of her suits.

The splurge: The limo.

The getaway

A week in Provincetown, Mass., a gift from friends with a time-share.

Love: BEHIND THE SCENES

Officiant: June 28: Ann Butchart, Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia; Sept 13: Rev. Barbara Gindhart, chaplain at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Venue: Judge Butchart's chambers; Curtis Hall Arboretum, Wyncote

Food: Keating's River Grill and Joshua's Catering, both of Philadelphia

Photo: Robin Miller Photography, Philadelphia

Dresses: June 28, Ross; Sept. 13, Macy's

Suits: June 28, already owned; Sept. 13, Macy's

Music: June 28: Guitar and vocals by Sharon Katz of Sharon Katz & the Peace Train, Philadelphia; Sept. 13: Guitar and vocals by Kevin and Joanne Joella, Melrose Park; DJ Sandi Stabler, Philadelphia

Do you have the date? E-mail us - at least six weeks before your ceremony - why we should feature your love story: weddings@phillynews.com. Unfortunately, we can't respond individually to all submissions. If your story is chosen, you will be contacted.