Sahrah Elswick recently found herself a minor internet celebrity after a photo of her grandfather taken at her July 6 wedding captured the attention and hearts of thousands of strangers on Twitter.
Elswick, of Alderson, W.Va., says she always had a close relationship with her grandparents Billy and Barbara Gray.
In fact, she, her mother and younger brother all lived with her grandparents at one point. But even later in life she says her grandparents were always near.
So, of course, when she took her wedding vows, marrying her longtime boyfriend Zach along the Greenbrier River in Alderson, it was her grandfather who walked her down the aisle.
And when it was time to grab a bite to eat, Billy took a seat across from his wife.
It was an emotional scene that caught the attention of his granddaughter, who quickly asked one of her friends to take the now viral photo.
Because “Pawpaw,” as Elswick calls him, was sitting on a hay bale across from a rocking chair covered in photos of loved ones departed.
Among the photos was one of his wife of 45 years, who lost her brief bout with colon cancer in 2017.
“She was my best friend,” Elswick says of her grandmother. “I came to her about everything.”
She says she isn’t even sure she could have gotten married if her grandmother hadn’t been at the wedding in some manner.
Elswick says Gray knew that a photo of his wife and three others along with a note that read, “I know you would be here today if Heaven wasn’t so far away,” would be part of the wedding. But Elswick says seeing her grandfather across from her grandmother’s photo caught her off guard.
“I had no idea he was going to sit there, and when I saw him, I immediately started crying because it moved me so much,” she says. “And everyone else at my wedding actually. … It’s so pure.”
And so late that night, Elswick took to Twitter, posting the photo and a closeup of the chair along with the caption, “Pawpaw sat and ate with mawmaw today at my wedding.”
“It was just so empowering and such an important part of my wedding, I wanted to share it with my small amount of followers,” she says of the post. “I just want them to see true love is real and it doesn’t die. It’s a forever thing. And it can be heartbreaking but it’s real.”
Her message was quickly received by her 471 followers and then some, as it has been retweeted nearly 20,000 times, loved more than 178,000 times and has close to 600 comments.
“I rarely reply in Twitter, but this is love,” one person wrote. “These pictures say so much about your pawpaw. Thank you for sharing. You are lucky to have such a great role model of what marriage should look like.”
Another shared a photo and a similar story from a family wedding, writing, “I completely understand. My niece recently got married and not only did she lose her mother, but her grandmother 2 mo. before. We honored them both with a front row seat.”
Elswick says the response initially took her by surprise as she was a little upset at first that such a personal moment had been seen by so many. But she then realized the photo might have a greater purpose.
“I think it just hits home with people,” she says. “It’s raw and relatable. It gives people hope that there is true love out there and that they shouldn’t settle. It’s a good reminder.”
And although her grandfather doesn’t have Twitter or any form of social media, he says he’s well aware of what’s taken place over the past week. And he doesn’t mind. He likes that people are learning about his wife, whom he met on his trash route when she was a student at Gauley Bridge High School in 1970.
“I picked up her trash on Monday and we fell in love and I asked her to marry me,” he says. “She said she still had another year in school so I stayed until she graduated.”
The couple raised two children and have five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, a girl, born to Sahrah and Zach on Barbara’s birthday last Aug. 8.
“She thought a lot of her grandchildren,” he says. “That baby (Karsyn) was born on her birthday and she’s got red hair just like my wife.”
Gray says he was happy to walk his granddaughter down the aisle, and although he hadn’t planned to sit across from the chair with Barbara’s photo, he says he did it to be closer to her.
“I wanted to be with her,” he says. “It made me feel a little better. I sat there and looked at her and told her I still love her.”
Elswick says she looks to their love as she starts out what she hopes will be a successful marriage.
“They’re amazing,” she says. “You don’t always see such a love like that these days.”
And, as always, Gray says he’ll be close by.
“I’ll be by her side any time she needs me,” he says. “I think the world of her.”