KENNEBUNK, Maine — For many, inviting a former U.S. president to attend and serve as the witness to your wedding would be an unthinkable prospect, but for Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen, it was just an invitation to a long-time friend.
Clement and Thorgalsen’s Sept. 21 wedding drew national attention when former President George H.W. Bush served as an official witness, attending the ceremony with his wife, Barbara.
“We just thought for us personally that would be the most memorable and would just be a great thing,” Clement said.
When Thorgalsen posted a photo on her Facebook page with the caption “Getting our marriage license witnessed!” and it showed Bush signing the marriage license, the couple’s big day went viral. Clement, who co-owns H.B. Provisions in Kennebunk’s Lower Village, said the two were away overseas when they began receiving emails from various news outlets ranging.
“We never expected it to grow this big,” Clement said.
Clement said she and Thorgalsen have known the Bushes, who own a compound in Kennebunkport, for many years. Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, were also invited but had a prior commitment, Clement said.
“It wouldn’t have been uncommon for us to invite them because we have been friends of theirs many, many years. And so it seemed like what’s the big deal. They just attended a wedding of long-time friends, and we invited them as long-time friends,” Clement said.
Gay marriage became legal in Maine in December, and Clement said with the Republican Bush attending the ceremony — whose son former President George W. Bush opposed same-sex marriage — the discussion in the media turned political.
“This was not a political statement. This was our friends coming to our wedding,” Clement said. “We get how blessed and lucky we are for them to be our friends. We just never expected it to be this way.”
Clement and Thorgalsen were married before 65 guests at the oceanside Kennebunkport home of a member of the Bush family staff.
Clement said their story dates back to more than 12 years ago, when she was running the then-Dockside Café in Kennebunkport and Thorgalsen began working at the restaurant.
The couple started dating and decided to venture into business together, purchasing the space that is now H.B. Provisions, a general store named using both their initials. With Thorgalsen’s two daughters, Lindsey and Audrey, the couple moved above the store.
A few years later, Thorgalsen left the business. She and Clement split up for a short period of time but stayed in touch. They were drawn back together when Clement was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
“She said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to be here for as long as this takes. We’re just going to work through this.’ So we did,” Clement said. “It was a very long year of treatment, and we just sort of realized at this point that it was destined. We just never really have been apart. I said we always knew.”
About a year ago, Clement wasn’t feeling well and was transported from her store by ambulance to Southern Maine Medical Center. While she ended up being OK physically, the experience was a pivotal one for her relationship.
“Helen had always been a part of any medical care I had. When the girls were in school I would be a part of all of their medical stuff. I’m in the emergency room, and I’m thinking where is Helen, and it was a while before she finally was able to get in. She was out in the waiting room, and they wouldn’t let her in,” Clement said. “I thought, ‘My God, what if I was unconscious.’ It was a very, very scary moment for me and became a huge realization for both of us that this is unacceptable. We had been together for almost 12 years at that time, and I thought this just isn’t right.”
In December 2012, while celebrating Thorgalsen’s birthday, Clement surprised her with a trip to Vermont, inviting their youngest daughter to attend a birthday dinner and including their older daughter via FaceTime. With both daughters tuning in, Clement popped the question.
“She looked at me and said ‘I thought we weren’t going to do this.’ I said, ‘That was 12 years ago, I think this is time based on everything that’s gone on and the new laws in the state of Maine. I think it’s time for us,’” Clement said. “I said, ‘By the way, does that mean yes?’ She said, ‘Yes, of course.’”
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of planning a wedding that received such unanticipated attention.
“We said it probably was a good thing that we weren’t here for it all. We keep thinking it’s got a little bit of a shelf life,” Clement said. “But really, it was about our wedding, to finally acknowledge the fact that we are a couple that is committed, that we have two beautiful daughters and are soon to be grandparents. We’re blessed in so many ways, you just can’t imagine.”