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The One Hundred and Twelve-Year Marriage

February 11, 2008

When Mama died, Dad was eighty years old. Except for his gimpy left knee, he was in good health. Widow women swarmed around him like gnats on a sweating horse.

And then there was Ruth.

Supper at Wade’s

Wade’s Restaurant was voted the most popular eating establishment in the southeast by readers of Southern Living magazine. I have been enjoying good food at Wade’s as long as I can remember. Wade and Betty Lindsey were contemporaries of my Dad. My dad and granddad ran a lumberyard that supplied the building materials for the original restaurant. Wade’s son Tommy graduated with me from high school. Tommy’s sister and brother, Carole and Hamp, now run the family business. Naturally, when my wife Clare and I invited Dad and his wife Ruth out for supper we ate at Wade’s.

Wade’s is best known for home-style vegetables. Over a meal that included fried chicken, turnip greens, pinto beans, fried green tomatoes, green beans, and melt-in-your-mouth yeast rolls and cornbread, the four of us talked for more than two hours.

“Raising eight kids takes a lot of groceries.”

A man of eighty-seven years, Dad is doing very well. He has worked hard all of his life. He had to.

“Raising eight children takes a lot of groceries,” he says, stating the obvious. “Besides, a lumberyard won’t run itself. You have to be there pretty much all the time.”

While I was in high school and college, I worked at the family business started by my granddad with my Dad and four of my seven Neely uncles.  I have been a pastor for more than forty-two years. I didn’t have to stack lumber and handle Sheetrock for very long before I heard the Lord calling me to do something else.

Not so with Dad. He has worked at the place since he was big enough to unload a boxcar and load a truck. Dad still goes to the lumberyard everyday for a few hours, even though he no longer draws a salary. My brother Bob and my nephew Kam are now the proprietors.

My dad and granddad kept books with a sharp pencil. My brother and nephew use computers. Several years ago, I stopped by the lumberyard. Dad, then already in his eighties, was working at a keyboard, staring into the monitor.

“Do you know how to use a computer?” I asked in surprise.

“Bob put all the accounts into this thing. I had to learn enough about it to figure out how much a customer owes me.” His mind is sharper than any chisel or handsaw, sharper than his pencil used to be.

Last week, someone posed a question I am asked a lot. “How’s your Dad doing?”

I gave my standard answer. “Between a new knee and a new wife, Dad’s as fine as frog’s hair.”

“Making up could be a lot of fun.”

After supper, table talk turned to wedlock. Dad and Ruth will have been married five years in May 2008. When asked how matrimony has been for them the second time around, Ruth said, “As far as I know, we have never had an argument.”

Dad quickly added with a gleam in his eye, “I’ve tried several times to make her mad just so we could kiss and make up. Making up could be a lot of fun.”

Ruth blushed and giggled.

It was the same reaction to my dad’s teasing that I had seen in my mama so many times before.

Dad and Mama met as teenagers at church. He had finished a two-year degree at North Greenville Junior College and had come back home to Spartanburg to work at the lumberyard. She had graduated from high school, and after a brief stay at Mary Washington College in Virginia, had returned to enroll at Winthrop College.

During their courtship, Dad drove to Rock Hill almost every weekend to visit his sweetheart. Because gasoline was rationed, he would siphon fuel from a lumber truck to fill up his 1936 Ford before making the two-hour trip through the South Carolina Upstate.

They dated for three years before Dad asked Mama to marry him. They were engaged for another year. Mama wanted to drop out of college and get married. Dad insisted that she finish. He had wanted to complete a four-year degree, too, but World War II made that impossible.

The war years were especially difficult for Dad. He was one of nine children, the fourth of seven brothers. During the war, his oldest brother was a missionary in South America. Both his second and third brothers enlisted, one in the Navy, another in the Army Air Corps. A younger brother and two future brothers-in-law also enlisted. Dad desperately wanted to serve in the military. Poor eyesight and a knee crushed on the rocks of the North Tyger River gave him a 4-F classification, a brutal disappointment he carries to this day.

Two weeks after Mama graduated from Winthrop, she and Dad were married June 10,1943, in the church where they first met. They moved into a four-room house that Dad built himself. I came along fourteen months later, barely escaping the baby-boomer designation by one year.

“I still miss your mama.”

Dad leaned across the table at Wade’s and said, “I still miss your mama.”

“Of course you do,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s going to ever go away.” He brushed away a tear. “And Ruth still misses Ray. You can’t be married as long as we were to our first partners without thinking about them. One of the best things about our marriage is that we can talk about it with each other.”

Mama died the Wednesday after Easter 2001. I recalled having supper with Dad, also at Wade’s, just before Christmas later that year. As the holidays approached, Clare and I were worried about Dad, as were all of my brothers and sisters and their spouses. After the meal on that December night, I told Dad that Clare and I had to go to Wal-Mart.

“You don’t have to hurry,” he said. “They stay open all night.”

“Have you been shopping at Wal-Mart in the middle of the night?”

“Yes, I have. I don’t have much trouble going to sleep at night, but when I wake up and your Mama is not there, that bed is the loneliest place in the world. I get up, get my shower, get dressed, and go to Wal-Mart. That’s when I’ve done all of my Christmas shopping. In the middle of the night.”

“I guess it’s better than lying in bed crying.”

“You’ve got that right! I’ll tell you something else. Waffle House stays open all night, too.”

“Have you been going to Waffle House in the middle of the night?”

“I sure have! If I wake up at two or three o’clock in the morning, missing your Mama so bad I can’t stand it, I get up and go to Wal-Mart, I stop by Waffle House and eat breakfast, and I can still get to the lumberyard by five o’clock. I can get two good hours of bookwork done before I open for business at seven.”

“No wonder you don’t have any trouble going to sleep at night.”

“Nope. I read the Bible, say my prayers, and go right to sleep.”

Dad’s grief following my mother’s death was profound. None of us realized how much she had become dependent on him. They had always been pretty much inseparable. In those last years of her life, Mama’s health was failing. Her eyesight was gone. She developed congestive heart failure. Dad came home every morning from the lumberyard about nine o’clock to fix her breakfast. He stayed with her until she had her shower and was dressed and settled.

A gentle death

Late one night Mama woke up with an awful headache. Dad helped her to the bathroom. She took two aspirin, strong medicine for Mama. Dad suggested calling EMS, but Mama refused. “Just lie down by me, and help me get warm.”

With some hesitation, Dad did as Mama asked. From her extensive antique quilt collection, Dad chose one of her favorites, and covered her up. He hugged her close to him, wrapping his arms around her. They both went back to sleep.

When Dad woke up, Mama had died in her sleep. Death could not have come any more gently. Swaddled in a quilt, at home in her bedroom with the love of her life holding her, would have been the way she would have chosen to die.

“I’ll never get married again!”

Mama and Dad were married fifty-eight years. They had eight children, and forty-five grandchildren. Their home and their lives were filled with love.

At the table at Wade’s, I asked Dad how many great-grandchildren he has now. “Twenty, and three more on the way.” He paused, and added. “Three on the way that we know about.” He then spoke the names of each one of the twenty great-grandchildren.

Getting used to a large family has been perhaps Ruth’s biggest adjustment in this marriage. She and Dad never speak about his children and her children. They regard each one as a part of their family. The family simply thinks of them by the names ascribed by their grandchildren – Bebop and Nanna.

When Mama died, Dad was bereft, adrift, lonely, and vulnerable. Some women were unbelievably forward in their pursuit. He was out all hours of the night at Wal-Mart and Waffle House; that was the part we knew about. All of us, especially my four sisters, felt the need to protect him.

Dad made it clear that he had no intention of taking up with another woman. “I had the best wife any man could have. There will never be another woman for me. I’ll never get married again.”

Rainbow over Greenlawn

And, as I said, then there was Ruth.  Ruth and Ray Cash already had a connection to our family. Their son, Bruce, is married to my youngest sister, Kitty. Ruth and Ray were members of the church that I pastor.  Two months before they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Ray was diagnosed with cancer. For ten long months, Ruth lovingly tended her dying husband in their home.

As their pastor, I visited several times during his long illness. A hospital bed and extensive medical equipment occupied the front room. Though she almost always had a smile, during her vigil strain and fatigue were evident. In Ruth’s face, I saw her sorrow and her devotion to Ray.

And, as I said, Dad was at loose ends. He was looking for things to do.

Kitty and Bruce and several of their children were involved in a Little Theatre production. Dad went to the dress rehearsal.

The next night, Bruce asked Dad if he would stay with Ray so Ruth, could attend opening night. Dad graciously agreed.

In the early morning hours of May 11, 2002, Ray died.

Ray’s funeral was on a cloudy afternoon a few days later. He was interred in the mausoleum at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens. After the service, I walked with Ruth to the family car. Arching across the sky was a full rainbow.

Over iced tea at Wade’s, Dad said, “That was the first time I knew I had feelings for Ruth. I saw her standing there under that beautiful rainbow, and I knew her heart was broken. I knew exactly how empty she felt because I still felt that way. I just wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her.”

“I felt like I was doing something wrong.”

Bruce’s mom was a widow. Kitty’s dad was a widower. When Kitty fixed a special meal, inviting Dad and Ruth to join them was only natural. After all, all six of Kitty and Bruce’s children, were Ruth’s grandchildren and also Dad’s.

Though my other sisters had trouble seeing it coming, Kitty and I knew as the months went by, Dad and Ruth were falling in love. I saw them sitting together in church. Dad quit making rash promises about how he would never marry again.

Ruth said, “I remember the first time we went out to eat together after church one Sunday. Neither of us could eat a thing because we felt so awkward.”

“I felt like I was doing something wrong, like I was cheating, being out with another woman. It didn’t take me too long to get over that,” Dad said with that same twinkle in his eye.

Ruth leaned into him patting his arm.

“What’s my name? Puddin’ tame.”

“Sometimes I call her by your Mama’s name. I wish I could stop doing that. I’ve gotten better.”

“Sometimes I call him Ray,” Ruth said. “He just laughs.”

“The other night, as I was drifting off to sleep, I called her the wrong name.”

“Yes,” said Ruth,  ” I got right in his face and asked, ‘What’s my name?'”

Dad chuckled. “You know what I said, half asleep? I said,

‘What’s my name?

Puddin’ tame.

Ask me again,

I’ll tell you the same.'”

A wedding with five pastors

There was quite a buzz when Dad and Ruth decided to get married. They talked to my brother Bill, and he encouraged them. As the pastor of the church where Dad and Ruth are members, I agreed to officiate at the ceremony, but all five ordained pastors in our family participated. It was, to say the least, an unusual wedding.

For Kitty and Bruce, in-laws were becoming their stepparents.  Their six children were trying to figure out what this marriage meant for them. Would they all suddenly become weird because of a quirk of intermarriage? One thing we all can all affirm is that Dad and Ruth have a lot of love to give.

Love the second time around is not easy. Just two weeks after Dad and Ruth were married, her daughter Kathy died after an extended illness. “The more people you love, the more grief you have to endure,” Dad said.

After they repeated their vows nearly five years ago, I commented, “Dad and Ruth know what it means to pledge ‘for better or worse.’ They understand what ‘in sickness and in health’ means. They know that when they vow ‘till death do us part,’ one of them will have to go through the loss of a marriage partner for the second time.”

In the ceremony, Dad responded spontaneously, “It’s all worthwhile to be with the person you love.”

“We’ve been married one hundred and twelve years!”

At the table at Wade’s, Ruth held Dad’s arm. “Though it has been not quite five years, sometimes I feel like we’ve been married for a long, long time. It’s a wonderful thing to be married to your best friend and your soul mate.”

To celebrate their third wedding anniversary, Dad and Ruth went to an inn in Tryon, North Carolina. At dinner, they held hands across a candlelit table to say the blessing.

The young waitress commented, “This must be a special occasion.”

“Yes, it’s our wedding anniversary.”

“Congratulations! How long have you been married?”

“We’ve been married one hundred and twelve years,” said Dad with that twinkle in his eye.

“A hundred and twelve years?” the waitress asked.

“That’s right! I was married to my first wife for fifty-eight years. She was married to her first husband for fifty-one years. And we’ve been married to each other for three years. That makes one hundred and twelve years.”

Ruth was right. It does seem like they have been married for a long, long time.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, February 2008

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