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A Love Story

February 11, 2013

The two met as teenagers at church. Their first several dates were sitting together during Sunday evening worship services. Then he asked her to go to a movie, the picture show, as he called it. Their love for each other continued to grow into a long-term marriage. For me, the two would become Mama and Dad.

After high school Dad finished a two-year degree at a junior college. He returned to Spartanburg to work at the family lumberyard the summer before Mama enrolled at Winthrop College. Dad drove to Rock Hill almost every weekend to visit his sweetheart.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II. Because gasoline was rationed, Dad often siphoned fuel from a lumber truck to fill up his 1936 Ford before making the two-hour trip to Rock Hill.

Mama wanted to drop out of college and get married, but Dad insisted that she finish her degree. He had wanted to complete a four-year degree, too, but World War II made that dream impossible.

On June 10, 1943, two weeks after Mama graduated from Winthrop, she and Dad were married in the church where they first met. They moved into a four-room house that Dad built himself, and I came along fourteen months later.

During Mama and Dad’s fifty-eight years of marriage, they had eight children and forty-five grandchildren. Their home and their lives were filled with love.

Late one night in April 2001 Mama woke up with a terrible headache and took two aspirin, strong medicine for Mama. Dad helped her to the bathroom and suggested calling EMS, but Mama refused, instructing, “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. He hugged her close to him, wrapping his arms around her. They both drifted back to sleep.

When Dad woke up the following morning, Mama had died. 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.

Dad’s grief following my mother’s death was profound. None of us realized how much she had become dependent on him.  In those last years of her life, Mama’s health was failing. Her eyesight had dimmed, and 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 showered, dressed, and gotten settled.

Mama died the Wednesday after Easter 2001.

As Christmas approached that year, Clare and I met Dad for supper at Wade’s Restaurant. During the meal we had a memorable conversation.

After the meal that December night, I told Dad that Clare and I had to go to Wal-Mart.

“You don’t have to hurry, you know,” 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. When I wake up though and your Mama is not there, that bed is the loneliest place in the world. I get up, take my shower, dress, and go to Wal-Mart. That’s when I’ve done all of my Christmas shopping. I’ll tell you something else. Waffle House stays open all night too.”

“You’ve been going to Waffle House in the middle of the night too?”

“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 shop a while at Wal-Mart. Then I stop by Waffle House for breakfast. I can still get to the lumberyard by five o’clock.”

“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.”

When Mama died, Dad was eighty years old. Except for his gimpy left knee, he was in good health. But Dad was bereft, adrift, lonely, and vulnerable. Widows swarmed around him like gnats on a sweating horse. Some were unbelievably forward in their pursuit.

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.”

And then there was Ruth.

Ruth and her husband, Ray, were members of the church 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.

Though Ruth almost always had a smile on her face during her vigil, strain and fatigue were evident. I saw in her expression her sorrow and her devotion to Ray.

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

After Ray’s funeral service a few days later, I walked with Ruth to the family car. Arching across the cloudy sky that afternoon was a full rainbow.

Dad, who attended the service, later said, “I saw Ruth with a broken heart. She was standing under that beautiful rainbow. I knew exactly how empty she felt because I still felt that same way. I just wanted to take Ruth in my arms and comfort her.  I knew then that I had feelings for her.”

As the months passed, I knew Dad and Ruth were falling in love. I saw them sitting together in church. Dad quit making rash promises about how he would never remarry.

A year later in Mary 2003 Dad and Ruth were married. I, along with the five other ministers in our family, officiated at their wedding.

Love the second time around is not easy. Two weeks after the wedding, Ruth’s daughter, Kathy, died after an extended illness.

“The more people you love, the more grief you must endure,” Dad said.

Ruth knows. Dad died in February 2010.

Ruth recently said, “Though we were only married for seven years, sometimes I feel like we were married for a long time. It’s wonderful 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,” beamed Dad with that familiar 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.” Then nodding to Ruth, he explained, “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.”

That is a story of enduring love.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2013
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