On the southern side of a nearby city, in the poorer residential district among condemned houses, crowded streets, and shouting neighbors, a treasure of great wealth lies tucked away.
One can drive up the hill away from the sprawling hospital complex, away from the manufacturing district, away from the city noises, and turn left onto a wide, brick, tree-lined lane showcasing pristine houses built in the June Cleaver era of our country.
It was into this utopian atmosphere that I was invited yesterday, into the home that Mr. & Mrs. C. have spent most of their married lives.
That’s a long time. It’s decades longer than I’ve been alive, because Mr. and Mrs. C. just recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
And yesterday morning, I was invited into their inner sanctum to hear them tell their story.
We sat at a round plastic picnic table on this porch, where we could talk to the mailman as he walked his route, wave at the neighbors driving by, and enjoy a lovely breeze while we chatted. At first they seemed a little formal, despite the fact that we’ve known each other 25 years, like they felt they were being interviewed on television. But when they realized they could just tell me stories and I’d be thrilled, they relaxed and became more animated. Since Mr. C. has had at least two strokes in recent years, he’s a little hard to understand, and sometimes his mind wanders, but I wouldn’t trade the hour I spent with these special people for anything.
They spoke to me of where they were born, describing the streets and the cities, the farms and the coal mines. They told of their parents and their siblings, their schooling and their faith. Their voices faltered as they worked to sort out the order of events in their somewhat foggy memories, but some things are clear and without doubt.
The day they met. The day they married, a mere six months later. The dates their daughters were born.
The important mile markers in life.
When Mr. C. recounts his days in battle, his voice intensifies with energy and clarity. Drafted only six months after they married, he is a veteran of World War II. He remembers swimming ashore on D-Day at Normandy, wading through a mass of dead bodies to surge forward and fight for freedom. He can describe driving a 6x6 as well as an 18-wheeler full of gasoline across Europe’s roads and alleys. And he vividly remembers the Battle of the Bulge.
“The planes were coming out of nowhere. They were our planes, but they had Germans in them, and the shelling just didn’t stop. The Germans infiltrated our trucks, too. We discovered Germans in the chow line. The fact that they didn’t speak good English showed them up. Once they were discovered, a huge fight broke out. By the time I was able to get to chow, I had to walk over their bodies.
"But it was those airplanes that killed my best friend. Plane after plane came. They shelled us, and I saw him out in the field. I watched him explode. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
It’s obvious that he hasn’t. But it’s also obvious that, although he eventually returned to the States battle weary and shell-shocked, he adjusted and lived a productive and happy life. Reunited with his wife, they bought the house we were sitting in and started having babies. He worked hard at a dairy as a milk peddler and later at a manufacturing firm as a carpenter, earning the money his family needed to put his kids through school. He went to church every time he could, and he made a good life for himself and his girls.
All too soon it was time for me to go. As I was picking up my purse and keys, they pulled me indoors to see their wedding photo where it sits on the right side of the mantel. On the left side sits a similar photo, their 70th anniversary photo. Mrs. C. began telling me (again) about the first time they met—at the water fountain at work—and how he walked her all the way home afterward. But this time there was something new.
“And as we walked, he sang to me.”
Really? I had trouble believing it. “He sang to you? While you were walking?” Oh my goodness, how romantic is that?
“Yes, you know the song.” She began singing, quietly at first, a song I’d never heard. With a glance over at him, where he sat watching her with stars in his eyes, her confidence grew and her voice became more sure. A few lines later she paused, and he jumped into the song, eyes on hers, voice singing his love for her with all the strength he could muster. She dropped out and he finished the song with her hand on his cheek and smiles on both of their faces.
“I have the best husband in the world,” she whispered.
It’s amazing to watch a couple who has been married for seven decades and is still madly in love with each other.
I wiped my eyes, gave them hugs goodbye, and left with a smile in my heart.
Some people look at this elderly couple—she at 91 years old and he at 89—and think what a waste of time it is to have to work to hear their quavering voices, to have to speak loudly and distinctly to make them hear. They view these people as a drain on our society, with her constant need of vision care as she slowly goes blind and with his need for continual oxygen and medication.
But it wasn’t a waste of time to me. It was an incredible blessing to be able to sit down with these gems, to be able to absorb their world and the memories they chose to share with me.
My life has been enriched in a way I will never forget.