They were very young when they married back in 1936, and also quite poor. They had 13 children, but lost two of them in early childhood to illness. Another nearly died of polio. They lived in a old, small house in southern Kentucky where my Grandpa was a coal miner and a preacher.
Sometime around the mid-1960's, he retired from coal mining and left his church and they moved to Dayton, Ohio where he became a high school custodian. Although he no longer pastored his own church, he did preach from time to time as God provided the opportunity. By this time, all but two of their children were married with families of their own.
Their house in Dayton was about an hour away from ours. During many Summers in my childhood, I would spend a couple of weeks with them. A typical day at their house began very early, waking to the smell of fresh buttermilk biscuits, gravy, eggs and bacon. Grandpa would leave for work before dawn. Grandma and I would putter around in the house, playing games, cleaning house, baking or working in her unbelievable flower garden. It really never mattered to me what we were doing...I loved being with her. A petite little lady (not even 5 feet tall), she had a very gentle way and sweet...they just didn’t get any sweeter. One of my favorite things about her was her belly laugh. I remember trying to think of funny things to say, just so I could hear it.
Around 3:00 or so in the afternoon, I’d start watching for my Grandpa. He’d pull into the driveway in his pea-green Dodge Dart and I’d watch him walk up the sidewalk carrying his gray metal lunch box. "Hello Tracy-Jane!" he’d say. (It was his habit to call all his granddaughters, regardless of their given middle name, "Jane.") After scooping me up into a big hug, he’d say…"let’s go have a snack." We’d sit at their kitchen table and have a tall glass of milk and a couple of Little Debbie snack cakes. Usually, by this time Grandma was starting dinner and I’d help. When we sat down to eat, Grandpa would always pray a simple, but beautiful prayer and we’d enjoy a wonderful meal together. After the dinner dishes were cleaned up, we'd sometimes watch tv, work crossword puzzles or catch lightning bugs. Wonderful, wonderful memories of those days.
When I reached high school (probably about the time my Grandpa retired from the school), I noticed he and Grandma started acting more like young siblings than husband and wife. (As I think of it now, it's possible that was always their way but as a child, I just never saw it.) As the years continued on, however, I became very aware of it, and though the family tried to make light of their quarrels, it really bothered me. Couples their age (especially Grandparents) were supposed to be happy and content. It was such a strange irony that the sweet love they lavished on their children and grandchildren seemed sadly absent in their own marriage. Instead, it was often Grandpa being critical and petty, and Grandma, no longer holding her tongue, dishing criticism back at him. While there was little doubt they loved each other, for much of the last 20 years of their marriage, they seemed to drive each other crazy.
God in his infinite grace, however, didn't leave things that way. Through illness, He stirred a long-forgotten love in them for one another that was precious.
It began with Grandpa. Though his body was still very strong, he began showing signs of dimentia and then Alzheimer's. As you can imagine, this was quite stressful and often difficult for my Grandma and other family members who lived nearby. When something confused him, Grandpa would have bouts of anger, and he would accuse Grandma of moving things, or making meals he didn't like, etc. Rather than reacting as she had in the past, we began to notice a softening on the part of my Grandma toward him. God was obviously tendering her heart. Even when the situations were trying and exhausting, she became a kind and compassionate support to him. I remember she told me one day, "I don't know what I'll do if he dies before me." As you might expect, Grandpa's condition continued to deteriorate. He had come to a place where he would sit and stare off in the distance for long periods of time. He grew very quiet and rarely spoke more than a sentence or two.
In the midst of this time, Grandma began having serious heart problems. Even though she was in her 80's, her doctors believed she was strong enough and could recover from the surgery needed to repair her heart. The surgery was a success, but her recovery was hampered by one complication after another. Soon, it became apparent she was not going to fully recover. Her heart was quite weak and we knew at some point, it would just give out. She never left the hospital.
But something began to change in my Grandpa. He began to undergo a remarkable transformation. He was suddenly engaging with others again…particularly Grandma. He spoke so sweetly to her, and she to him as well. He only left her side when they absolutely made him (just so that he could rest). They held hands constantly. It was as if they fell in love all over again. They were absolutely precious with each other and became known to everyone as "the lovebirds."
The night before Grandma died, my sister and I were at the hospital. My mom, and all my aunts and uncles were there along with several cousins. They had been singing hymns in the room all throughout the day. Grandpa was sitting by her side, holding her hand and had been for hours. Earlier in the day, when she was still somewhat responsive, he let go once and she immediately reached for it again. By the time we arrived, she was no longer responsive at all, though the doctor said she could still hear us. Everyone knew it could be any time. We all had taken an opportunity to touch and kiss her cheek and whisper how much we loved her. As midnight approached, they asked Grandpa if he wanted to go home and rest, and he reluctantly agreed. He was so very tired. They told him to kiss Grandma good-bye. (It was hard to tell if he understood that meant probably for the last time.) My sister and I were standing just opposite of him. He slowly stood and shuffled up close to Grandma's face, leaned over and kissed her, then whispered "I love you." He then looked intently at her for a couple of moments. There was no response, but he looked at us and said…"she says she loves me too…" We both had to hold back the tears until he was gone. I will never forget that moment. She passed away around 5 am the following morning.
At her funeral, my uncle (a Pastor in his 60’s), explained that until the last few weeks, he had never, in his entire life, seen his parents kiss! Apparently even in their younger years, they rarely showed affection to one another in front of their children. In those last few weeks, there was a love and affection between them unlike anything we had ever seen..they absolutely clung to every moment together. It was a precious sight to behold. I'm so thankful to God for the incredible comfort of their awakened love. It's what I think about every time I look at this sweet picture.
Grandpa currently lives with my Aunt and Uncle in Georgia. He is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and is quite feeble and frail. It seems it won’t be long until he and Grandma will be together again. No doubt that will be quite a sweet reunion.
...And I will restore to you the years the locust hath eaten...
~Joel 2:25 (KJV)