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A life well lived; Love and the Dust Bowl generation
A story of true love
This story is about true love. Love that is palpable and inspired and transcends loss. And the inspiration and story of this love- my grandparents.
My grandparents were born in the teens and 20's and endured the Great Depression, the dust bowl days, and World War II. They lived through hardship and survived, and through those hard times, they learned to live their lives to the fullest. They demonstrated by example how to live well. Well in every sense no matter what life threw at you. They had a truly good life and they loved one another from the depths of their souls. Theirs was a romantic love that never died, and was evident to the end. They had friends and family they loved and who loved them. They had a warm and inviting home, traveled, had many interests, loved to laugh, and were a source of energy, warmth and optimism to those around them.
My grandad was a supervising engineer for Boeing. Growing up in the depression in Kansas, he did not receive a college education. He volunteered in World War II, and began working for Boeing, where he worked his way up to supervisor in planning and production and supervised lots of men with engineering degrees under their belts. My grandad taught himself calculus, learned the algorithms, learned everything there was to know about engineering and airplane building from his time at Boeing. By all accounts, my grandad was a boss who had integrity,was kind to everyone, self-effacing, strong, smart, creative and well liked by all. To me, he was loving, funny, artistic, curious, and just fun to be around. He had a laugh that sparkled and laughed a lot. Black hair and blue eyes that were gentle and deep and kind. He had a hat and a camera wherever we went. He would buy candy bars and hats for the grand kids whenever we went anywhere and always had a new trick, toy or game for us to play when we came over.. He was a wonderful artist, who drew and painted for the sheer joy of doing it. The grandkid's favorite place was on a napkin at any restaurant we happened into. My grandad drew on every napkin he could get ahold of to the delight of the kids! A voracious reader, he knew quite a lot and had a curiosity and interest in many, many things; art, religion, engineering, science, philosophy, music, math, writing, literature, geology, photography, architecture, politics and history. He could explain anything to you, it seemed to me, and make you think about the world around you in a different way. My grandad was a true Renaissance man, although he would have thought that was funny, me calling him that. He was also funny and loved to play practical jokes on his friends. One time he stuck a banana in his friend's coat pocket who was going up to the front of the church serving as usher. He would make "dummies" out of pillows with a hat on top and have them sitting in a dark room when you opened the door, scaring you to death! For several years after the war, he wrote letters to one of his friends in broken English, as a woman the friend had supposedly met in France. "She" would write to him using double entendres, little cartoons, "memories" of their times together. The letters continued for 10 years, every few months or so, they would come postmarked from Europe( you could send off for these return addresses in magazines in those days) These letters were so funny, the friend started showing others the letters, and they took on a life of their own. Eventually they figured out it was someone they knew, but no one ever knew, and no one ever told, that it was my grandad.
My grandad was a hero in my eyes. The epitome of what a man should be. He was the last of 9 children. He was always shy, he said, and really didn't know if life was worth the trouble before he met my grandmother, Wilma, when he was 23 and she was 17.
They met at a little Baptist church when Wilma was staying the summer with her aunt and uncle in Wichita. My grandad was engaged, so my grandmother had nothing to do with him, although he told her he really didn't know how it (the engagement) had happened, exactly. He sort of got talked into it and didn't remember actually asking the girl! He wasn't in love, and broke off the engagement after the first time he met Wilma. She still wouldn't have anything to do with him because he was too much older, she said. She also had aspirations to be a nurse, and then become an airline stewardess. Wilma was from a little town in the panhandle of Oklahoma called Guymon. Wilma was a stunning beauty. A huge smile with the whitest teeth you've ever seen. Knocked you out when she smiled. Big dimples, hazel eyes and a figure - seriously- that was perfect. 36-24-36. Movie star looks. But even more stunning than her looks was her personality. She "glowed" . She was a grounded, tough little cookie who had grown up in hard times and was a survivor. She could light up a room, and I loved her with all of my heart. She could sing and dance the jig and the Charleston. She was a natural gymnast, and athelete, played basketball with her church league into her 40's, and could still walk on her hands across the room in her 60's! ( As I'm writing this, I'm amazed at how few genetics I seemed to have gotten from her) I was their first grandchild, and for some reason, I called her Wilma and him Grandad, and it stuck.
And Wilma loved Jack. She did marry him, at 18 years of age. They got engaged one hot and windy Kansas day at the local airport, where my grandad loved to watch the planes take off. He brought a bag of peanuts along and asked Wilma if she'd like some. As she reached in the bag, she pulled out a little box with a ring in it. On the morning of August 2nd, 1940, they were married at the home of one of my Grandad's sisters. They had fried chicken and biscuits for the post wedding breakfast. Wilma became a 40's and 50's wife, which she did exceedingly well. (Another trait that seems not to have made it to me) She kept her home organized, her family happy and healthy and active, was a leader in her church groups for 30 years, and did it all in high heels and a skirt! She was a woman of faith and devotion, strength and wisdom. She was someone I admired, loved and looked up to.
They were an amazing couple. They were wonderful partners, parents, grandparents and friends to all who knew them. They spread their happiness with ease, helped those in need whenever and however they could. They had a life that inspired people. But it wasn't until later that I understood and saw the depth of their love and faith.
Loss and love and looking forward
In 1983 when my grandad was 68, he was out cutting down a stray limb in their back yard tree, the day after Thanksgiving. He came in with numbness in his arm and leg and within minutes was unable to form words. He had suffered a massive stroke. I was 13 and remember my grandmother calling and sounding different than she ever had, asking for my mom. We went to the hospital and spent the next few days in intensive care waiting. The neurosurgeon told my grandmother in a monotone that Jack would most likely die within 36 hours, but if he managed to live, would be in a vegetative state.
My Wilma , with all of her 5 foot 1-ness, looked up at him square in the eyes and said: "God gave me 40 good years with this man, I am willing to take a few difficult ones with him, however he is. I'll take him anyway God gives him to me . You just take care of that man in there. "
I remember it vividly. She had fire in her eyes but she had not lost hope. She was not despairing. She did not feel sorry for herself. She was looking forward and looking to God.
My grandad survived and was in rehab for the next few months, but the damage had been extensive. He could no longer speak or read, and could not use his right arm or leg. Eventually he learned to walk slowly with a cane a short distance, and could sing the Lord's prayer and Happy Birthday, but no more.
The church family and friends my grandparents had were stunned, as we all were. This vibrant, funny, intelligent, caring man, who had served in so many areas of the church, led such an active life, and touched so many others lives, cut down in a few moments. Seemingly everything taken from him in one full swoop. They prayed for him, everyone prayed, waiting to see a miracle, waiting for God to show some sign of balance of justice for the righteous in this world. Years and years of praying, yet nothing.
During this time I was growing and changing. One thing that never changed was my love for my grandparents and joy in seeing them each weekend. We would travel to their house and eat lunch, or go for a drive, or just sit on the porch. My grandad would extend his good hand and shake yours heartily, smiling ; those same beautiful eyes sparkling and laughing. He would have music playing, as he could still do that. And he would always have something he wanted to show us. A new nest, an old picture, a model airplane from long ago, a rock tumbler he wanted us to have. Both of my grandparents looked the same. Dressed, ironed, ready to go. Hair combed, smelling of Old Spice and Charlie- My grandmother always had her lipstick and earrings, and yes, her high heels.
Their home was still a happy, calming place to go. I never saw Wilma or my grandad in a bad mood, never heard them complain, not one single time in ten years. In fact, they still joked with each other, still gave each other compliments, Wilma verbally, Grandad with a hug or nudge or a nod and laughter. Friends who had been abundant, tended to shrink away. Not because they were uncaring or forgot about them, just because it was uncomfortable, to be around someone who had so much joy giving to others in the past, not being able to give anymore, it tended to make people feel uncomfortable, not knowing what to say, not being able to have a real conversation, making my Grandad stumble around trying to form words he knew in his head but couldn't get out. It was just difficult for people.
For ten years, my Wilma and Grandad lived at their home, and Wilma cared for my Grandad's most basic needs, things he couldn't do anymore. For a man from the 40's and 50's, who took care of his wife and family all of his life, whose goal in life was to make my grandmother happy, this must have been torturous, but Wilma never let him feel sorry for himself or get down. And she steadily moved along, learning how to balance a checkbook, taking care of insurance, bills, yard maintenance, car problems. She did it all for him, for them, without looking back. And truly, she felt safe and happy and loved as long as my Grandad was by her side.
My Grandad died in 1993, and my Wilma, who had been showing a little decline, started suffering more from dementia and early Alzheimer's. She kind of gave up and was ready to go join my Grandad- NOW! She lived with us for awhile, and while we all hoped she would experience a little freedom and have some fun, she just could not. She was still happy and loving and wise, but her light didn't shine as brightly after my grandad passed away.
She died this past December, having slipped into late stage Alzheimer's the past few years. There weren't many people at her funeral, few old friends in their 90's and a pastor who didn't know her personally. After some talked, I felt compelled to tell the story of her life and my grandad's life, and how it had impacted me on the most basic level. Because although their story was not about miraculous healing, not about how living a faithful , good life always pays off in our lifetime, not about God responding to our prayers the way we would hope he would, it is about LIFE. Their story was about how to live your life, whatever that life is, whatever blessings and pain thatl life happens to bring with it. And it will bring both. It's about how someone is always watching you, in your weakest most vulnerable moments, and how those moments can inspire and change lives. It's about choosing to live this day, the best that you can, no matter what. But most of all, my grandparents story is about love. Their love for each other, the love of our family, and most of all God's love, which pierces the deepest darkness in our lives if we allow it to.
Because of them, I know that love truly does conquer all in the end.