Whenever my brothers and sisters are together, someone always tells one of the stories about mother and daddy. Mother was only 15 when they married, and Daddy was just 19. Daddy loved to tell about his mother’s reaction when he told her that he planned to marry mother. My grandmother, the original Southern Steel Magnolia, cried out, “But, she is only fifteen!” Daddy, with a twinkle in his eye, would always laugh as he repeated his response, “Ah, no, mama, she is fifteen-and-a-half.” Daddy was the only one of her five sons who ever stood up to “Mama Shaw,” so they went ahead and got married — and it was a full 10 months later before I came along. Daddy’s death prevented them from celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. His death removed only his physical, exuberant presence from our lives; his influence and all the memories are still very much alive, even in the extended family. Our reunions invariable include lots of remarks that begin, “Remember when Daddy . . .”
As a teenager, I loved to read Daddy’s mushy love letters to Mother from when he was a Marine serving in the South Pacific. As we approach Valentine’s Day, those letters and the example of a strong, faithful lifelong marriage are, to me, the essence of love. And over the years since Daddy’s death, our shy mother has come to figure prominently in her own sphere of influence with us all.
My favorite story of their young love was about my mother’s trip from Georgia to San Diego to see my father off to action in the South Pacific. That pivotal event in their lives is hard to comprehend today. Such a trip was a major undertaking in those days and speaks volumes about their relationship and the poignancy of such wartime separations.
Pin-up girls were the rage among the guys in the barracks. That close-knit unit of men shared their photos and talked about the girls they would be leaving behind. They were all impossibly young, mostly nae, inexperienced and homesick. They were just kids – too young to be facing such a long separation. Daddy was heading overseas when he had never before even left his small hometown; he was about to endure combat duty, including the deaths and maiming of close buddies, when up to that point his life had been uneventful, peaceful and centered around the ball diamond, home and family. They were just small town boys going a long way from home and leaving behind everything they loved and valued.
My mother, a genuine Georgia Peach, wasn’t yet twenty when she boarded that train headed to California on a journey to say goodbye and not knowing what Daddy would face or whether he would return. She piled in a train car full of soldiers and their wives. These travelers were stuck together for a weary week in close quarters. Little wonder, I suppose, mother arrived in San Diego with a full-blown case of Scarlet Fever.
The reunion between the young husband and wife never happened because mother was quarantined immediately upon arrival in San Diego.
Daddy could only come over to the hospital grounds hoping to catch a glimpse of Mother through the window. He found a wall outside Mother’s hospital window from which he could climb up into a tree to look longingly inside and talk with her from a distance.
One afternoon, Daddy brought his best buddy to see his “pin up girl.” When they arrived, mother was asleep. Daddy was bitterly disappointed because he had described Mother’s beauty in glowing terms, and he wanted to show off his wife to his friend. Sadly, all they could see through the window was Mother’s feet.
We have laughed down through the years at the response of Daddy’s friend. He loyally declared that Mother “sure had pretty feet.” Even now, despite her age, at the beach or other situations where Mother is barefoot, someone is sure to comment about her beautiful feet.
Mother is still beautiful – on the inside as well as on the outside. At 84, she drives her 60-year-old friends to night meetings because they cannot drive after dark. She visits 70-year-olds in the nursing home to offer them hope and a listening ear. She cooks and serves the 65 of us who show up at her house for holidays. Her character and steadfastness are a heritage that each of her seven children treasures. Through her life and daily example, we know that love is more than just a card or red roses once a year. We know the cost of caring, and we know the importance of faithfulness.