Two Become One

My hairstylist tells me that there are 2,500 weddings a year in Charleston. I’m sure the month of June claims a disproportionate share of that number…My parents were married in June. All three of my sisters we married in June. It’s just the month for weddings. School’s out…Spring’s hanging on… Love is in the air.

And no where do I sense the love more strongly than during my frequent trips to Penney Farms, Florida.   That’s where my grandparents live. They are now 95 and 98 and their lives have been simplified accordingly. They live in a two-room apartment. Their kitchen is the size of my closet and boasts only a hot plate, a microwave, a refrigerator and a small sink.

Their bed swallows the bedroom, leaving room for an 8” TV. Grandpa will pull his wheelchair next to my Grandma and they will watch the Andy Griffith show. And when Andy isn’t “sherriffing,” they will watch the goings’ on around their retirement community on closed circuit TV.

My grandparents weren’t married until they were in their 30s. But that still leaves a lot of time—65 years.

They are both from the Philadelphia area, but met at Wheaton College. Grandma—Frances she would have been called then—was a student there. And George, my Grandpa, met her when he came to pick up his sister one weekend.

It wasn’t really the beginning of anything although Frances was later invited so spend some holiday time with his family. And when she stayed for a few summer classes after her last year, George was there too and she remembers some long evening walks in the cornfield affecting her grades.

But they didn’t stay in close contact and when she went to Florida to teach at a Christian boarding school, he went to seminary in Texas, and later, to the South Pacific on an aircraft carrier.

I haven’t heard too much about the seven years Frances spent teaching except that Elizabeth Elliott was one of her students. And that she loved it.

As World War II came to a close, George wrote to Frances and asked her to marry him. She wrote back and said yes. That’s how it was told to me, anyway.

When the school found she was leaving, an angry headmaster had her pack her trunk and dumped her off at the train station during a chapel service. She had nothing. She got to say goodbye to no one. Seven years of investing in students ended abruptly, and suddenly, she was alone in the world with one trunk and a fiancé that she had hardly seen in years.

“But,” she told me, “perhaps it was for the best. Because I never looked back. The next few years were not easy. But I never looked back.”

Six babies came in rapid succession, starting with my aunt, Christine, less than a year after their wedding.   George and Frances were practically living in their car while doing deputation around the country but by the time my mom was born, they were trying to plant a church in the war-torn country of Japan. Of course, between those two was a three month boat ride—the only means of transportation between here and there.

They started from scratch in Japan. They didn’t speak the language. They didn’t know the culture. They didn’t have a way to communicate back to friends and family. They didn’t have a lot of money. But they had each other. And they put their whole hearts into their new life in Japan.

After about 35 years, my grandparents retired from the mission field and took jobs in Florida. They used to travel to California to see us for one week every summer. Grandpa would take us on bike rides, buy us ice cream, and let us blow on his trumpet. I remember sitting on his lap while he read “101 Dalmatians” to my sister and I.

Meanwhile, my grandma would take over the laundry and for a week nothing could hit the bottom of a hamper before it would be snatched out; and nothing came back to you without starch in it.

They were both hard working, frugal, and godly. That isn’t to say they always agreed. Grandma would try to discourage my grandpa from buying so much ice cream, for example. Nonetheless, they complimented each other well. Grandma was good with the check book, but she didn’t operate anything with a motor it. Grandpa not only could operate a vehicle, but he was adventurous.

They could eat at Wendy’s for $2. They would order one baked potato and a cup of coffee. Grandpa liked sugar in his coffee and Grandma did not, so they would put one pack of sugar in, but not stir it. Grandpa would put his straw on the top; Grandma would put hers on the bottom, and everyone was happy.

They seemed timeless to me.

But old age creeps up even on the most stalwart of people. I took my grandparents on their last plane ride out of Florida last year—Pushing Grandpa in a wheelchair and waiting on a skycap to come get Grandma. I remember waiting at the gate in Atlanta for a flight and getting hungry. Grandpa, who is always hungry, agreed to go with me to find food. Grandma, who is never hungry, preferred to stay at the gate. “Don’t get me anything.” She called after us.

As we placed our orders, Grandpa was quick to ask me, “What are we going to get Grandma?” I opened my mouth to remind him that she didn’t want anything, but shut it again. I repeated this. “What do you think she would like?” I finally asked. And when we headed back to the gate, we were carrying three Styrofoam boxes.

He did the same thing a couple of weeks ago when my grandma wasn’t feeling well. Although the doctor couldn’t really find anything wrong, she had been in bed the better part of the week, and Grandpa was as frantic as I’ve seen him. At this stage in the game—they heavily rely on each other. She has the legs to get up and find things, he has the arms strong enough to dish the ice cream. She has good enough ears to hear the TV, and his eyes are still able to see well enough to read her magazine articles, her Sunday School lesson, or whatever else.

When she was sick, he was rattled. It wasn’t just like having a sick family member. It was like part of him was sick too. I could tell he wanted to “fix it,” but he couldn’t. So when she insisted that we go to the dining hall without her, he agreed only when he knew there was no changing her mind.

She said she wasn’t hungry, but he picked the entrée and sides that he knew she would like best. He ate half of each, dutifully saving the rest and carefully arranging it in a “to go” box. He didn’t say so, but I think he knew that she wouldn’t eat it, but she would know he cared.

He did care. He does care. In fact, I suspect he is holding on to life because of her. Because if something happened to him, who would dish the ice cream? who would read the Sunday School lesson? who would operate the golf cart?

Conversely, she is holding on for him. She is still trying to find things—even though her eyes are bad—because he can’t seem to find them without her help. She is still trying to move money from one account to another to get a little better interest rate. Still picking his laundry out of the hamper and making sure it comes back to him with starch in it. Still washing his ice cream dishes. Still discouraging him from buying ice cream.

They’ve never owned a home, yet they’ve built a beautiful family. They’ve never been famous, but they have touched many, many lives. They’ve never written a book, yet theirs is a beautiful love story. And as of yet, it’s still not all told.

Of the 60 weddings this weekend in Charleston, I wonder if even one of them will stick together enough to know the kind of simple, faithful love my grandparents know.

I’ll always remember the image of my 98 year old grandfather, after 65 years of marriage, saving half his dinner in a “to go” box. Because half of him was still at home. The half that he loves most.