“Do you know what today is?” My Granddaddy leaned back in his chair and regarded me through partially closed eyes.
August 18th—what Civil War battle took place on that date? My mind roved frantically through a jumble of generals and statistics field maneuvers that he was always parceling out to me like choice sweets. But my helpless expression must have given me away, for presently he smiled bemusedly and folded his hands.
“It was fifty years ago today that I met your Grandmother.” He opened his eyes wide and looked straight at me. “Fifty years ago. And I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
The little woman who passed through the swinging door from the kitchen at that moment bore but faint resemblance to the dark-haired beauty he had first seen and fallen in love with on a summer afternoon in 1939. The pitiless hand of Alzheimer’s was already beginning to reveal itself in her oft repeated stories and her frequent confusion. But her eyes still lit up with admiration whenever Grandaddy came into view. And when I was over I usually noticed a love note from one of them left on the kitchen table for the other to find.
As Grandma’s dementia increased over the years that followed, her cherished family tales began to drop from her repertoire one by one. But never the story of the day she met her man. It was told to me in unwavering detail until she was altogether unable to tell stories at all. Had I heard it only once, however, I believe I would still see it as clearly played out in my mind as I do at this moment.
I would comprehend the willingness with which her parents saw her off on the train to visit casual acquaintances in Florida, hoping that the sunny climate would erase the last vestiges of a winter’s bout of pneumonia. And I would remember just how it happened, that the Satterwhites would invite a couple of nice college boys over to meet the pretty girl from Atlanta and that Grandma would know at first glance which was the one they had described to her as ‘Claude Jr.’.
“I was sitting on the front porch,” the story went, “and I looked up and saw two young men come in the little gate and amble up the walk. But I really only saw one of them. And I said to myself, ‘Why, that’s Claude Jr.—and that’s the boy I’m going to marry.”
It was just like that. Both of them testified to ‘love at first sight’. And though that’s a rather dubious concept in our ‘enlightened’ age, I have to say that I believe them with all my heart.
Thus ensued a courtship that was to last nearly 60 years. To be sure, as in any relationship, there were hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was my Grandaddy’s intimidation with this elegant young woman who looked like Judy Garland. “He thought I was a ‘city girl’,” Grandma would laugh indulgently. “Why, the roads weren’t even paved in Smyrna then!” But it didn’t take him long to see that the heart in those beautiful brown eyes was only for him. All the love she had saved up in her affectionate little soul was his for the asking.
He officially asked in the fall of 1941. A moment’s bliss—and then the war. Grandma’s eyes always grew misty when she got to that part in the story. Granddaddy was one of the first to go, and one of the last to return.
“Forty-eight months in the South Pacific,” she would murmur, as if to herself. “And I always knew he’d come back.”
For their first Christmas after they were engaged, Granddaddy, who was already gone, had a beautiful cedar hope chest shipped to her. It sat table-high, with a carved apron resting on graceful Queen Anne legs. Opening from the top as it did gave it a rather ominous appearance, however, and Grandma’s fun-loving sisters teased her mercilessly.
“Uh-Oh! Laura Alice’s opening her coffin again!” they would chant whenever she lifted the lid to examine the contents or add some new item.
But she ignored them and went right on hemming sheets and embroidering pillowcases with which to furnish her future linen closet. For four years, riding to and fro on the streetcar to Atlanta where she worked in her daddy’s optometry shop, she stitched dainties for her home and chatted with her best friend whose new husband was also stationed overseas.
And every single night she penned him a letter, always opening with the same wishes and hopes for the day when they could be together and start the life they were so tirelessly dreaming of. Claude saved them all, carefully sorted in sequential order, as she saved his daily letters or ‘v-mails’; they’re stored away in my attic now, awaiting the day when they are pieced back together to form a marvelous chronology of such a perilous and moving time in our nation’s history. But first and foremost those letters are the history of a love. It was a love that displayed a commitment few in our modern world can comprehend.
Looking back on a long and loving marriage, it might be easy to glance over those years of forestallment, such a small portion of the whole. But I really think that the harsh reality of that waiting and perseverance and heart-ache and longing was the story behind the deep appreciation they always seemed to have for one another. Waiting for the one you love to come into your life is hard; waiting when they are already in your heart and yet out of reach is torture. Generations to come will be indebted to that faithful resolve; it’s a heritage that I know I am enjoying the benefits of today.
So Claude went on facing death and danger for the sake of people yet to be born. And Laura Alice went on working and waiting and hoping, putting on dances with the Military Maids and writing letters for disabled servicemen whom she visited regularly in the hospital. And one day in late November she received a telegram—how her heart must have stopped! Claude was in San Francisco, and he was coming home. Not to Florida where his family was, but to Smyrna where his heart was. I can only imagine the half-shy raptures with which Laura Alice greeted her returning gallant at the station.
They were married December 30th, 1945, barely a month after his homecoming. Out came the lustrous satin dress that Laura Alice had been saving all those years and the yards and yards of silk tulle veil. There was a whirlwind of teas and festivities, and the planning of the home reception. And two lives set forth as one, hands firmly clasped against whatever hardships lay ahead.
Their romance was such that when Granddaddy died after 55 years of marriage, something died in Grandma, too. A light was snuffed out. A
nd though it’s sad to see it, I can’t help but thank God for the strength of such a love, and rejoice that they will be reunited again someday after this last long separation.