My grandparents exchanged these rings seventy-five years ago today.
Grandpa had just been discharged from the Navy after six crucial years of service. With his customary decisiveness, he called up Grandma and asked her to marry him. Three days later, she did. They had met in 1943, when a war bonds tour took him to the factory where she installed instrument panels on B-24 bombers. Grandpa had been picked for the tour because he had survived the sinking of his ship in the Pacific, but probably also because of his swagger; and he must have figured he had nothing more to lose because he told Grandma he liked the color of her lipstick and asked her on a date.
They exchanged letters for the rest of the war, sometimes waiting months to receive a bundle of censored mail. I don’t know what was in those letters, but I doubt it was much more than pleasantries. Still, neither hesitated when it came to promising their lives to each other. Grandma got married in a yellow suit and a pair of borrowed nylons. Grandpa wore his uniform, although the jaunty angle of his “cover” might not have met regulations.
Their marriage lasted until his death, more than 64 years later. Grandpa worked with boundless energy as a barber, a rural mail carrier, a volunteer firefighter, a little league coach, and whatever else anybody needed him to do. Grandma took pride in setting a bountiful table for anyone who happened by, with all the lovely goodness that she had never enjoyed in her youth. Their home was full of tchotchkes and warmth, and any passerby was welcome.
I used to love spending the night at their house. Grandma could make food appear out of nowhere, and Grandpa would tell stories about the war. Looking back I realize there was a lot he didn’t tell us, and he would always turn jovial before the story came around to something that hurt. He loved to tease Grandma too, but he always gave her a kiss when they said good night.
There weren’t a lot of books at their house. Both had grown up hungry during the Great Depression, and barely finished high school. For them reading was a struggle and a necessity, not a pleasure. Grandpa did read the local paper, and he had a whole cupboard full of books about the war, with every mention of every ship he was ever on carefully circled in pen. His lack of prospects and family support after graduation was why he had joined the Navy in 1939. But education mattered to my grandparents. They were proud of every spelling bee, every report card, every honor roll. They gave to my parents and my brother and me the support that they had never had growing up.
They loved the arts too. If a school or a church was putting on some kind of program, my grandparents would be there: half an hour early and wearing their Sunday best. They didn’t really distinguish between Paganini and the Andrews Sisters: “That’s good music,” they would say. And they knew that work went into it, as with anything worth doing. Grandpa was a stickler for regular practice, but he was always delighted with whatever discordant pieces I played for him.
Every year on this day, Grandpa would get up early (the man always woke at 4:00; he always rolled his clothes too, as sailors do at sea) and he would go out to buy a dozen doughnuts for breakfast. He would make coffee in the microwave and he and Grandma would each have a doughnut for breakfast. The rest would be on hand for anybody who might stop by. And they were so genial that someone always did.
There is so much I could say about my grandparents on this 75th anniversary of their wedding. I wish that my children could have known that crowded little house that smelled of gravy and mothballs, and the two plain and generous people who made it a home. I wish that my grandparents could have known all of my children; they would have spoiled and adored them, just as they did me.
But that cannot be, and time in this world cannot be overlapped in the way we might desire. Still, when I consider my own influences in the making of a family and a home, the legacy of my grandparents looms large. I know that my own family feels that security and affection that my grandparents gave to me. Every time they sit down to a hot meal with a pretty cloth on the table, every time they ask for a story, every time they sigh and practice that tricky song one more time, every time they make a mistake but know they are still fiercely loved, they are a part of that adventure my grandparents began 75 years ago.
Happy Anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa. You began with so little, and built so much. You put up with each other and kept your promises. You had little more than kindness, determination, and the belief that everybody deserved a chance. You gave me that chance, and showed me what a loving home is like. I pray for you both, and for the marriage that continues to give so much life.
We love you.