for release Friday August 6, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Abundant Love: Portrait of a Husband and Wife
Several years ago I wrote about my greenthumb neighbor, Letha Townsend, and what she had taught me about gardening. She has now gone to that great garden in the sky. Surely one of the more common (if not cliché) descriptions of heaven or an afterlife includes the idea of an abundant garden filled with all varieties of things. Makes me think of the seed catalogs Letha used to study every winter in eager anticipation of spring.
Letha was 86 when she died this past June. She and her husband, Charles, were some of the first farmers who helped begin our local Farmer’s Market by faithfully selling their produce there.
Two of their specialties were early spring onions and lettuce, often available in March before anyone else had them. Charles and Letha would begin poking hundreds of onion starts in holes in early February, and she faithfully started her tomato plants in her hothouse in January. From her I learned about tomato and onion varieties, as well as countless flower and shrub varieties.
Toward the end unfortunately I could no longer trust her comments on plants, possessions, or anything because her mind was slowly being ransacked of its great wealth by dementia. As is common in such situations, she didn’t really know even her husband of 47 years, who had kept faithfully by her side through all the terrible ups and downs of various illnesses. She frequently called him “her boyfriend.” In the end she thought he was her father. For the last several years she was not satisfied most days unless he took her to see her “parents,” who have been long deceased.
Charles dared not leave her alone; some days he could talk her into going to the adult day care center just so he could have some relief from the constant vigil. The scariest times were when he found her wondering on their country road alone at night in her thin nightgown. Charles was eight years younger than she, but toothpick-thin and had one knee immobilized from a long-ago injury and surgery. He was determined to take care of her. And he did, except for her brief stints in the hospital for congestive heart failure or at the nursing home/rehabilitation center after a mini-stroke. The last time we went to see her as a family, Letha held Charles’ hand and put her head on his shoulder. Five days later she died holding his hand after a long vigil at the hospital. I admired their devotion.
In better days Letha could work circles around all of us. As a single mother of six for a number of years before she met Charles, she worked long days in back breaking factories making uniforms, tires, and men’s pants. Then she became an independent businesswoman selling Avon, and then later had the Farmer’s Market produce to tend.
She and Charles were also among the charter members of a fledging congregation that is now a strong and growing church. When her children were younger she taught arts and crafts at summer church camp. At some point she sensed that her mentally challenged son, Bernie, would enjoy a special class at church with other kids like him. So she and Charles worked with the church leaders to start one, and then taught it themselves. At church she also enjoyed the choir and played the piano.
My husband Stuart always says that Charles taught him what it means to be a good neighbor. He often tells the story of a time when he, Stuart, was home alone laid up after knee surgery. Stuart heard some commotion outside the front door. He wondered what was going on, who was trying to rob us, and then Charles knocked on the door. “Just thought I would bring a little wood in for you since you can’t bring it in,” Charles said. He brought in numerous wheelbarrow loads of wood for us that winter when the children were small.
Three weeks after Letha’s death we stopped by on a Sunday evening. Charles was sitting in their favorite yard swing looking out over their quiet and simple front yard. On a table there was a Bible open to Song of Solomon, to those luscious chapters of love and devotion. There was a picture of Letha on top of it. Charles shared a letter given to him by another elderly gentleman who had also recently lost his wife, which gave hints on coping with grief. It encouraged people—men especially, to not be ashamed to cry. It said to keep pictures of your loved one around, and to not be ashamed to talk to them.
I think Charles is going to be all right—which should give hope to the rest of us. At times I wondered how Charles and Letha would ever make it through their dilemmas as they aged, but they did. Death in this situation is not so much a failure but a final struggle to be conquered. And they did, with all the love, devotion and care that any husband and wife would hope to share. I continue to learn lessons from these wonderful neighbors.
For a free booklet on grief “Losing Someone Close,” write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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