The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. 2013 Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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She tells me their life together was not always blissful or even very peaceful, especially as John fought in World War II with two children at home. But it was still a good life.  All of this makes John’s death a few months ago simultaneously more heartbreaking and comforting.  As Evelyn tells me, “God has been good to both of us, and someday I’ll be up there too.”

"A Good, Long Life"

by Hillary Puckett

VALENTINE’S DAY IS A POLARIZING HOLIDAY for the younger set. Happy couples celebrate it, frustrated singles despise it, and others consider it any other day regardless of their relationship status. While it may be merely Thursday to some of us, Valentine’s Day proves to be one of the saddest and loneliest of days to 94-year-old Evelyn Manley—my grandmother. This is the first Valentine’s Day that she celebrates without John, her husband of 73 years, who died of complications from a stroke this past November.


As I phone in to check on her on this day dedicated to love and romance, I can hear the pain and heartache in her voice as she tells me she misses her husband. “He was my soul mate, the love of my life,” Evelyn says as she fights back tears. “It’s so lonely in this house without him around. But he lived a good, long life and he was lucky to be around for this long.” Then, seemingly remembering her own mortality, she says, “I’m lucky God has kept me here for this long.”


Before John entered the picture, Evelyn lived in Cape Town, South Africa as the fourth child of thirteen brothers and sisters. Her family was not very wealthy, and as a teenager she had to be taken out of school in order to work with her older siblings and  help provide for her family. Even in South Africa, Evelyn and her family were not immune to the trials and tribulations brought on by the Great Depression, and now she goes on about this turbulent time where she needed to work with very little education.


“We made do with what we had back then,” Evelyn says. “ Growing up, we were all very crowded in our space and we had very little money. So I had to forgo my schooling and work a lot of jobs to provide for everyone.” I sense a bit of hesitation when she tells me about these hard times, and I can assume that maybe she regrets not getting the adequate education she so desired.


At the tender age of seventeen years, a young American boy named John came to South Africa. He was only several months younger than Evelyn, and their meeting in Cape Town led to an instant connection. She tells me she has many old photographs of her young romance, including some frolicking at the beach. The couple married four years later in 1939, and their seventy years of marriage produced three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She tells me their life together was not always blissful or even very peaceful, especially as John fought in World War II with two children at home, but it was still a good life. All of this makes John’s death a few months ago simultaneously more heartbreaking and comforting. As Evelyn tells me, “God has been good to both of us, and someday I’ll be up there too.”


In the two weeks that passed since our conversation, I was in the midst of the most stressful time of my last semester. Yet between my internships, job applications and other academic obligations, my grandmother was always in the back of my mind. Ever since my grandfather died before Thanksgiving, I couldn’t shake off my grandmother’s grief. While his death was a huge loss for me and my younger sister, it was devastating for Evelyn. An outsider might think that the loss of my grandfather would be terrible because Evelyn would have nobody else to take care of her, but family members will tell you that isn’t the case at all. In fact, their relationship was quite the opposite. Even though they were both the same age and both dealt with their share of health problems over the past five years, my grandmother acted as her husband’s caretaker. She was always the one he counted on to prepare his meals, and in his last years of existence, he even acted selfish about keeping her around.


I recall one instance about a year ago when my grandmother went to the hospital for complications from her fall a few years back. My grandfather was very belligerent with my mother about this instance, and he ranted about the emergency workers taking my grandmother as if they were dragging her into a cage. He was completely against this latest hospital visit, and he continually pleaded with my mother that my grandmother should immediately be brought home to take care of him and die with him in their house together. At the time I thought about how irrational and selfish my grandfather was being about the situation, but I realize now that his selfishness was really representative of the fact that he simply could not function without her. Therefore when he passed on, my grandmother couldn’t help but feel that she was to blame, that there was something she could have done to prevent his passing. But eventually she accepted his passing as an inevitable event, even if that meant that she would live the rest of her long life alone.


Soon enough, I was finally home to see my grandmother. My mother would frequently call me to tell me how depressed my grandmother was feeling, and she would always encourage me to visit her when I was home. I decided to spend the afternoon with my grandmother at her humble abode just a short walk away from my house, and during my visit I came to realize what my grandmother had been relying on to get her through the dark times. Within the first minute of my arrival, my grandmother and I were already in the kitchen having small talk. While I was letting her in on what was new with my life, she was making our afternoon tea and searching for a frozen treat to prepare with it. “There’s this treat from Trader Joe’s that everyone likes… where is it?”  My grandmother began frantically searching for this delicious treat while I tried to help her refresh her memory. “It needs that icing sugar that goes on top, do you know what I mean?”  Once I realized that icing sugar and confectioner’s sugar are one and the same, I made a few educated guesses as to what the treat was. Could it be funnel cake? Scones? After five minutes of searching and guessing, my grandmother finally found the treat-a pack of delicious Danish pancakes. “You see, that’s the way my life is now. I remember and I forget, I remember and I forget.”


This was something my grandmother would repeat at least once in all of our conversations. Aside from her difficulty remembering, we had a delightful afternoon tea as she kept pressing me for information about my life. There were a few moments where the phone rang and my grandmother answered; usually one of her relatives from South Africa was on the other line. As my grandmother was speaking to one of her siblings on the phone, I had a sudden revelation. The kitchen is my grandmother’s savior. At this point in her ninety-four years of existence, my grandmother could easily be in a nursing home being tended to by professional caretakers. But after spending her early years taking care of her family in South Africa and the better half of her life taking care taking care of her better half and her three kids, it only makes sense that she would want to take care of herself, on her own terms.


The day before I returned to campus, my mom decided it was time for the three of us to see my grandfather’s grave. I had seen this cemetery before when I attended his funeral a few months earlier, but I dreaded our emotional states this time around, especially my grandmother’s. When we first came to the gravesite together, my grandmother was an emotional wreck. I keep thinking back to how sad she was, especially in the car on the way there. She was nearly inconsolable, bursting into tears at the thought of her husband in his coffin, being buried in the ground.

I remember my mother and I trying to comfort her as she touched his coffin and tried to accept that his death was inevitable. In their last few years together, both my grandparents would frequently talk about their eventual deaths, and that they would not be around forever. As depressing as these talks were, they did prepare me and my sister for what was to come. Yet even my grandmother was not immune to the grieving process, despite the fact that she had seen this day coming years in advance.


This visit to the grave was much more peaceful than the first. My mother brought a small set of fake flowers that in no way could be perceived as real, and the three of us simply stood in silence as we looked at the grave in front of us. As I read the stone on his grave, I noticed my grandmother’s name on the right-hand corner, and I soon realized that one day, she would be buried next to her partner, and I would be back here for that day.


As I placed the fake flowers on my grandfather’s grave, my grandmother made the conscious decision to not shed a single tear. Instead, she touched his grave and calmly accepted his inevitable passing, saying, “I miss you, I love you, and we had a good, long life together. We’ll meet again, someday.” ◊