They met because his grandmother broke her hip, and Granny McCart being the neighborhood sympathy cook, she naturally needed help taking the collards, corn, beans and biscuits the two-and-a-half-mile walk down Lenora Road. And that’s how my grandmother walked into a little farm house one Tuesday evening and saw my grandfather, sleeves rolled up and apron on, helping his mother dry dishes.
MawMaw tells the story in as little detail as possible, as if she were reciting the Periodic Table. Details, after 62 years, don’t mean what they used to.
As she tells it, Pop followed her and her mother outside. He was a drinker, and a bit of a mischief-maker, and he was only recently returned from a stint in the Army. His black hair was swept up and to the side, and his crooked grin told her that he would not be easy to shake.
He stared at her playfully then said, “I need to get a date with you.”
“No chance,” she said, and she grabbed her mother’s arm. Together they hit the dirt road.
He didn’t take no for an answer, as a matter of fact. Pop pulled into her driveway on Friday evening, walked to the front door and asked for her. When she came he said, “How bout we go get something to eat or go see a movie?”
The story gets fuzzy here. Either she didn’t give me good details or I didn’t half pay attention – and honestly, it’s probably a mixture of both. When you don’t fill me in on the gaps in a story, I tend to imagine them myself, so I was probably lost in my own mind, trying to see this story playing out.
A veteran soldier, heady with the thrill of victory. A no-nonsense brunette, weary of so forceful a man.
The odd couple, indeed.
At some point, she said yes to the movie, and together they made the trek to downtown Atlanta to see Gone With The Wind. They began dating, and became regulars at the Sports Arena, an old school gymnasium that stood on Memorial Drive, not too far from the refrigeration plant where Pop was working. They would get dressed up and drive out to the Arena on Fridays, where Pop’s boss from the plant would slip them “complimentary” tickets for the fun. Then, the two would head inside and dance for hours, spinning endlessly on the dance floor, young and alive and falling in love.
Pop, like almost every man returning from war, drank a lot. He would be wild and carefree and howling at the moon, intent on showing his girl a good time, until the end of the dance came and the assemblage squared off for the finishing dance. Then, the booze that filled his belly gave way to powerful fits of jealousy as he watched his date swing around the floor with other men. More than once he offered to fight these “suitors” and more than once MawMaw had to tell him to calm down, reassure him that she was there with him and him alone.
“He just got too jealous,” she said, recalling the memory. “It was the drinking.”
Nights of dancing, dining, and the course of courtship gave way to a courthouse marriage on afternoon. A 3:00 PM ceremony with the Justice of the Peace, and Mr. and Mrs. Harold Brooks were home in time for supper with her sister Lucille. Ebullient, filled with passion and love and all of the accompanying joys of the wedding day, they went to the VFW in Loganville to celebrate with dancing.
But even their wedding night would see Pop’s jealously get the best of him, and he drew his fist back to hit a fellow who had asked MawMaw to dance. Once again she stepped in and talked him down, only this time as his wife.
“We’re going home,” she said, “and we’re never dancing again. I will not start off our home with this mess. It’s not worth the trouble.”
At this point, she looked at me, sober as a judge. “And Jason,” she said, “we’ve never been dancing since. Not once in 62 years.”
I’d not asked to hear that story before Friday night. Not once in all my life had it occurred to me to ask how my grandparents met and fell in love. I certainly never would have figured that dancing played any part in their tale (my grandmother has never struck me as a dancer) and I still kind of marvel at the fact that she took a chance on someone who was obviously not her type.
I would give anything, really, to go back even a few years and ask Pop for his version. In fact, I think I would like to go all the way back to 2001, right before Rachel and I got married. He was in prime health, and with my own impending nuptials stretching out before us, he would dearly have loved telling me his side of the tale. I can see his blue eyes twinkling, and I know he would’ve at least mimicked some of the old dance moves while laughing and telling me what a “grand ole time” he and MawMaw had.
But in a strange way, I’ve gotten the better end of their story. It’s no secret that these two people, this pair who started out so different, have occasionally butted heads over differences in opinion. In fact, there was a time when the drinking threatened to get in the way for good. But when Pop came to Christ in 1969, he became, in her words “a different man.”
She laughed at the memory. “My mother never would hug Harold, because she was afraid he’d hurt her – not because he was violent, but because he just wanted to love on everybody when he was drinking. She’d said, ‘Harold Brooks! Don’t you come near me!’ But once he got saved, she weren’t scared of him anymore. She loved to let him hug her then.”
It was that turn in Pop’s life, and in their marriage, that made the last 40 years of their life so much richer. While their personalities have always been opposite one another – MawMaw with her ferocity and Pop with his goofiness – they were great together. She’s always been the one who had to pull him back from being the life of the party, always had to remind him to watch his language or not tell a certain story, and he’s always been the one to remind her that life is there for the living, even in times of sadness or pain.
Like so many good relationships, it was the antithetical nature of their personalities – his yin to her yang, or vice-versa – that made them work so well together. A marriage requires balance, and you either need two people who are completely balanced within themselves and thus balanced together, or you need two people who are so off-balance as individuals that together they bring the scale even. I’ve seen it in my own marriage – where I am weak, Rachel excels, and where she needs a hand, I’ve got more than enough to offer her assistance. And anytime you put two people together whose parts make a better whole, you’ll get the eventual disagreement of one sort or another.
But those disagreements are part of the balancing, part of the harmonizing of two souls, and MawMaw and Pop went together better than peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. They were always like the best Mexican food – satisfying and filling, but with enough kick to make you come back for seconds. I remember them as the straight grandparents because they were so rooted in church and farming, but in thinking back on it these past few months, they could be more fun than a weekend in Vegas.
They were never more at their best than when they were in church together. MawMaw, ever the organizer, ever the hostess, and Pop, ever the life of the party. Together, they could take a dry Baptist picnic and turn it into Rumspringa-meets-Mardi-Gras without anyone having to take a sip. God, I’m tearing up just thinking about the countless dinners-on-the-ground or mountain retreats they hosted when everyone involved would fill up on food and laughter. I always thought that they went along with other people to these events; it never occurred to me that they were really the driving force behind them, the heartbeat that kept so many people – so many families – alive.
Perspective offers so much, it’s a shame that it only comes when the time for experiencing something is past. Tonight, we went to MawMaw and Pop’s for a visit, and the end is inching ever nearer for him. He sleeps almost constantly, and has practically given up on food. His kidneys are failing him. He’s just vanishing, minute by minute.
MawMaw, as she has for 62 years, stands ever vigilant by his side. She’s a wreck, in part because it goes against her nature to stand by idly and not make things right. Only this is something that can’t be made right; there’s no meal, no service, no words of wisdom that can turn back the clock and give him back to her like she wants. And so she sits, watching half of herself slowly die, her eyes dark with worry and helplessness and probably some small part of guilt. She fusses with her hands and mutters to herself, “I wish there was something I could do, but what?”
His hair is gone now, along with his teeth. He’s as close as you can come to looking like a baby as a fully-grown man. His breathing is sometimes loud and ruptured by snores, but usually it’s soft, like a fleece blanket pulled around him. She’ll walk to him every so often and stroke the skin atop his head, skin that she used to fuss at him to slather with sunblock or else don’t bother coming to her to complain, and then lean down to see if he needs anything.
His eyes usually don’t open. His mouth, like a hatchling’s, will open only enough for her to pour in some water or maybe a nutritional shake. His jaw will go up and down and he’ll say something that only she can understand; it’s the unspoken language of a shared heart, the silent communication between lifetime lovers and friends. She’ll nod and fix his pillow, or just kiss the top of his head, and then she’ll sit down for another ten minutes until she rises to check on him again.
There is so much pain in watching all of this, so much that makes your nose snot and eyes burn, but they do so out of beauty, out of the sheer magnificence of it all. MawMaw, so gentle, so obviously in love; my mind goes back to that Tuesday afternoon, his sleeves rolled up, his hair fixed just so, and I wonder if she knew then that the love of her life was only a few feet away, across a table of food and dirty dishes? And Pop, so frail, so completely dependent upon her mercy and kindness; I wonder if on that same day he knew that the dark-eyed, stiff-backed woman carrying a pot of collard greens would one day be the person who changed his clothes when he could no longer do so for himself?
I’ll never know, not absolutely, because to know the answers to those questions as fact, I would have to be them, to have lived their lives and seen the world through their eyes. I can only come close via their words and my own observations, and really only the latter; Pop cannot share with me anymore, and MawMaw is too busy, too aggrieved, to really want to share.
But all I need to know about their love, about the possibility of love for anyone, is on display whenever she leans down to kiss his head and he turns toward the warmth of her touch. One day, there will be no more warmth, no more soft bald head to kiss; there will only be memories, and the bittersweet offering of our Christian faith – that one day, in a world far better than this one, he and she, in perfect bodies, will be reunited with no fear of aging, no fear of death. Perhaps he will be wearing an apron, his sleeves rolled up so his big arms can show, and maybe she’ll be wearing a cotton skirt that stops just short of her ankles and compliments her cream-colored blouse. Maybe they’ll take in Gone With The Wind, or maybe, if God is as good as I believe Him to be, he’ll take her into his arms and swing her around to music that only they can hear, dancing to the beat of their own hearts, never to be separated again.
I hope they dance. And I hope that I, and all of my family, get to stand in awe of the love that gave all of us our lives.
Until then, we’ll stand in awe of it here.