A Legacy of Love

[The following column first appeared in DearReader.com, an online book club that goes out to over 350,000 readers each weekday.]
by Deborah Raney

A couple very dear to me split up a few weeks ago. These days, it’s not really news when long-married people go their separate ways. But this split was too close to home. This was my husband’s grandparents, who’ve been part of my life for three decades—since the day I walked into their farmhouse as a fresh-faced teenager, only to have Grandpa razz me about being just one of a string of girlfriends Ken had brought out to meet them.

It wasn’t long before I learned to read that ornery twinkle in Grandpa’s eye. Soon I could dish his tongue-in-cheek teasing right back, even as Grandma dished up her famous fried chicken and made-from-scratch chocolate cake.

Throughout the lean years of our marriage Grandma and Grandpa never sent us away without fresh-dug potatoes, jars of home-canned tomatoes or homemade cinnamon rolls Grandma kept in the deep freeze for anyone who might drop by.

Our photo albums are crowded with images of Grandma and Grandpa cradling our babies. They were never too busy for great-grandchildren’s birthday parties or ballgames. Through trials and tragedies, Ken’s grandparents modeled undying commitment. So it hit hard when they split up.

Oh, it’s not that the split was their choice. It was a heart-wrenching decision after Grandpa began to wander away from home, and Grandma’s failing eyesight and four-foot-eleven stature kept her from going after him. In recent months, we would come to visit and the vacant stare, the missing twinkle in his eyes, told the truth. Still, his stock greeting was, “Come on in! I don’t know who you are, but we sure do love you.”

Then one day Grandma couldn’t get Grandpa up out of his chair, and the difficult decision was made to move him to a nursing home.

Ken and I took Grandma to visit yesterday. Grandpa is failing day by day. He lives in his own impenetrable world, wolfing down nursing home fare, ignoring his tablemates.

But Grandma’s voice brought a ghost of that famous twinkle to his eyes. She touched his arm and he turned to wrap her in a hug and plant a kiss square on her lips. He must have kissed her half a dozen times during our hour-long visit.

Sitting knee-to-knee in the dayroom––Grandma on a vinyl loveseat, Grandpa in his wheelchair––he looked her in the eye. “Are you married?”

Grandma’s self-conscious chuckle made her sound like a schoolgirl. “I thought I was.”

“Well, you sure are good-looking,” Grandpa declared.

Grandma threw us a sidewise wink before turning back to Grandpa. “I’m married to you,” she said.

Grandpa pumped a frail fist in the air. “Thank you, Lord!”

Ever notice how much it hurts to laugh and cry at the same time.

Grandpa will be 98 at Thanksgiving and on New Year’s Day Grandma turns 97. Grandma sleeps alone now in their double bed layered with quilts. But mere miles could never truly split them up. And if Grandpa makes it through the winter, there will be a big celebration come May 26. Ken’s mom will drive out to the farm to pick up Grandma and bring her to the nursing home. Somebody will order a cake and we’ll have to tell the bakery at least twice, “No, that’s not a typo. The cake should read:

Happy 79th anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa. We love you.
DEBORAH RANEY is at work on her 20th novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award, Silver Angel, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Almost Forever, first in her new Hanover Falls Novels series, will release in May from Howard/Simon & Schuster. Deb and her husband, Ken Raney, enjoy small-town life in Kansas. They are new empty nesters with four grown children and two precious grandsons, all of whom live much too far away.

UPDATE MAY 2010: Grandpa celebrated his 100th birthday at Thanksgiving, Grandma turned 99 on New Years Day, and they celebrated their 81sh (eighty-first!) wedding anniversary quietly on May 26, 2009. Grandpa doesn't really know any of us, except Grandma, but he is cheerful and sweet and always has a smile for anyone who greets him. Grandma remains on the farm with the help of my wonderful, devoted mother-in-law and they each continue to be a wonderful blessing in our lives.

UPDATE MAY 2012: Grandma passed away on Mother's Day 2011 at the age of 101. Grandpa followed in September of 2011, just a few weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. This May the whole family gathered on the farm for an auction. It was a bittersweet day, but mostly full of happy memories and chances to take home little pieces of the farm that now grace our homes with reminders of the wonderful memories that make up Grandma and Grandpa's legacy. We have been blessed because we knew them.