I am guilty of being a product of my time and place: I think of selfless love as something of an enigma.
She is “Meemaw”; he is “Boss.” I met them in 1992, when my father got remarried to my stepmother, Brenda, and they became my third set of grandparents. My first memory of meeting them was when I first walked through the garage entryway of their North Little Rock house and into their kitchen, and my six-year-old self looked straight up into the eyes of Lea Berry, Brenda’s mother. Her eyes were bright and warm, welcoming behind her glasses. Her smile was so wide that it stretched across her lovely face, which held a countenance borne with lines of many years of grins, laughs, and spunkiness.
“Well hey there, Meagan,” she said in a voice dripping with southern twang. “You can call me Meemaw!”
Her husband, Russ, rose from his Lay-Z-Boy recliner and immediately followed up on her greeting. “Hello, Miss Meagan,” he said, and proceeded to give me a hearty bear hug that I can still recollect today.
With their simple words, I gained a new family.
Lea Moore met Russ Berry in 1956. She was a young nurse; he had just gotten out of the navy after having served in the Korean War. Brenda’s rendition of their story was that of one that is more often told in novels: They’d been set up on a blind date, that apparently “didn’t go too well,” but then got reacquainted the following day when Lea had car trouble and had pulled over to the side of the road in search for help. Russ happened to drive by, recognized her, gave her some assistance, and thus their courtship began. They married not long after.
Lea helped pay for Russ’s college. Not the whole sum, just what the navy couldn’t cover. Lea had faith in his ability to succeed and knew his efforts would propel him forward. Russ was hard-working, smart, driven, and never out to swindle her. While Russ was taking a full load of classes, they lived entirely off Lea’s nurse’s salary. He graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Arkansas in January 1960. They had two children, one of which grew up to be a second mother to me, and they in turn became grandparents to my brother and I, who needed an extra springboard of love to counteract the effects of our increasingly absent, severely addicted father who would eventually leave all their lives forever.
My childhood memories are painted with vivid memories of spending summer days with Meemaw and Boss on their party barge on Greer’s Ferry Lake in central Arkansas, fishing trips to the White River, and vacations to Texas, Alabama, and Florida’s glorious beaches. Though my father’s second marriage to Brenda, only lasted another two years after our first meeting, Brenda and her parents continued to me in my brother’s and my life. Eventually when my family moved away from Arkansas, I heard their voices on the phone every year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Meemaw and Boss attended both my high school graduation in Southern California and college graduation in New York City. I never saw them on a very regular basis, but their place in my life never diminished. I felt safe with them amidst the chaos that came with having an alcoholic father whose presence was becoming smaller.
Lea and Russ never abandoned my brother and me. They were questioned, even by their own family, as to why they would still want to have my brother and I around after my father and stepmother divorced. Meemaw’s answer was simple, delivered in her signature endearing Southern drawl:
“Well, ’cause we love them!”
Last year, I was having one of my many long phone conversations with my stepmother about a bad breakup I was experiencing. She told me that though her own marriages had failed, she knew she had set the love bar incredibly high: She was always looking for the kind of love her parents had. Yet, everything about Meemaw and Boss’s story feels effortless to me now, though I’m sure they had more than their share of hardship throughout their almost fifty-seven year marriage. But it was the simplicity their love, the “ride or die” quality of their partnership that left me in admiration.
What still manages to stun me about their story was the tale about the college payment situation. “Such a thing would never happen today,” I thought. “A girl giving a guy money so he can ‘better himself.’ That sounds like every Judge Judy episode I’ve ever seen. Some dumb girl giving a guy money that he never pays back, and they end up in court.” I am guilty of being a product of my time and place: I think of this kind of selfless love as something of an enigma in today’s society, particularly that in which young adults like me find themselves dating. When I look to date a man, naturally I want him to be college educated with a solid career path ahead of him. I want him to be independent, both emotionally and financially. I want him to be someone I can trust, someone with whom I can be intimate, in all facets of the word. If Meemaw had thought like that, would she have gotten far with Boss?
Now, I ponder the selfishness that today’s millenials bring to the American dating culture, and I oftentimes find it very difficult to believe that should a day come when I meet my match and we decide to marry, an idea that seems increasingly terrifying to me the more I fantasize about it, I will somehow be safe. Who’s to say that one day I’ll wake up and the love of my life has decided that I’m not it, that a midlife crisis has set in, and I’m left to weather the storm alone? I could have the kind of deep love that Meemaw and Boss had, sure, but am I battling the trends of the times. Meemaw and Boss never had the trust and devotion built in from the beginning and never suffered the fear I have now.
During my rough and very painful breakup with someone I had been off-and-on for about three years, I had recalled a phone call I had with Meemaw one night. I had been seeing a slew of dark days, and she firmly told me that I had to do what was best for me. She knew I could have the love she had had; I just had to hold on. It was because someone so rich with love couldn’t believe in an alternative; a world where her granddaughter wasn’t the world.
“I’ll never forget,” Brenda once told me. “One day mom was doing some household chores and she was standing on a stepladder and accidentally fell. She called me, I picked her up and took her to the hospital. I called Dad once we were there and when he arrived, Meagan, the look on his face was something I’ll never forget. The very idea of something awful happening to Mom was the worst thing he could imagine.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
Brenda continued: “I told Dad to go back to work and come back, that Mom was totally fine, and I’d got it. He looked me in the eye and said ‘This is my job. You do yours.’ I’ll never forget that.” To be loved in this way, as Lea and Russ loved, is the stuff of my daydreams.
And now, when I remember the harsh words of my ex when he kicked me out of our shared apartment, telling me “I don’t care if you sleep on the subway,” I know I have the best examples of what love is, and what love is definitely not.
Boss passed away last July. I was shocked when I heard the news, given to me by Brenda over the phone. Once Meemaw had the phone she gave me a simple “Hey Meagan,” and I could only reply with a teary “Hey Meemaw.” She told me it was his time to go. She told me she’d be OK, that she’d get through this. The bravery in her voice was stunning. I told her I’d book a flight to Little Rock from New York as quickly as I could. Two weeks later I was in Meemaw and Boss’s lake house in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas. My mind was occupied with memories of so many happy summers with my brother and my cousin, in a home that was more welcoming to me than perhaps some might think it should have been after their daughter’s divorce from my father.
I held it together for Meemaw and my stepmother throughout the weekend of Boss’s memorial. A large group of his friends were present at the funeral service at their Presbyterian Church, where Boss was a regular volunteer and Meemaw as social as a sorority girl. Their zest for life stretched well into their golden years, long after retirement, and rarely were they without something to do or a friend with whom to spend their time. They were a classy couple in a world where class seems to be disappearing and looked upon as a relic of the past, encased in nostalgia. I saw the class it again at Boss’s funeral, when a naval officer handed Meemaw Boss’s folded American flag. The officer kneeled in front of her and presented it to her as they do at these services. The only time I cried during the memorial was when Meemaw smiled sweetly and lovingly at the officer, like a kind mother and grandmother who would never turn her back on me, and took the flag with welcoming dignity.
This year will be the first in over half a century that Meemaw won’t spend Thanksgiving with Boss. This will be her first Christmas as a widow. Boss’s birthday will arrive and the phone won’t ring with people asking her to speak to him. Despite all this, it’s easy for me to believe that Meemaw will get through these dates and still find a moment to smile, still feel Boss’s love, still be a perfect mother and grandmother, and always will be the one example I look to emulate as I age, and as I love. I hope I can live up to the challenge.