By Hugh Chapman
I have a memory from thirty years ago that I call up on occasion. I brush away the dust that has gathered, softly sigh and re-live that moment. Then, gently I return the memory to its place within the back pages of my mind. It’s important to me to know that I can still find it when I need to and I suspect that someday, hopefully in many years to come, it will be this scene that I softly replay as I take my final breath. Such is the magnitude of its importance in my life.
I was a banker then, a job I was never particularly well suited for and in all honesty it was a job I only took because I had been unable to find the one I really wanted. That career (one of several in my lifetime) began at a teller’s window but quickly led to my being promoted to a loan officer. Yet the hurried advancement was not because of my superior banking knowledge or skill. As an indicator of such, the joke that went around among my friends was that because I could never balance the money in my teller’s drawer, management was forced to either fire me or promote me to a position that would not allow me to handle actual cash. In truth, my friends were only half joking. I can vividly recall staying late many evenings pouring through receipts trying to discover where I had become out of balance. It was after one of these long extended work sessions that the memory I’ve held dearly for three decades originated.
Besides my adding machine error, that particular day had been miserable in other ways too with mistakes that had put me at odds with at least one customer and more than a few of my co-workers. I remember that during a 15 minute break I found a quiet place away from everyone else. The short period of solitude wasn’t much, but it would have to suffice until my work day was over. As I sat in lonely silence, I found myself wanting only to be home among people who loved me despite my flaws.
It was cold and dark that early winter evening as I finally parked my car and trudged up the driveway of our little home. But as I opened the front door a whole new and brighter world unfolded around me. Immediately wafted the smell of fried chicken mixed with just a hint of woodsmoke from the little corner fireplace we often used to take away the chill during those lean early years of our marriage. I knew then that only a few steps down the narrow hallway would take me my favorite place in the world.
As I stepped into the family room, my six year old son leaped from his place on the floor where he had been watching Inspector Gadget while working on a Bernstein Bear coloring and sticker book. He ran to me and jumped into my arms and I, in turn, closed my eyes and held tightly to him. Opening my eyes again as if from a dream, I saw my 14 month old daughter in red footie pajamas sitting in a high chair. She looked to me in laughter as she kicked her feet and rocked back and forth, her toothless but teething mouth and hands covered in a beautiful mess of baby slobber and graham crackers. Then behind her near the stove in an aroma filled kitchen stood the woman I had fallen deeply in love with ten years earlier and who, over the next 30 years, would grace my life in a thousand different ways.
Julie was standing in flannel and denim, spatula in hand, her long auburn hair draped softly over slender shoulders. From somewhere behind me I could hear Inspector Gadget solving yet another crime, but all I could see that evening was my beautiful wife, twenty-six years old, looking at me with hazel eyes that sparkled beneath a simple kitchen light. Yet on that winter’s night, in that cozy little home, among these people who I loved the most, it took no more than Julie’s smile to warm and brighten my life in a way that my words can never convey. I loved her more at that moment than I ever had before, and I have grown to love her a hundred times more with each passing day.
But those days have moved on and much too quickly, growing hurriedly into months, then years, then decades, and finally into a lifetime; a lifetime filled with love and honor, of support and care, of understanding and acceptance. With each of our forty years together, Julie has provided everything I could possibly have hoped for. More than a wife, she has been my best friend and together we’ve lived our lives to the fullest. We’ve brought children into the world and raised them into productive young men and women, and together we’ve shared the joy of holding our grandchildren and known the sorrow of saying goodbye to those we’ve loved. We’ve seen mountain vistas and sun rises over the oceans. We’ve walked hand in hand through valleys and hills, through sunshine and rain, in snow and in sand. We’ve traveled to places that we’ll always remember, and we’ve made friends, some of whom have remained while others have simply faded from our lives, but always we have had each other.
This morning beneath a darkened Ozark sky I watched drops of rain gather on a window before making their solemn pathway to the muddy soil below. Some traveled alone, windswept and wavering, while others seemed to stand still, quivering in the darkened morning until another drop fumbled its way toward them. Then stronger together they continued along their pathway to whatever awaited them below.
I can’t tell you why God brings some people together in a union that he has so obviously blessed, while others, either by choice or by circumstances make their way alone. But I know that of all the ways God has blessed my life, my wife has been the most important and my world would never have been complete without the love that God sent my way all those years ago.
In six months I’ll have reached my sixtieth year while Julie is closing in on 59. What a pair we make, with Julie beginning to lose her sight to a disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa while I, just as quickly, am losing my hearing. No longer do we walk hand in hand as when we were younger. Rather, she stands closer and wraps her arms around mine as I lead her to wherever we’re bound. Then when we arrive she helps me to communicate more effectively, leaning in and repeating words she knows I haven’t heard.
Throughout the years our lives have taken many turns, and we continue to change with each passing day. But always in my memory is that winter’s evening long ago when my family turned the cold into warm and the darkness into light. And always in my mind is Julie’s gentle smile and as long as I can hold on to that special memory, she will always be twenty-six.