For those who found the perfect mate, the bonds of the heart endure–even after death.
In his new best-selling novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom writes of a devoted old widower who meets his wife again in heaven. Inspired by his readers’ responses to that scene, Albom set out, for this article, to examine real-life love stories for which death was only a pause.
Their first “date” was on Valentine’s Day, 1932, when he drove her around in a borrowed car. They would visit on the front porch. They would roller-skate in the street. He knew she loved to dance, so he secretly took dance lessons to woo her. And once they were married, the dancing never stopped. He would come in from the garage and say, “OK, ballerina, once around the floor,” and they would twirl around the kitchen to the music on the radio.“Oh, Harvey,” she would say, “this is my favorite thing.”
Their marriage lasted 53 years. The night before he died, she shampooed his hair in a hospital bathroom. When visiting hours were over, she snuck back for one more kiss.“I knew you’d come back,” he said.
Harvey Jackson has been gone nearly 14 years now, but Marge Jackson of Canton, Ohio—who will turn 90 this year—keeps his picture on her dresser and his suit in the closet, and some nights she pats a little of his talcum powder on her cheek so that, when she lies on the pillow, it smells like he’s there. “I’m not losing my mind,” she says. “I’m just missing him.”
Marge Jackson may be by herself, but she is not alone. In a country rife with quickie marriage and easy divorce, there remains a sturdy section of people who believe they have already loved their perfect mate; they seek only to cherish that memory, not replace it.I have spoken with a great many people who say they have known the one true love of their lives, and the lesson is always the same: Life has to end; love does not.
“I had everything that anyone could want in a husband,” says June Wells, 85. “George was faithful, loving, kind and gentle.” So obvious was their affection for one another that, in 1956, their minister recommended them to a Detroit newspaper for a story about happy marriages. George succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1972. Since then, June insists, “I have never been tempted to marry another.”Edwin Guthman, 84, a lanky former newspaper editor living in Pacific Palisades, Calif., feels the same way. He met his wife, JoAnn, after World War II, when he gave her a ride home from the University of Washington. Two months later, they were engaged. Their happy marriage lasted 43 years, until she died from pancreatic cancer. It has been nearly 14 years now, but Guthman, unmarried, still lives in the same house, which he calls “her” home.“I miss her terribly,” he says. “But we had a very happy marriage. When that happens, you can just go on.”Nearly 15 million people in America have lost a spouse, according to the 2000 census. And a good number—especially the older ones—never remarry. For some, it is a matter of health, finances, family, even fear. But for others, it is simply a satisfaction with the marriage they had—often to the surprise of those who would pity them.
Martha Flippen—the first woman mayor of Sandusky, Ohio—lost her husband, Tom, in 1970, when she was 39 and he was 42. They had been sweethearts since junior high. During their 19-year marriage, she received a dozen yellow roses every month on the date that marked their wedding day.Flippen is 74 now; her widowhood has lasted longer than her wedlock. “People tell me, ‘There’s a second kind of love in your life.’ And for some people, I’m sure there is. But I never thought of it that way. It’s not that I didn’t have opportunities. I just couldn’t imagine having any better memories. How can you replace your first love?”
That thought is echoed by Mercedes Mullins, a charming 87-year-old who lives in Oshkosh, Wis. Her first and only love, Cliff, was a farmboy she met when he was in his early 20s, and she saw him playing baseball. “I used to sing with a local band, and he would come and wait for me. The fellas in the band would laugh and say, ‘Merce, your farmer boy is here.’ And I’d say, ‘Yep. He’s come to take me home.’”They shared a home for 35 years and had three children. At 62, soon after he retired, Cliff Mullins died from a heart attack. “I ask sometimes, ‘Lord, why didn’t you let me have him for a few more years?’” says Mullins. “But if I couldn’t have him, I didn’t want anyone else. I’m happier loving his memory. Anyhow, we’ll meet again. I believe that day is coming.”
Martha Flippen also believes she will see her husband in heaven. June Wells is sure she’ll be reunited with hers. “Just last week,” she says, “I was in that twilight zone between waking and sleeping, and I could see George coming down a long hall. I was lying on the pillow, and he came and lay down beside me. I could feel his breath on my face. I woke up and said, ‘George, where did you go?’”If these come across as sad stories, they should not, for they are told willingly and happily. We have been lectured in America, perhaps too often, that we need to “live in the present,” to “get on with our lives.” But some people are happy with their memories. They embrace them as they would an old friend. Perhaps this should be encouraged more. The heart, after all, is surprisingly expansive; it has room to love those in this world and those who have left it.
So, when Edwin Guthman looks at his wife’s photos still sitting in her beloved house, it is not heartbreaking. And when Martha Flippen wears a ring on each hand and one around her neck—because her husband used to surprise her with hidden rings everywhere—she is not odd. And when Marge Jackson “has a chat” with her husband at night, looking at an old Valentine he made for her, wearing a pat of his talcum powder, she wants no pity.“My life began when I met Harvey,” she says. It just didn’t end when she lost him. It’s funny. Marge Jackson’s favorite song—the one they played at her wedding—begins with the lyrics “I’ll get by, as long as I have you…” For her and many others, they get by because, in their own way, they still do have sweethearts who make them smile—not because they were once in love but because they still are.