It is very quiet within the labyrinthine hallways of my grandparents’ nursing home.
Although, of course, you wouldn’t dare call it a nursing home; this massive development built amidst sweeping, manicured grounds looks more like hotel, or an upscale apartment building. Passing through the gates, marked only by a fancy scroll-font letter M (for Montereau, the name of this nursing home-that-isn’t,) we are enveloped in the old oak trees that line the drive, tall trees with massive crowns that give the feeling of antiquity and a subdued grandeur.
It’s the same feeling I get when I envision my grandfather, who just last week turned 93. Tall and thin with knuckly hands and broad shoulders – shoulders that once bent under a tropical sun as he worked to disguise his Navy ship from Japanese fighter planes flying overhead, after a Japanese destroyer blew the bow off the SS New Orleans and forced them to limp the wounded vessel to a nearby island to make repairs. Shoulders that strained to lift the long panels of siding he used to build the first house he and my grandmother lived in, after they married in 1948. Shoulders that curved gently as he crouched to see his firstborn, my father, in his cradle. Shoulders that worked for close to five decades to build a life for his family, on ranches and on oilfields across the Southwest.
Shoulders that when I hug him now feel thin and hollow, like a weathered tree trunk bending to the rigors of time.
“They don’t think he should be up here with me anymore,” my once red-haired grandmother had explained when the girls and I arrived at her fourth-floor apartment looking out onto the highrises of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the singsong voice I have always thought sounded younger than her age, my grandmother tells us that my grandfather was taken to the “Advanced Care” wing of Montereau after he developed pneumonia on April 4 (my grandmother repeats this date every time she explains why my grandfather is no longer living in the apartment.)
“He went in on April 4. They told me I could go move down there with him,” she tells me again, “but I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
My grandparents (both sticklers for dates,) met on March 15, 1948. March 15, 1948 was not an exceptional day in Premont, Texas, my grandfather recalls – it was a Saturday, and he was going to visit some family friends, nursing broken fingers he’d injured while working on his motorcycle.
But March 15 turned out to be more than just an ordinary day, because March 15 was the day my grandfather Jerrell laid eyes on the red-haired 19-year-old who would, six weeks later, be his wife.
“I saw Dorothy when she came in,” he remembers. “I had been telling people how I was looking for me a wife. I really decided right there that she fit that wife that I wanted.”
My grandfather is wheeled into the apartment by a nurse pulling an oxygen tank. I bend down to hug him, and I’m surprised by the strength of his embrace; he holds me for a long time, as if we are both thinking the same thing.
“It’s good to see you, grandpa,” I tell him.
“Martinique, I’m just sorry I’m not in better shape,” he replies.
My grandmother bends over him, putting her hand on his shoulder and leaning in close to speak into his ear.
“You want me to make you one of those milkshakes?”
“One of those milkshakes, you know, the ones you like?” my grandmother’s feathery voice lifts into the quiet apartment.
“Yes, yes,” he nods. “I think I would like one of those.”
My grandmother remembers March 15, 1948 as a nothing special kind of day, too. She also remembers nothing special about the tall guy with his arm in a sling, who later that night cut in to dance with her.
“I could tell he really liked me, and that turned me off for some reason – I don’t know why,” she says. “But it wasn’t long before I fell in love.”
Jerrell, meanwhile, only became more smitten with this Catholic girl descended from Polish settlers. “The more I was with her, the more I saw her, the more in love I became with her.
“And so, to cut it short, I asked her to marry me. I told her, ‘I’d like to take you home with me.’ And so I did.”
They married on June 5, 1948, in a little Methodist church in Fairfield, Texas. After the ceremony, which was attended by two friends, they went to the corner drugstore on main street and had a milkshake.
As we sit together in this rented apartment, I am struck by the ease with which these two people exist alongside one another. They will celebrate 65 years of marriage this week; Sixty-five years of working to build a home, a family, a life. Sixty-five years later, these things they’ve nurtured into existence move at a different pace. Many of the friends and family who were once the centerpieces in their lives have passed on. Their children, and grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren, Elodie and Emmeline, now punctuate the panorama of their long and quiet days, moving in and out of the picture like louder-than-normal commercials played at intervals between the long motion picture that is their shared existence.
I watch them together; my grandfather facing the last chapters with his chin held high, and my grandmother by his side, making his favorite chocolate milkshake. How lucky it is, I think, to be with someone you fall in love with a little more every day.
To celebrate their 65 years of marriage, my grandfather will be wheeled to the apartment where my grandmother now sleeps alone, and they will sit with one another for a few hours before a nurse comes and wheels him back to his hospital bed – but not before they have had a milkshake.