Fonticulus Fides

Friday, September 12, 2003

When June Carter Cash passed away last May, I took one look at the photo of her husband, Johnny Cash sitting in a wheelchair at the funeral, and I knew it wouldn't be long before he left this world, too. People who love each other like Johnny and June did can't be separated for long. Read some of the poems June wrote for Johnny and you'll see what I mean.

My paternal grandparents had a relationship like that. And oddly enough, it's just been the 18th anniversary of their passings.

My grandma, Vivian, had been orphaned at the age of 9, and as was the custom of the day, she was passed around from relative to relative as it was convenient for them to have an extra helper around the house. At 12, she married a 27-year-old man named Bill something-or-other, just to put an end to the craziness. I don't know what Bill was thinking, but it was the 1920s, so maybe it wasn't all that unusual to take a child bride. They had three sons, Billy was born when Vivian was 13, Johnny came a year later, and Bobby was born shortly after her 16th birthday. Then the diptheria epidemic hit, and Billy came down with it. Vivian and the boys were quarantined in the house while Bill was at work one day. He came home and saw the yellow notice on the door, then shouted to Vivian through the window, "I'll be back when it's over."

Then 18 years old, Vivian did the best she could, nursing her boys. Johnny and Bobby had lighter cases of the disease, but no matter what she did, Billy got worse and worse. When he died, she sewed his body up in a white sheet and the city wagon came to take him away, to be buried in a mass grave with other diptheria victims from poor families. Even if there had been a funeral, Vivian couldn't have gone -- she and the other boys were still quarantined. I asked her once why she didn't get sick too, and she said, "My boys needed me."

When the quarantine was finally lifted, Bill never came back. Vivian didn't know what had happened to him -- if he'd caught the diptheria and died, or if he'd just run out on her. Regardless, she didn't have a choice. She had to impose on family again, taking her two young boys with her to live in an aunt's back bedroom while she went to work in a factory. They moved a lot -- never staying more than a couple months with one relative or another.

They were actually staying with friends, not family, when Vivian met a young swank who was pals with her co-worker's husband. He was a taxi driver who owned his own cab and came to call wearing a tuxedo and a silk top hat. He tried to speak with Vivian, but she was too sensible to pay any mind to a fop like that. Plus he was in his late twenties -- what a man like that was doing without a wife and family, she couldn't say. Or maybe she was remembering the last man in his late twenties who wanted to pay her some attention. Besides, Vivian had two little boys to think about.

Well, the taxi driver -- Jim -- wouldn't give up. He came to call on weekends with a ukelele, singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." During the week, he would stand outside the factory at the end of her shift offering a flower or a bag of candy. "Save your money," Vivian told him. "A woman like me who is trying to keep food on the table has no need for sweets." The next day, he came bearing a loaf of bread and a quarter pound of cheese, festooned with a yellow ribbon.

She laughed.

He kept coming to walk her home after work. She was amazed by Jim's persistance -- suspiciously at first. She wouldn't let him talk to the boys, or take them to baseball games or buy them things. But part of her knew she needed a man to help her keep the boys in line. Johnny was only six and already getting into fist-fights and smoking cigarette stubs he found in the street.

One day, Jim showed up at the end of her shift with a brand-new dress and a marriage license. "I hope you'll do me the honor of marrying me," he said.

Vivian looked at him like he was nuts. "How'd you get a marriage license without me signing it?" she demanded.

His eyes twinkled. "I paid the feller a dollar and he let me forge your name."

This time, she didn't laugh. "Please, Viv," he begged, dropping down on his knees. "I love you, and I never want to be without you. I want to be a father to your boys. I want us to have a home of our own."

They walked and talked all night. Then they took Jim's taxi down to the justice of the peace and were married. And then they went looking for an apartment -- turned out this dandy of a fellow who seemed to have it made lived in his cab and only had two suits of clothes, his driver uniform and his tuxedo. But Vivian didn't mind so much, because she'd been poor all her life. She loved Jim, and she knew they'd be together forever.

A year later, Jimmy was born -- my dad. Five years after that, Vivian had her first daughter, and then another boy followed two years later. Jim and Vivian were always crazy about each other, always together. Though there were many hard times, they found a way to keep their family afloat.

They dreamed of buying a house of their own in the country, and they saved spare change in tin cans to make that dream a reality. They tried to put something away every week. Sometimes, they had to empty out a jar to pay for a medical bill or what not, but they kept the dream alive. When Jim was 62 and Viv was 57, they were finally able to retire from factory work and move out of the city. They found a little house in central Illinois and paid cash for it -- nickles, dimes, pennies and quarters.

Ten years later, Viv was stricken with liver cancer. She started chemo and radiation, but she only made it six months. The family and friends from Chicago crowded into the funeral home with so many folks from the little town who had grown to love Jim and Viv. And then at the gravesite, as the last words were spoken, Jim stood up shakily and put a hand on Viv's coffin and sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to her, one last time.

Ten weeks later, Jim slipped away in his sleep. He couldn't live without Vivian. Or at least, he didn't want to. A marriage like that -- two people, one flesh for about half a century, how could he? I think Johnny Cash must have felt the same way.

Rest in peace, Grandma and Grandpa. Rest in peace, June and Johnny.



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