“I miss my Roland every minute of every day,” she said to me again during our Christmas season telephone call between Myrtle Beach and Mattapoisett. My mother-in-law, a woman now deep into her elderly years, is courageously facing her 92nd birthday alone, except for her grief.
Her heart was broken 20 years ago when her Roland died suddenly at the age of 80. “He was “sumin’ special,” she says in her unique British/Southern accent.
Long before Roland came into her life, she had been a war bride. Sylvia met her first husband, a dyed-in-the-wool hill country farmer from West Virginia, during WWII while he was stationed near her village in England. It is a story told by many from that generation. He was smitten at first sight of Sylvia. She was a petite tomboy only 17, daringly dashing about the English countryside as a lorry driver.
Sylvia had signed up to help England in its time of need. She recounts today that she loved the work, felt it was important, and was pleased that she learned to drive well enough to handle the large lumbering vehicles known as lorries. She was a ‘spit-fire’ ready to fight the enemy.
She grew up in the country where hunting for rabbits supplemented the family’s diet, keeping dogs was strictly for getting rid of rats, and developing homemaking skills of every sort was critical to surviving. The war would mandate the use of all these talents. Sylvia was young, healthy, full of spunk, and with a steel backbone. Those last two qualities serve her well today.
She married her Yank and then immigrated to the United States after the war. The West Virginia parcel to which he brought her was not that different from the place she had just left, but now there was a grand future – a future full of food and warmth and physical love, all things she had not really known in England. They built a home and filled it with children, became part of the church community that was so important to them both, and lived happily for years.
Then the accident happened. A drunk driver crashed into their car. Her husband was killed, and Sylvia sustained serious injures to her legs. In an instant, she became a widow.
Her faith in God and self-confidence would help to sustain her in the coming weeks, months, years. But nothing could lessen the loss of her beloved husband. Life moved on carrying Sylvia with it. Her children needed her. Grief would be her secret companion.
When she retired, she spent the winter months in Florida. Living within her meager means, she took up residence in a small travel trailer set on a campsite surrounded by other widows and retirees. Here, neighbors were close by, social activities aplenty, and most of all, distractions from her interior dialog. Sylvia enjoyed it all and participated in everything. She was attractive and vigorous and full of life. Some of her spunk had returned.
Roland and his first wife were part of that community and knew Sylvia. One winter, he returned to the campgrounds a widower. His wife had died unexpectedly. There was plenty of tea and sympathy from the social circle to provide Roland with a balm for his grieving soul. And there was Sylvia. Before long, their casual relationship changed to something much more.
Roland and Sylvia wouldn’t waste any time. It was too precious a commodity. They were from an era whose moral code dictated marriage if they wished to be really together. They didn’t want it any other way. They married soon thereafter. They were happy. They were deeply in love. I witnessed their giddy response to one another on many occasions. Not unlike teenagers who are tickled at the sight of their new love – except for their white hair and aged faces – Roland and Sylvia could have been mistaken for kids.
Of course, they didn’t hold any illusion that they would have decades together. They simply hoped for as many healthy, happy years as God was willing to provide. They filled their days with the joy of being together. It lasted for ten blissful years.
She has shared that with me, and although you never really get over a loved one dying, you can learn to live and love again. She is grateful for the time she had with both her husbands, but it is Roland who she longs for as she recalls everything about him that she holds dear and dreams about at night.
Another Christmas rolls around, another phone call from Sylvia. “Hello Mare-e-lou, it is Sylvia,” she always confirms. After she reminds me of the litany of physical ailments that now slow down her otherwise willing spirit, we fall into our usual touching-base conversation.
She’ll want an update on all of Roland’s family members. I’ll begin to give her what little information I have, even repeating myself from talking points shared during previous conversations. She’ll accept it all as new information with grace. Inevitably, only a few minutes pass when she announces, “Oh, I miss my Roland!” It is said with pain as real as the day she found him dying in the yard while mowing the lawn. It has indeed been a very long twenty years for Sylvia.
She is my hero on so many levels. She has had to bury a son and two husbands. The pain, loss, and sorrow she has endured while finding the strength to give of herself to others, even at her advanced age, speaks volumes to the character of this woman.
“I still go to the nursing home and sing hymns to the old folks,” she proudly declares with a raspy chuckle. The humor of that statement is not lost to her.
Our conversation is wrapping up. We wish each other a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and then she says as she has for so many years, “I’m waiting for the Lord to call me … I want to go home to Roland.”
By Marilou Newell