Today, November 30th, would have been my parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary. They have both passed on, but I remember how I loved to hear my dad tell the story of how they met. The immediacy and desperation of their situation – each trying to care for and support their children a midst crippling poverty, death and divorce – escaped me as I was caught up in the wonder of their chance meeting. Even when I was in high school and thought my parents to be archaic and out of touch with the times, their story enchanted me.
When my father recited the tale of how he met and married my mother all within the month of November, it was always so miraculous, so divinely ordered, and so romantic. It wasn’t until I was out of college that my mother told me her side of the story, and it was all so practical. No divine intervention. Nothing miraculous. Just logical explanation. But that is who my parents were. Dad saw the miraculous. Mom saw the practical.
I am sure to leave something out that is of importance to one of my siblings, because I am sure they have heard the story as often as I have. What I write is what I remember from the stories they told to me.
Ellis moved his first wife, Bette, and their two children to Houston, TX from Evansville, IN in 1949 because someone had told him the climate was supposed to help his wife’s tuberculosis. It didn’t and he lost his wife in June of 1951. A man new in his Christian faith, Ellis found himself having to care for a 9 year-old daughter, Peggy, and 8 year-old son, Larry. Ellis left their small apartment before the sun rose and didn’t return until well after the sun set, leaving the motherly duties of getting kids ready for and off to school, house cleaning and preparing meals to 9 year-old Peggy. Realizing that it was all too much for his young daughter, Ellis and the children began asking God to send a wife and mother to care for them. They gave no specifics other than a woman that would love them as her own and loved Jesus with all her heart.
One Sunday in early November, Ellis treated his kids to an after-church lunch at the cafeteria in Woolworth’s close to the small apartment he rented. They were seated and he was looking over the menu when the waitress arrived to take their order. Before Ellis could raise his head, Larry yelled, “Mom!” Ellis, shocked at what Larry just called the waitress, received an even bigger shock when he looked up to see a mass of hair affixed to a bony body with lips slathered in bright red lipstick waiting to ask, “My I take your order?” Composing himself, Ellis said, “Yes” and ordered lunch for his little family. Believing Larry’s outburst to be prophetic, Ellis began having a conversation in his head with God. He questioned how this could possibly be the woman for him and his children. She was wearing make-up and working on a Sunday. She was a heathen! But in the quiet of his heart, Ellis knew that Larry was correct. This woman was the answer to their prayers. Ellis decided to do a kind of litmus test and invite her to church. After all, he would not be unequally yoked in marriage to an unbeliever.
When their food arrived, Larry again addressed her as mom. Although feeling the title a tad premature, Ellis thanked her and, before she could walk away, added “One day, I’m going to marry you.” The waitress smiled kindly, asked if there was anything else she could get for them, and then walked away. When the bill came, Ellis asked the waitress if she would go to his church’s evening service with him, and, to his surprise, she said yes. She gave Ellis her address. When he noticed that they lived in the same apartment complex, he took it as divine confirmation that indeed God had handpicked this woman just for him and his children.
Ellis and Helen
Later that day, Ellis went to her apartment to pick her up for church. When she opened the door, Ellis was taken aback by the bright red lipstick she was wearing. Composing himself, he told her she couldn’t go to church with him unless she washed it off. She said, “Okay,” went back into the apartment, washed off the lipstick and went to church with Ellis and his kids. Less than a month later, Ellis and the Woolworth’s waitress were married.
At nineteen, Helen found herself divorced with a 3 year-old son, Charles, and living in Houston, TX. She lived in a small apartment complex and was a waitress at the little cafe in Woolworth’s department store, a job that paid the rent and little else. She had been divorced for about 6 months and wanted to return home to her mother in North Platte, NE, but she could barely scrape enough money together to feed her son after the rent was paid, so there was no possible way she could afford to move back to Nebraska. She was all of 98 pounds and losing weight. She wasn’t sick. She was starving. At times, when the hunger was too much, and she couldn’t feed her son, or make rent, she contemplated prostitution. The thought made her sick, but she had no other recourse and she couldn’t let her son go hungry.
In the apartment complex, there was someone that would watch Charles while Helen worked, an elderly lady that acted as a grandmother and makeshift daycare provider for the children in the complex that were left alone while their parents worked during the day. Charles would stay at the elderly woman’s house until the other children of the complex arrived home from school, and then he would play outside with them until Helen returned home. Helen enjoyed coming home to see her son playing with the other kids. She would stop and chat with a few of the children playing with Charles before she would take him in for the evening. Some of the children began to call her Mom because that is what they heard Charles call her.
One Sunday in early November, Helen had the chance to work an extra shift at the Woolworth’s cafe. She didn’t usually work on Sunday, but she needed the money. She worked the breakfast and lunch shift and would be home in time for supper with her son. During the lunch shift, a man and his children sat down in her section. It wasn’t until she got to the table and the little boy shouted, “Mom!” that she recognized the children. It was the little boy and girl that were always playing with Charles when she got home from work. She didn’t know their names and she had never met their father, so she smiled and greeted the little boy before asking if she could take their order.
She brought the food to the table; she smiled as the little boy called her mom again, and set the plates in front of each of them. The man thanked her for the food and before she could turn to help another table, the fellow said, “I’m going to marry you.” Dumbfounded, she looked at him and, not knowing what to say, asked if there was anything else she could get for them. She walked away wondering if he was serious. She didn’t want anything to do with another man after what she had been through with her ex-husband. This guy is crazy, she thought to herself. Just give him the bill and walk away, she told herself.
She was startled when, as she delivered the bill to the table, the man asked her to attend church with him that evening. She startled herself even more when she heard herself tell the man, “Okay.” She couldn’t help notice the excitement of the kids and the smile on the man’s face.
For the rest of the shift, she argued with herself, pointing out facts such as not knowing the man’s name and just meeting him, only to have herself rebutted with Charles plays with his children every day and how bad could a guy be that takes his kids out to lunch after church? By the end of her shift, despite her better judgment, she had decided to go to church with the fellow.
When she arrived home, Helen told Charles that they were going to go to church with some of his friends, so they need to take baths and get ready. After dressing Charles, Helen put on a simple dress, tied her unruly hair back in a low pony, and put on her bright red lipstick. By the time she heard the knock on the door, she had convinced herself that if the fellow was serious about marrying her then why shouldn’t she accept? He obviously had a job that paid well enough to eat Sunday dinner at a cafe instead of eating at home, and she wouldn’t have to contemplate selling herself to provide for her son. He needed a mother for his children, and she needed someone to support her and her son. It seemed to her that they would be helping each other out. If nothing else, it would be good for both her and Charles to get out of the apartment for the evening. So when she opened the door, she was not that hesitant to comply when he told her, “You can’t wear that lipstick. You’re going to have to go wash it off.” She went into the bathroom and washed it off.
She and Charles went to church with this man and his children quite often through the month of November. By the end of the month, Helen became a follower of Christ and married the crazy man (she did eventually learn his name and the names of his children).
I thought for certain when my mother told me her version of their courtship it would have been at least as romantic as my father’s version. I was left wanting. Something of the miraculous left Dad’s story when Larry’s outburst wasn’t confirmed as prophetic, but he had known Mom because he played with her son, Charles, every afternoon. It was very hard to hear that my mother decided to marry for security rather than for the divine appointment of true love; however, now I know why she didn’t tell me her version until I was much older. For quite some time after hearing my mother’s side, their story lost its romance to the point of being pale.
So much of each of their stories screams, “Bad decision!” I don’t know many people who would recommend marrying for convenience. I don’t know many people who would advise others to marry after literally knowing each other for 30 days. Yet, my parents made it to 46 years of marriage before my mother passed away, Dad still the romantic and Mother still the pragmatist. Today would have been their 63rd anniversary. They added seven more children to their little start-up brood of three, and it would be easier to number the stars than to count the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren they now have.
Ellis and Helen and family, abt 1992 (Charles is not pictured)
So really, even with the reality of my mother’s situation, their story is no less divinely ordered, no less miraculous, and no less romantic, for during those 46 years they truly fell in love and raised a particularly handsome family.
And that bad decision ended up making one good story.
Happy Anniversary Mom and Pops!