— Paul Sweeney
Sixty years is a long time to do anything. I should know. I’ve done nothing that long.
But don’t take my word for it. Contact the archivist at Tippah County Hospital in Ripley, Miss. Somebody there should be able to pull up my name and birth date on a computer — or salvage a mildewed, dust-covered, cardboard box from a dark, dank and secluded basement — either of which will verify I was a love child born to that facility in late ‘55.
Actually, it was my parents’ fault ... well, duh! They thought they were finished at two. Guess I showed them. Although I was an “accident,” I was assured throughout my impressionable years I was just as loved, and welcomed into this world, as my elder sister and brother.
Yet, wary of pressing for validation to this claim, I never asked the hard questions like, “Why are there so few pictures of me, and so many of them?” Or, “How come I never got the new bicycle instead of all the hand-me-downs?” Or even, “Why’s the family album got so few pages about me? Hmmm?”
Like I said, some questions are better unasked.
My beloved parents have long since passed this life and today are likely sharing twin recliners on some cloud up high watching reruns of “Gunsmoke.” I assume heaven has TVs, but cable might be a stretch.
Maybe one day I’ll join them. If so, I’ll pack rabbit ears ... just in case.
Although my folks have been gone for 23 years and 10 years respectively, not a day goes by that I don’t think about them. It’s been that way for years. I don’t see it changing.
But still, I am blessed with a set of honorary parents. Both are angels on Earth. They are my in-laws. They raised four kids of their own. Three are still living. My wife of 37 years is among them.
I once considered 37 years a long, long time. By today’s standards, maybe it is. But my in-laws — Billy Wade, 80, and Shirley Swindell, 77, of Greenfield, Tennessee — just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
That’s huge. I’d call it a grand slam in any Major League park. Speaking of which, my father-in-law is, and always has been, a Chicago Cubs fan. That started back in the mid-50s when the young Swindell family of only three followed the job market from the tiny towns of West Tennessee to the Windy City of Northern Illinois.
In Chicago, he worked for Martin Oil. As I understand it, that’s a now defunct company that operated gas stations back when real people in snappy uniforms came to your car with grease-stained shop rags hanging from their trouser pockets, pumped your gas, washed the windshield and checked the oil ... all at no extra charge.
And with you still sitting in the front seat, they took your payment, carried the cash into the dingy, concrete block building, and returned with your change. All the while, you were shaking your head back and forth at the rising cost of petro — about 21-cents per gallon — and praying for a gas war.
Nowadays, well ... YOU pay first, either cash inside or credit card at the pump after keying in a short family history; YOU clean the windows; YOU stand in amazement staring at the number of dings in your car door while the gas-pump digits soar like calculus gone wild; and YOU return to the store’s airconditioned interior to buy your Diet Coke and Butterfinger, and walk out about four or five dollars lighter.
In the world of customer service, it’s evolution run amok.
In those Chicago days, my father-in-law — as a much younger and thinner man — would finish his shift at the gas station about mid-afternoon and then head over to Wrigley Field and watch the last few innings of the Cubbies game from the outfield cheap seats. He still laughs about it to this day. The Cubs were never very good, but the hot dogs and popcorn were beyond belief.
To this day, popcorn remains Billy Wade’s favorite snack.
If there is truth to the expression “ ... the good ol’ days,” those truly must have been the ones.
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I enjoyed a three-day weekend in Greenfield to help her folks celebrate their 60th. Actually, it was two celebrations.
On Friday evening, the immediate family — grown children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and maybe one or two great greats ... I lost count — held a cookout in their honor. And on Saturday, a second bash was hosted in their modest little home. This one was for distant family and community friends.
Both celebrations featured food, fellowship, lots of laughter and plenty of memories. Truly, it was a once-in-a-lifetime weekend for a once-in-a-lifetime pair.
But of all the handshakes, the hugs, the well-wishes, the warm smiles, the gifts, the congratulatory cards and the crowded rooms, my fondest takeaway from that whisper in time came early Saturday morning.
The house was quiet, the start of the festive doins’ still a few hours away. Stained coffee cups lined the kitchen counter like gallant soldiers awaiting their next mission. The Weather Channel had been turned off and the TV’s blank screen reflected the serenity of an empty living room.
Four sat at the round kitchen table — my wife, her sister Suzann and their father and mother, the honorees. Placed atop the smooth surface of the oak centerpiece and held open at either end by Billy Wade and Shirley was a 31-page scrapbook — a gift of the heart crafted by the creative and loving hands of their oldest child, my wife.
Suzann furnished the photos, probably the result of secret forays into crowded bedroom closets whose top shelves were lined with yellowing shoeboxes filled with mementoes from 60 years of family life.
Scrapbooking is one of my wife’s hobbies. This project, months in the making, told the entire story of her parents — from Day 1 through Year 60.
I sat in the adjacent living room listening to the kitchen table-talk as her folks thumbed from one page to the next, read the text and chuckled at the priceless old photos of special events — from the wrinkled blacks-and-whites of their first anniversary, to a celebration of the 25th, to the year of Gold and eventually to a renewal of their vows just a few years ago.
It was all there — pictures of the abandoned old homestead in Bradford whose sagging wooden porch and shingled sides were eventually scattered into time by the merciless winds of a rogue tornado; the tricycles and toys and bumps and bruises of four laughing children; an aging car with wide white-walled tires and faded paint; and a gas station hat and a Pall Mall cigarette dangling from the mouth of a young Billy Wade while cradling the tiny form of his newborn daughter (who would eventually become my wife 22 years later) in one arm and his gorgeous bride of one year, Shirley, in the other.
Sixty years is a long time to do anything. And my beloved in-laws have done it well. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, one whose ups and downs tell the tale of everyday life.
But that’s what they are ... everyday people with yesterday dreams and any day hopes.
It’s no wonder the 60th is called the Diamond Anniversary.
These folks are jewels filled with hearts of gold.
I love Billy Wade and Shirley Swindell as a son would cherish his own. Although I am not of their flesh nor tied to their fold, I do know this. If given the choice of being their son-in-law or nothing at all, I would gladly choose the former.
Like my parents, they will one day pass through the gates of this life. And when they do, I’m hoping they’ll drop by Cloud N1946. My folks would love the visit.
I can just hear Dad now hollering over to Mom, “Honey, look who’s here! It’s Billy Wade and Shirley! Come on in! Grab a couple chairs. It’s just about time for ‘Gunsmoke.’”
And Dad, if they have microwaves in heaven ... Billy Wade likes popcorn.