Roy and Emma Jean are getting older these days. That seems like a nonsensical statement to make because we’re all getting older. No surprise there. They’ve been married for a hundred years it seems. Roy can’t remember his life before she came along, and Emma Jean doesn’t want to remember much of her life before him.
Both of them are well into their eighties. They grew up in the thirties and forties in rural Georgia. Poor families who got by in this world by doing for themselves. They grew food for the table and worked every day to make ends meet. There was no TV sitcoms to laugh at. No electricity for computers. No plumbing or warm seats for taking care of business.
Their families went to the same church on Sundays. Long before she caught his eye, he was pulling her pig tails and shooting spit wads across the sanctuary. She thought boys were gross and cringed at the idea of ever kissing one of them. She’d rather take a cow pie in the eye than to kiss a boy, and she told her girlfriends just that.
Come high school, things changed. Roy cleaned up his act and wore a neat part in the middle of his reddish brown locks. Emma Jean wore a nice floral print dress her mama made for her, and she started noticing the cute dimples in Roy’s checks when he smiled.
Dating was the best. He took her to the school dance. She sat with him on a picnic blanket down by the pond. It wasn’t too long after they graduated that they made plans to get married. There wasn’t any money for a big wedding. Though their parents already knew it was likely, Roy and Emma Jean were afraid to tell them. They stole away one evening, found the Justice of the Peace and tied the knot.
That was nearly 69 years ago, now. Those years seem about as far away and untouchable as the moon. After raising four kids and finding some way to send them all off to college, watching them grow up, get married and raise families of their own, the old couple feels plum worn out. Simple things, like getting out of bed and getting dressed, are not so easy as they used to be.
One of the big changes is that they don’t drive any more. Roy took it the hardest.
“Confoundit! I hate not driving.”
Roy was a factory man his whole life. He drove to work everyday for over 40 years. Emma Jean lost her license first because her eyes got so bad she couldn’t see to drive. She pulled into the yard one day coming home from the store and nearly took out the front porch. She cried when Roy told her she’d have to stop driving. And he sat in his chair in the den for days in a state of self-pity when his son took his keys away from him a few years later.
Their youngest daughter, Norma Jo, does all their driving for them now. It’s not like she lives next door, either. She lives nearly 40 miles away. She comes over a couple days a week to help out. She’s got her own family that needs her. She has her grandkids a few times a week. And in the middle, somewhere, she jumps in the car and makes the drive back home.
Her days are a little like being a soccer mom again. She has a schedule to keep. Tuesday is grocery store day. And if she’s late, Roy is standing on the front porch looking at his watch when she pulls in.
“I thought you were going to be here an hour ago. I wanted to be home by lunch. Your mama eats at 12 sharp you know. She gets upset if she has to eat late.”
“I know, Daddy. I had to drop Isaiah off at day care, and that ran me late.”
“Well, let’s get your mama in the car so we can go.”
Norma Jo is a saint by any standard. She would never wear the title, but none of the other siblings seem to take an interest in doing what she does. They might stand up in a pinch, but not very often. She is the caregiver in this family. It wears on her, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Getting both of her parents out of the car is a circus act all by itself. Roy gets his feet on the pavement and then rocks back and forth to get enough momentum built up so he can stand up. It takes both of them to get Emma Jean out and stabilized with her walker. Once in the store, Roy likes to push the buggy. Norma Jo reads labels to them. When they’re done, Roy pulls out a wallet fat with paper clippings he’s been saving since he was in the Army. He fumbles around and hands the girl cash money. Roy doesn’t believe in plastic money.
Norma Jo makes a suggestion. “Since I was so late, why don’t we just go to lunch while we’re in town. That way Mama won’t have to eat late. We can visit for a spell over a chicken sandwich.” She knows they both love Chic-fil-a. “The cold stuff will be fine in the cooler.”
“Who’s buying?” her dad asked.
“Why, you are.” Norma Jo pats her dad on the shoulder. “A girl still needs her Daddy.”
There was a time when Norma Jo would pay for lunch. She felt like it was a small way she could help take care of them. It gave her a good feeling to do that for them.
Her dad never said a word, but she could tell that it didn’t set well with him for some reason. I mean, think about it. Having to have your daughter drive you around is tough enough on an old man. Having her pay for your food, too, is like being carted around like a child. Old people have dignity, you know.
“Well, then. Let’s go. I’m buying.” In Roy’s mind, he is still the man of this family, and she is still his little girl.
Life is fragile for a lot of reasons. Getting old is just one of them. Watching the people you love lose some of their independence is no picnic.
One day Roy and Emma Jean are the two people that move mountains. They make sure everyone gets to school and to ball practice. They pay for everything from the money they worked hard to get. They have all the answers. From buying houses to fixing pipes and frying chicken. You count on them for everything.
Then, one day, they depend on you. In the middle of your exhaustion, you keep reminding yourself of all they did for you when you couldn’t do anything for yourself. You make the drive to their house. You plan the trips to the store. You call to check on them. You make birthdays matter. You give back the love they gave you.
It’s not perfect. But God bless those who honor their parents.
God bless Norma Jo.