Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Path to Love

For years I would have said the great love story of my life began on a late summer day in Tennessee. A freshman at Lipscomb University in Nashville, I had been on campus just over a week when we met.

Classes started on a Wednesday that semester, and our first session of class voice met the following Tuesday. There were only three of us in the class. I had met Kristy during a freshman mixer, but didn’t recognize the boy who sat next to her. The last to arrive, I took my seat beside him on the front row just before class began. He sat between us girls, an air of confidence and cool detachment about him. As class began, our music teacher called him Joe. He had brown hair and olive skin. He was so cute. My heart fluttered when I stole a glimpse of him.

The hour lapsed swiftly, and as our first session of class voice drew to a close, the director showed us the music book we would need for class and sent us off in the direction of the bookstore. As Joe, Kristy and I headed out of the music building together, I noticed how his blue eyes sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. He was witty and dynamic, making us girls laugh with his funny stories. He flashed a dazzling smile, and my heart melted.

The three of us crossed a parking lot and stepped onto the sidewalk. As we headed toward the bookstore, we stopped when a classmate spoke to Kristy. I averted my eyes as Joe and I stood there, hoping he wouldn’t see the color that crept into my cheeks when he looked at me. As Kristy chatted with her friend, Joe and I stood quietly for a few seconds. I held my breath, inwardly pleading that we should go on to the bookstore without her. Moments later, I struggled to look nonchalant when he motioned that we should head on.

I looked briefly at this boy named Joe, then turned my gaze toward the sidewalk that stretched before us. I hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. Conversation was easy as we headed down the path, talking about school, home and family. There was something so significant – so electric – about our first encounter that when I went back to my dorm room later that afternoon, I called my best friend back home and told her I had just met the boy I would marry.

Many Paths
If that sidewalk in Nashville is where our love story began, the preface was written years before. The eldest of three children, I had come to Lipscomb from the rolling hills of East Tennessee. I grew up beneath the warm gaze of my parents, Bob and Sharon Prichard – high school sweethearts more in love with each passing day. Daddy is a minister, and Mother has always been his greatest encouragement and closest confidante. A devoted preacher’s wife, her warm, gentle nature has been an asset as she has served alongside him in congregations in Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama.

Now approaching their 40th wedding anniversary, Daddy still dotes on Mother – filling her car with gas, helping with household duties, and taking her out to eat several times a week. I have seen the depth of his love for her as she has battled multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. Daddy has proven himself a strong and faithful companion through grueling treatments that pushed Mother’s body to the brink of death. He has taken her across the country to seek the best medical treatment available, and he has kept vigil at her bedside during the very worst of days.

With her petite frame and porcelain skin, Mother has always been beautiful. I knew it was difficult for her when chemotherapy claimed her hair, but Daddy’s heart never wavered when her physical appearance changed. In fact, his love for her only deepened as he witnessed quiet strength emerge in his delicate flower.

My other early influences were my grandparents, Mema and Papa, the late Robert E. and Gladys Williams, married nearly 50 years; and Grandma and Granddad, John and Frances Prichard, who will soon celebrate their 60th anniversary. Many of my happiest childhood memories were spent in their company.

I never knew Papa as my mother remembers him – a well-read college professor of economics who loved the outdoors so much he walked to the university each day. Paralyzed by a massive stroke just five days before my parents married, he was completely bedridden by the time I came along. As a little girl I played with his wheelchair and tended my baby dolls beside his hospital bed. I marvelled at his faith in God, and to this day my eyes well with tears to sing “Be Not Dismayed Whate’er Betide” because at every family gathering Papa gathered us to his bedside before we parted to sing the chorus: “God will take care of you, Thro’ ev-‘ry day, O’er all the way; He will take care of you, God will take care of you.”

For more than a decade, Mema was Papa’s devoted caregiver. Papa became a hero to our family for his positive attitude in the face of adversity, but it was Mema who quietly shouldered the burdens of his physical care along with managing the finances, yard work and household duties. Theirs was a happy home, peaceful and content. I grew up blissfully unaware of the challenges they faced, yet keenly aware of the great love that carried them through.

If Mema and Papa represented the companionship of old age, Grandma and Granddad demonstrated the joy of the golden years. They continue to lead such vibrant, active lives that in my mind Grandma and Granddad have not aged since my childhood. In fact, I think I am catching up with them!

With Granddad’s building skills and Grandma’s creative gifts in the areas of music, sewing and painting, I have often said there is nothing those two cannot do. They enjoy travelling and are always eager to take on a new challenge – whether it is helping a son with a building project or sewing a baby dress for a great-granddaughter. With Grandma and Granddad, life is a great adventure and their zest for experiencing it fully is contagious.

Joe grew up a few hours south of Nashville in the picturesque city of LaGrange, Ga. When he found out I had moved six times growing up, Joe joked that his biggest move was from upstairs to downstairs in their lakeside home. His parents, Betty and Louis Lester, also met at Lipscomb. When they married, Betty left her Tennessee home to join her husband’s family in LaGrange. For more than 40 years, Betty and Louis worked together in the family’s successful floor-covering business. Throughout their marriage the two have worked in their community – building the business, growing the church, and leading in civic activities. This past summer we celebrated their Golden Anniversary.

Joe enjoyed a happy childhood in the bosom of extended family, led by his grandparents, Howard and Janelle Lester. Known affectionately as Big Daddy and Nanelle, you could not find a more beloved couple in LaGrange. Big Daddy had a golden touch in business and a giving heart for the Lord. He supported a variety of worthy causes and was instrumental in planting churches throughout West Georgia. A firm believer in Christian education, he served on the board of Faulkner University for many years. In fact, Lester Chapel in the Bible Building on campus bears his name.

For more than 60 years, Nanelle was his beloved wife. The epitome of a gracious southern lady, Nanelle was known for her easy smile, good-natured temperament and warm hospitality. Ten years after her death, people still talk about her legendary banana pudding!

When her health began to fail in later years, Nanelle clung to Big Daddy. As Alzheimer’s clouded her mind and memories began to slip into a sea of confusion, come what may, he was her lighthouse. His name was on her lips day and night, and his presence steadied and soothed her worried mind until the end.

I was struck by the change in Big Daddy after Nanelle died. He only lived a few years after her passing. Larger than life in his early years, he became more subdued, more retiring, after she was gone. Observing the contrast, I realized he was able to be the fullness of himself – the great man God made him to be – with his beloved by his side.

Joe’s maternal grandparents, Carl and Eula Belle Nix, lived in Tennessee during his childhood. Known in their community for operating the telephone exchange in their home for many years, Joe remembers enjoying the simple things in life during his visits to Granny and Papaw – walking to the corner grocery near their home; drinking SunDrop from a bottle on a hot summer day; and sampling vegetables fresh from the garden. Joe remembers Papaw as a quiet, hard-working man who never complained; Granny, a skilled seamstress and doting grandmother. They, too, were married more than 50 years.

Converging Here
That hot summer day in Nashville, when I met the boy I would marry, I could think of no one else. It was as if the rest of the world faded from view and all that was left was the two of us standing on that sidewalk leading to the bookstore. The path stretched before us, full of all our hopes and dreams and the promise of what was yet to be.

But looking back now, nearly 20 years after Joe and I first met, I am so thankful for the loved ones whose paths brought us to that point. Carried by their love and prayers, we were ready to step out in faith, knowing that finding true love was worth the risk. How blessed we are to have grown up with parents and grandparents whose love stories have become part of our own. Their long, successful marriages serve as examples for us every day.

I thank God when I think about my parents, grandparents and in-laws. Their stories remind me that although the road will not always be easy, the journey will be blessed when each step is taken hand-in-hand with the one God made just for me. Y

This article was written for Our Families Magazine, a publication of the Cloverdale Center for Family Strengths at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. Photo by Lee Cathey of LaGrange, Ga.

Joe and I were surprised and humbled to learn we were named the Cloverdale Center for Family Strength's 2010 Tower of Strength Family. Notice of the award came on a day full of housework -- always a challenge for me -- and my first thought was that we are not worthy. But the more I pondered, the more I appreciated the encouragement. Being a wife and mother is not always easy, and I make more than my share of mistakes, but what a blessing it is to receive recognition for a lifelong job that usually brings only intangible rewards. We appreciate the reminder that this journey might not always be easy, but it will be worth it in the end. Here are a few photos taken at Tuesday's Friends for Faulkner luncheon, where we received the award.

We missed my mother, who could not travel due to illness, but appreciated my father, Bob Prichard, and Joe's parents, Betty and Louis Lester, for joining us for the occasion. (Photo by Leigh Brannan)

I snapped this photo of the children after the luncheon.

I'm so thankful the journey Joe and I began nearly 20 years ago includes these dear ones!

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