Donna and Owen were school sweethearts, but she wanted to be a missionary before she’d settle down to marry him.
As a young woman, she left her small-town Utah home to teach (and preach) as a volunteer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She traveled 2,000-plus miles to North Carolina, a state where few Mormons then lived. While serving the people there, Donna roomed in a home with three daughters near her age: Lala, Gertie, and Leone. At the end of her time in the South, Donna and her “Carolina sisters” half-joked that someday they’d introduce their future children to each other — and have them marry so they could become “real” family.
Donna went home and married Owen on Valentine’s Day.*
They built and ran a business together — an auto service center and motel — and brought three beloved children into the world. When their little ones were seven, five, and three, Owen went hunting in the mountains with friends and cousins for food for their families. An out-of-season blizzard stranded them. Only one returned.
Widowed Donna went back to school so she could earn a living to support her children. She taught elementary school and raised her sons and daughter. She became a principal and also worked for educational publisher Allyn & Bacon.
When her kids were grown, she taught English in Japan.
Eventually, Donna dated and married Wally, a widower with a young son — the bonus son whom she delighted in raising and claiming as her own. She later became the first woman to sit (and vote!) on her city council.
When Donna’s second son met Leone’s daughter at college, everyone later agreed it never would have worked if “the Carolina sisters” had orchestrated it as they once planned. (I’m glad it worked out for them, since Donna’s son and Leone’s daughter became my parents!)
I never knew my dad’s father, Grandpa Owen, but I liked the way Grandpa Wally spoke of him, though he never met Owen, either.
Donna and Wally had an unusual second marriage. They each had a sense of responsibility and accountability to the other’s long-dead love. They spoke of taking care of one another for the one who was absent — and also playfully “blamed” them for household mishaps (“Donna, Owen must have mislaid my book…” “Wally, Bertha must have let your dinner burn…”).
For the rest of their lives, Donna and Wally celebrated three wedding anniversaries every year: Donna and Wally’s, Wally’s and Bertha’s, and — on Valentine’s Day — Donna and Owen’s.
From her decades-later hindsight, she didn’t tell me about the hardship of losing her husband when their children were so young. She didn’t describe the loneliness of losing her mother (hit by a drunk driver) within a short time of becoming a widow. But I’d heard the stories.
In college I lived near Grandma Donna and Grandpa Wally. Whenever I mentioned going on a date, Grandma worried. “Don’t get serious with anyone until you have a way to earn your own living. You never know what’s going to happen.” However, the first time I mentioned my future husband’s name, she changed her script. “When are you bringing him to meet us?”
Whoa, I thought. Our courtship was still in early days; it gave me pause that instead of reminding me to keep my distance, Grandma Donna wanted to meet him.
Fast forward two and a half decades.
In my early days of widowhood, I yearned to ask Grandma the important things I needed to know:
Grandma, how did you get through it?
When your heart was ripped in half, how did you become the optimistic, faith-filled, compassionate person I knew and loved?
How did you raise your children to be that way, too?
Grandma, how can I get through it?
Valentine’s Day isn’t easy on anyone who has lost a loved one — to death or otherwise. Hearts ache over severed connections. When all the world (in the media, anyway) seems paired up in love, it can be easy to rename February 14 as Single Awareness Day or Sorrowing After Death Day; it can be a very SAD day.
The first few Valentine’s Days after my husband’s death hurt horribly. I did what I could to serve others who I knew were also sorrowing, but it didn’t alleviate my own sadness.
This is my sixth widowed Valentine’s Day, and I’m trying to view it more as my Grandma Donna’s wedding anniversary than as a day without my own husband.
Grandma Donna survived — and thrived — after widowhood.
So will I.
(But I still wish I could ask how she did it.)
*For ways to help your grieving friends through this holiday (and others), please see Valentine Greetings for the Grieving.