Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Capturing Virginia

    I get a kick out of going to see Aunt Virginia and Uncle Henry. They have been together so many years she'll begin a sentence, and he'll end it, as they holler back and forth at each other while furiously adjusting their hearing aid dials. They fight like all old married couples do,  arguing over who cut the lights on, who shut the door, who turned off the TV, who answered the telephone, who moved the newspaper, who lost the remote...you know, the important things in life.  It's just an act, though, to keep the world separate from their relationship.  Peek in the back door window before you knock and watch them.  After sixty-five years, they are still sitting side-by-side in matching recliners, shelling butterpeas and chatting quietly at the end of a long day.
   It was a little bit of Irish luck mixed with Yankee curiosity that brought them together.  During World War II, troops in training were sent around the country to learn combat techniques.  The men, divided into Red and Blue armies, would engage in mock combat against each other.  They would stay several months in different areas of the country, the Reds fighting the Blues during the week, but reuniting as comrades for the long weekends.  The young soldiers were then free to roam the towns they had invaded, looking for ways to ward off homesickness and hunger. They longed for home cooked meals and pretty girls, and local familes were more than willing to supply both.
     Henry was a nineteen year old boy who'd never left Wisconsin when he joined the army.  He had grown up with winter snows so deep he had to crawl out of the second floor window, shovel off the roof , then jump down into the snow to shovel his way to the front door. He had never experienced the scorching heat and humidity that welcomed him to the south. When he first came to South Carolina for  manuevers,  he had also never seen a pecan tree. He thought pecans grew on bushes until one day he spotted a grove of trees in front of the old Spence home. His troop had been marching drills up and down the old McCandless Road, which was still just a gravel path at that point, when he saw trees with nuts dangling from the branches.  Curious  to find out about that oddity,  he returned to the house that weekend to ask  the owners about them.
      The Spences were first generation Irish immigrants that had settled on some fertile ground in upstate South Carolina. When he was not farming to feed his brood of twelve children, Mr. Spence worked as a blacksmith. They were an industrious family, as were all families of that generation, and completely self sufficient. They raised what they ate, made what they wore, built what they lived in, and completely took care of themselves.
     Arriving at the house, Henry had spotted Mrs. Spence out by the well, talking into the hole as she raised the bailer and emptied water and trash from the bucket.  Not quite sure what she was doing, he watched from the road's edge, until the head of Mr. Spence popped out  of the hole, and he realized they were cleaning out the well.  He walked up to the house, introduced himself to the Spence's and told them he was interested in learning about their strange trees. They invited the hungry young army private to stay for dinner, promising they would tell him all about the trees while supper was cooking.  What was one more mouth to feed in a household of 14? And what hungry young soldier would refuse? Mr. Spence, being a smart man and the father of eight daughters, was not about to let the handsome young private escape. Henry happily agreed to stay, not realizing his life was about to change forever.
      He settled in by the stove in the kitchen, eager to learn, and was sitting there when Virginia, one of the eight Irish daughters, arrived home. Henry was interested  in the nuts,  but it was the red-headed Irish lass that captured his heart.
      A spark was ignited by that old stove, and they kept it burning for the next 2 years while Henry was shipped overseas for duty.  They wrote each other faithfully while Henry crisscrossed Europe as a medic in the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division. He called her "Ginger", more for her spicy Irish attitude than her auburn tresses. She was five years his senior, but declared she wanted  a younger man so she could train him right before he got ruined by someone else.
     Returning from war, Henry went straight back to South Carolina to see Ginger. They courted for 7 weeks before it was time for Henry to return home. Mr. Spence, not about to let an opportunity for marriage escape, had insisted that Virginia travel to Wisconsin with Henry.They slipped up to the dells of Wisconsin, met the Denruyter clan,and quietly wed. The blue-bellied Dutch boy had finally captured the wild Irish Rose. 
       Henry and Virginia were never blessed with children of their own. They were each one of 12 children, and I always imagined that God had decided after growing up in such large families, they needed a little break and some quiet years together.Then, as fate would have it, we moved into the house right across the field, and their quiet days were over.  They now had four little children constantly running in and out of their house, running all over their yard, climbing through the barn, climbing up the pecan trees, picking their figs and grapes off the vine, stomping through the vegetable gardens, and begging to spend the night on weekends.  Thankfully, they could always send us back home when they needed a break, but bright and early the next day, we'd be back, coming and going through elementary school, high school, college years, and marriages.
     Now, the next generation has picked up where we left off.  There are eleven grandchildren that beg to go see Aunt Virginia and Uncle Henry every time they come to town, and when they go, they are welcomed  with open arms, warm hearts, and lots of ice cream.  I tell their story not because it has great historical value that will impact the world. I tell it because they were loved, and they will be remembered, and that is what matters.

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