Couple shares 72 years of good times

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

Married for 72 years?

Believe it.

Walter and Willie Mae Myers of Woodleaf were married 72 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and that doesn’t surprise either one of them a bit.

But people are often surprised, and everybody wants to know what their secret is, Walter says.

And Willie Mae knows.

“Work hard,” she says, “and eat everything you can get your hands on.”

He laughs, of course, no matter how many times he’s heard her say that before, and it’s quickly obvious that they laugh often in this friendly living room. A small heater is throwing out the glow and warmth of an open fire on a chilly morning.

And they’re willing to talk about marriage, especially theirs.

“When a couple takes the marriage vows,” Walter says, “they know they’re not just promising each other, but they’re also promising God.”

And Willie Mae agrees.

“But we don’t see alike all the time,” he adds quickly. “A woman and a man have different ideas, but that’s good, and what good does it do for you to quarrel?”

Of course, she and Walter haven’t seen alike all the time, but they knew from their childhood days when they played together that they saw alike a lot of the time.

And they tell young people today, she says, “that it’s no need to get married if you don’t love one another. And I think I could have done a lot worse.”

When they were little, Willie Mae and Walter lived in the same neighborhood and were close because their families were connected.

“My step-daddy was his daddy’s brother,” Willie Mae says, “and we played outside a lot, and we had no idea we’d ever get married. We didn’t have entertainment like kids do now. Going to church was the main event. That’s where families got together.”

But time and trouble brought them closer.

The trouble broke out after Willie Mae’s mother died.

“My step-daddy wasn’t good to me,” she says, and she and Walter knew they cared for each other, and one day he said, ‘Let’s get married and get you out of it.'”

And that’s what they did. She was 16. He was 22. Now she’s 88 and he’s 94, but the memories of those early years are still clear.

They lived with his parents about six months.

Then a neighbor had a house to rent, and they bought all the furniture in it — a cook stove and a heater, two sofas, a kitchen cabinet, everything,” they say, almost in unison, “that anyone needed, including garden seeds.”

“And we got all that,” Walter says, “for $10!”

“Ten dollars!” she echoes with emphasis, knowing it sounds so impossible now.

But then …

“He worked for the WPA,” one of President Roosevelt’s helping hands programs during those Depression years, she says, “and that $10 was hard to come by.”

And no wonder.

“I was working for 75 cents a day,” he says.

But once they decided to get married, they went to Mocksville and a justice of the peace married them. It was Nov. 23, 1934.

The big shock came a few days later when she got a letter from her sister, Jeanette, who was living in the mountains. The letter’s big news was that her sister got married on Nov. 23, too.

“The same day!” Willie Mae says, still finding it hard to believe. “The only difference was I got married in the morning, and she got married in the evening.”

They were young, and life — and marriage — was exciting.

And back then, she says, “I never did think we’d get this old. I’m 88 now and Walter’s 94, and both of us are hard of hearing.

“We lived with his parents about six months,” she says, “and then in a little old log house and made one crop of cotton and corn sharecropping and lived in the house and didn’t pay money.”

And they had their first baby — a girl, Mildred Lorene.

But little Mildred Lorene didn’t make it.

“She was a big baby,” Willie Mae says. “She weighed 91/2 pounds, but she couldn’t eat, and she died when she was three days old.”

That brought pain, but four more children brought pleasure — Mary Dietz, who lives next door to them on St. Andrews Church Road in Woodleaf, Franklin Myers, a Baptist minister in Spencer, Dorothy Pauline McCloud (“and you can see her house across the road from Mama and Daddy,” Mary says), and James Myers on White Road.

And the family grew.

Now there are 15 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren — and as Mary repeats the numbers, Walter and Willie Mae, are nodding.

And smiling happy, big smiles.

But then they go back to the early years when they never would have dreamed they’d ever be married 72 years but vividly remember living in a log house not far from where they live now and bought 621/2 acres more that they farmed.

“It was all in cotton,” Walter says, “and Mama went to work in the cotton mill and worked there for 25 years.”

“And Daddy and the children did the farming, and she’d come home and help with it,” Mary remembers. “And Mama still cooks and cleans.”

“We built this house in 1951,” Walter says, “and used our own lumber.” It has six rooms that are all bright and fun-loving with teddy bears and dolls of all kinds that invite you to pick them up and sit a spell as well as a big variety of pretty things made of shells. Willie Mae made the cuddly dolls and all kinds of things from shells they always collected on their annual summer trips to the beach.

“She can look at anything, and she can make it,” Walter says, obviously proud of his smart wife.

But his memory of building the house they’ve lived in since those log cabin days goes beyond using his own lumber. He lost the first joint of his left thumb with a saw, but none of the medical efforts to put it back on were successful.

“But that doesn’t mean we never saw it again,” says Mary with a shudder. “It sat in a bottle of alcohol and on the piano for a long time.”

“Just about everything we ate was raised right here,” Walter says, and some things got into in that first log cabin days in an inventive manner.

Eggs, for example.

The chickens liked staying under the house when they lived in the log cabin, so that’s where they laid their eggs, and when the family needed an egg, someone would just lift up one special board that wasn’t nailed in place, reach down and pick up an egg.

But farming was in addition to going to work in the bleachery in Cooleemee in 1955.

“But it don’t really seem that long ago,” Willie Mae says.

Neither does being married 72 years seem that long, even though it was long enough for Willie Mae and Walter to learn a lot about marriage.

“The main thing,” she says, “is respect. You can’t get along if you don’t have respect. Everything has to be worked out. Put people together with different personalities, and they’re bound to disagree.”

“Everybody wants to know what the secret is,” she says.

Part of it is still doing things.

“It’s terrible what age does to you when you’re used to working all your life and you still see what’s needed.”

But her daughter, Mary, sees the other side of the picture.

“They won’t ask you to do anything,” she says, when she’d like to give a hand.

After all, Willie Mae admits she doesn’t like housework.

“I do what I have to do, but I like the outside. I love gardens, and we have tomatoes, cabbage, onions, beets, squash, cucumbers, okra. I’ve got onions out there now. And I can and freeze stuff. I had green beans this year, and I canned over 100 quarts.”

And when they go to the beach she can make a good living scratching up clams and selling them — and she loves it.

People tease her parents, their oldest daughter Mary says, “that when they go to the beach, they catch so many fish, the fish are glad to see them leave.”

And the conversation leaves the beach and fish and turns back to age and gardens and good children and a long marriage — and what keeps a marriage good after so many years.

“You’ve got to show respect,” Willie Mae says, “and not be the boss. Each person’s got their own ideas. You have to respect the other person’s ideas. And don’t try to change them. Let them be their selves. We’ve never hit each other yet, but we’ve wanted to sometimes.”

But even getting mad is unattractive, Walter says.

“She told me once, ‘When you get mad, you look like the boogey man,’ and I said, ‘and when you get mad your eyes look like two fried eggs.’ We’d pout a day or two but we’d stay quiet. That’s kept me from saying what I’d like to say a lot of time.”

And she probably did, too.

But not often.

And they have no regrets.

Well, maybe one.

Being married so long, every once in a while, Walter says it’s too bad they never had a wedding picture made.

But truth is, he’s not really concerned about a wedding picture. They’ve had marvelous pictures made since they were married and had their children — and they have marvelous memories of parents who believe, Walter says, “that there’s no need to get married if you don’t love one another.”

And Willie Mae and Walter Myers of Woodleaf have loved each other for a very long time.

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