Where Tiny met Lula, pt. 2

In the fall of 2013, I was walking across the campus where I’d worked for a little more than a year when an inscription on a concrete bench caught my eye. It said simply that a man and woman named Tiny & Lula had met on this spot in 1915 and married in 1917. Curious, I looked them up and found that their youngest son, Jim, was still alive. I called him up.

A month later, I sat on a bench by a fountain with Jim and his wife Theresa, both now in their 80s. Jim was slowed by Parkinson’s, so Theresa held his arm to be sure he made it safely over the uneven bricks. We looked at old photos and talked for an hour, and then I wrote a column about the love stories they told. There was more than one.

I spoke with Theresa again by phone this morning. Jim died a few months ago, so she’s been going through his things and came across some memorabilia she thinks the university might want. And then she told me that the column meant the world to Jim when it came in the magazine. And then she told me something that I don’t deserve to hear but will never forget.

As Jim’s health continued to fail, she told me, he often pulled out the column to read it. When his eyesight went, she started reading it to him. Over and over, she said. She couldn’t say how many times.

Ask me sometime about my best days as a writer, and this will be one.

Here’s the column, from the Winter 2014 issue of University of Richmond Magazine:

Where Tiny met Lula

One day in 1915, four-sport athlete “Tiny” Wicker was cutting class when he canoed right up to Lula Puckett, a Westhampton student sitting on the bridge that stood where Tyler Haynes Commons is today.

Family lore offers variations of what followed. Tiny may have tapped the bridge with his paddle. He certainly called Lula either “cutie” or “sweetie.” Equally certain, Lula turned down the corners of her mouth and let him know that such a fresh young man would never get anywhere with her.

They told that story to their children and grandchildren for decades.

I learned its vague outlines before I ever met any of them. They are inscribed on a cement bench near where the bridge once stood: “J. Caldwell ‘Tiny’ Wicker RC’17 and Lula Jones Puckett WC’17 met nearby in 1915 and were married in 1917.”

I’ve been noticing benches on my walks all over campus. They preserve with elegant brevity the names of alumni and celebrate entire graduating classes. It’s hard to find a bench that doesn’t mark someone in whose footsteps we walk, not just metaphorically but physically. A campus with a tradition and community like ours is like that.

A few weeks after I first noticed Lula and Tiny’s bench, I called up their youngest son, Jim. Now in his 80s and slowed by Parkinson’s, he brought his bride, Theresa, to campus to share family photos and stories with me at the fountain in front of Puryear Hall. I learned that all the grandkids had come to call Tiny “Gaggy” when one couldn’t say “Grandaddy.” I heard about the old-time car Tiny and Lula rode around in to celebrate their 50th anniversary with family and friends.

I heard that Lula kept turning down the trademark corners of her mouth all her life. Jim, his sister, and his brother all followed Tiny and Lula to UR. So far, at least one of the next generation has, too.

The story behind their bench begins with Theresa’s open-heart surgery 20 or so years ago. As she recovered, the couple started gingerly walking around Westhampton Lake. On one of those walks, a memorial bench with a friend’s name caught Jim’s eye and made him recall a pledge his father had made many years before. Jim helped him keep it.

“One day,” Tiny had said, “I’m going to put on the bridge a bronze plaque with the words: ‘I met her here.’” •

Aftermath

When the story of the decline of Western civilization is definitively told, Exhibit A of our decadence will be the carved-out half pineapple that held the rice dish that I ate at the Thai restaurant Sabai tonight. 

Do I remember everything we planted in the garden this year?

Yes, I do: carrots and onions and potatoes underground, three flavors of peppers (bell, Serrano, Caribbean red) and three of tomatoes (regular, Roma, and cherry), basil for pesto and lettuce for salad, both near last year’s spearmint and strawberries returned, cantaloupe and watermelon and cucumbers to spread south toward the sun, four stalks of corn just for fun, and six sunflowers that — should they escape their fate as groundhogs’ snacks — will grow to 12 feet, plus two varieties of zinnias to keep them all company.

Well over 100 plants made it from the greenhouse to the ground. And the lemon tree looks promising again this year, too. That’s what spring is: hope.

Wet, burnt, exhausted, satisfied

I’m really good at ignoring evidence. The expiration date on a block of cheese I plan to slice up. The heat advisory when I want to ride. The unreciprocated gesture. I guess you could say I just can’t take a hint. Will trumps reality; desire outpaces what’s realistic, if only in my mind.

But that’s where I live these days. Take, to come to the case at hand, this statement that came with the model of kayak I chose: “For calm flatwater only.” I read it, committed it to memory and respected it, and, on Sunday, I ignored it.

Families with young children put in at the flatwaters just west of RVA’s Huguenot Bridge. They paddle their canoes and kayaks upstream and have a lovely time as heron and hawks fly overhead and the odd glimpse of a turtle hints at life in the water below. The river is broad and slow, and the rocks are easy to climb on.

I went downstream toward the Pony Pasture rapids. I’d been thinking about kayaking all of the way downtown, 10 miles or so, but to get there I needed to find the portage around the Z Dam. I asked a woman on a SUP about going downstream as far as Reedy Creek, where

I’d heard that at the island you stay left, but when I got to the island, there were two islands, a tiny one in the middle of the river and, to its left, the much larger Williams Island. So I followed Williams around to the left and found myself alone. I paddled ahead as far as the buoys reading “Caution Dam, Stay Away” and turned round to go back upstream. No portage in sight.

The day was a loss. I’d planned to be out two hours and had already been out 90 minutes. As I circled back ’round Williams Island, the sun was now higher and the river, I could see,

[Wordpress tells me I left off writing this 658 days ago. I don’t recall how I intended to finish that sentence.]

I wish I had a reason to wake up tomorrow.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams’ suicide is a reminder that grief often lurks not only beneath the surface, but also hidden in plain sight. Many of his best roles were about keeping grief at bay.

My two favorites are not surprising: The Fisher King, about the madness and tenderness co-existing in all of us, and Good Morning, Vietnam. I always respected the latter one for calling the main character to account for his naïveté. The young man he trusts betrays him. Life shatters. And so it goes. And we go on. Or not.

Songs of love and hate

“We will never reach the moon, at least not the one we’re after.” [slightly altered]