Elbert Neese was waiting for me in his carport at the top of his driveway. He rose slowly from his chair — he’ll be 90 years old in a few weeks — and reached to shake my hand.
“I’ve got a love story to tell you,’’ he said.
“I want to hear it,’’ I said. “Valentine’s Day is next week.’’
On a wall in his living room, he showed me a framed photograph of himself with his wife, Betty. She died in 2010. They had been married for 66 years. On a shelf were pictures of his sons, Ron and Stan, with their wives, Judy and Brenda.
The photos formed a line, but it was obvious this was a circle of love. He was proud of his son’s marriages and successful careers. Fathers are allowed to have brag books too.
Elbert grew up one of nine children in LaGrange, the son of a cotton mill worker and one of the most loving mothers to ever put on an apron. He passed down that legacy of love and devotion to his own children.
We mostly talked about his oldest son, Ron, who died 17 months ago, and how Ron’s love for his wife, Judy, has taken on an immortality of its own.
His vows “till death us do part” were not punctuated with a period at the end of the sentence.
Elbert was in the grocery business for 50 years, mostly with Colonial and Big Star, and later as a food broker. He moved his family from Birmingham to Atlanta, when Ron was a senior at Therrell High School. It was a tough time for Ron to be a new kid at school, but his life was changed when a matchmaker friend set him up on a blind date with Judy.
She had been seeing someone else at the time. When Ron went to pick her up at her house, her jealous ex-boyfriend showed up and blocked the driveway with his car so they couldn’t leave. Judy’s father made the young man move his car, then sat him down in the kitchen for a lecture.
They were born nine months apart to the day — Ron on Oct. 21, 1947, and Judy on July 21, 1948. So it was almost like it was meant to be.
Ron went to Auburn to study aerospace engineering. Judy enrolled at the University of Georgia the following year with aspirations of becoming a teacher.
They married in 1968 and, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ron felt a surge of patriotism and enlisted in the Air Force. Rather than a tour of duty in southeast Asia, his assignment was in Turkey, where he served as an intelligence officer.
After the military, he went to work for Delta Airlines in the purchasing and payroll departments. He was with Delta for 27 years and later was a consultant for United Airlines. Judy was an elementary school teacher and former Cobb County Teacher of the Year.
In 2010, the same year his mother died, Ron was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease with no known cause or cure. As it progressed, he had to be on oxygen 24 hours a day. It became difficult for him to speak. But it did not break his spirit.
They had retired and built a home at Bent Tree in the north Georgia mountains near Jasper. They had no children of their own, but they moved on with life, determined to grow old together.
They were inseparable, except for one day every fall when they seceded from the marriage union.
It was the day of the annual Georgia-Auburn football game. Or, as Ron called it, the Auburn-Georgia game.
“I can count on one hand the number of arguments we had, … except for that game,’’ Judy said. “I would take one of the dogs and go watch it on a TV in one room, and he would take the other dog and watch it on another TV.’’
Ron decorated the bar in their home blue and orange, for Auburn’s colors, and painted a bathroom in a red-and-black Georgia theme.
“I’m never going to sell this house unless I can find a Georgia-Auburn marriage,’’ Judy said, laughing.
Ron died on Oct. 28, 2015, one week after his 68th birthday. Seven months later, on May 18, Judy’s doorbell rang. It was the UPS man, the guy in the brown shorts.
Through a friend, Ron had arranged to have a card and a pair of diamond earrings delivered on what would have been their wedding anniversary.
“If you are reading this on our 48th anniversary, then I am gone,’’ Ron wrote in the card. “But I still love you as much, or more, than the first time I saw you.’’
On Saturday, Nov. 12, the day of the Georgia-Auburn game in Athens, a florist arrived on her front porch with a bouquet of roses. They were Auburn orange and blue and Georgia red and black. Ron had arranged to have it sent more than a year in advance. (When the florist told him she didn’t have any black roses, he suggested she spray paint white ones.)
“Good luck with the Dawgs today,’’Ron’s note read. “I will be watching. I love you, Judy Dawg.’’
The florist hugged her. They stood in the foyer and wept.
“He was so sweet,’’ the florist told Judy. “It was wonderful to meet someone who loved his wife so much.’’
Valentine’s Day is more than a date on the calendar. It is more than cards, candy, roses and Cupid slinging his arrows.
For those who no longer have loved ones — left with only memories to embrace — those “forever” valentines are to be cherished.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.