She stole his heart back in 1953, in a no-stoplight North Carolina town named Magnolia. She gave him her own in exchange.
Max and Barbara Asbell were married four years later and waited seven more years to bring their only child into the world. Their filled their lives with art, music, history and philanthropy. They traveled to 53 countries and to every continent but Antarctica. After Max retired as a local attorney and municipal court judge, he wrote six books of poetry and his memoirs.
Last summer, when his heartbeats were measured and his days numbered, he told his daughter, Elaine Tignor, he loved her mother so much he wanted to die first.
“I cannot imagine a day without her,” he said of his wife of 61 years, who began showing signs of dementia three years ago.
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Max and Barbara were from a generation that held close to their wedding vows. In sickness and in health. They spent the final weeks of their journey next to each other in bed. They slept most of the time but, in those precious waking hours, they held hands and reached to touch each other’s cheeks. Despite her decline in mental acuity, Barbara still could sense whenever her husband left the room.
Two weeks ago, as darkness closed in, Barbara leaned over and asked: “Are we going to go together?”
Max did not answer. His eyes were closed. Then, 23 hours later, he closed them forever.
Not one to linger, Barbara took her final breath two days later. Max’s poems were read at their joint memorial service last Saturday. They were laid to rest at Parkway Memorial Gardens.
It was only appropriate Max’s books were self-published, since he was a self-made man. He was the son of a sharecropper from Bleckley County, and he went through childhood with few personal belongings. He was working in the cotton fields at age 5, and he could pick 100 pounds of cotton in a day by the time he was 9.
When his father was hired as one of the first civil service employees at Robins Air Force Base in the early 1940s, Max stood outside the gates and sold copies of The Macon Telegraph and bottles of cold Coca-Cola. He was an entrepreneur at an early age. He earned enough money to buy a bicycle, piano and paid his way through school.
He met Barbara while stationed at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She was a freshman at East Carolina University. Her father had died a year earlier, and she was caring for her mother and an older sister who was physically disabled.
The morning after their blind date, Max showed up at her house wearing a cashmere jacket, and a three-year courtship soon began. While attending Mercer and working part-time at First National Bank in Macon, he drove 11 hours and 450 miles to visit her on weekends.
Elaine was born by Caesarean section in the fall of 1964, and Barbara was so woozy from the anesthesia it was three days until she could see her newborn. Barbara was a teacher for 31 years, and she named “Elaine” after one of her most well-behaved students. The birth announcement read like a declaration from an attorney’s office. Asbell & Asbell would like to welcome their daughter, Elaine, into the firm. The scales are perfectly balanced. Her greatest contribution is her innate ability to cry to get her way.
Perhaps crafting those words was when Max discovered he had a gift for writing. The poetry began to flow when he was in his 70s, and it never stopped because he never wanted it to stop.
“He always had to have a shirt with a pocket and a little spiral notebook and pen whenever he went out to write down his thoughts,” Elaine said. “He would jot them down and turn them into rhymes. At night, he would wake up and start writing things.”
Elaine followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a teacher. She now teaches marketing at Northside High School in Warner Robins. Barbara was inducted into the Houston County Teacher Hall of Fame four years ago. She had a giving spirit and often purchased clothes, eyeglasses and school supplies for those students whose families could not afford them.
The life lessons her parents instilled are to be treasured, Elaine said. They taught her to be independent and to pay forward every act of kindness. They set examples of a devoted, loving family and an appreciation of what you have rather than what you don’t. They would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.
Elaine recalled how her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary fell on the same date as her high school graduation from Northside on June 8, 1982. “That day was all about me, so I made sure I made their 50th anniversary a big deal,” she said.
She honored them one last time by speaking at their funeral.
“Their lives were a gift to me and provided lessons to me,” she said. “As hard as it has been to lose them at practically the same time, it also is the most fitting. Together. Forever. For eternity.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.