I was on a rainy highway in Florida when Donna Washburn called to tell me her sad news. Her father and stepmother had died only a few days apart.
As my windshield wipers kept time with the raindrops, I could sense a ray of sunshine in Donna’s voice, even in her grieving.
“They had a beautiful love story,’’ she said.
I wanted to hear it and, three days later, I was sitting at a kitchen table with Donna and her husband, state representative Dale Washburn, and her sister and brother-in-law, Karen and Paul Gilchrist.
Bill Reeves died on Monday, June 10 four days shy of his 95th birthday. His wife, Mary, was in declining health and unable to attend his funeral on Thursday. She died the following day, her husband’s birthday. Her funeral was on Monday, the day after Father’s Day. She was 94.
“It’s sad and bittersweet,’’ Donna said. “It hurts. Our hearts ache because they are not here. But we know they are in God’s presence, and they are no longer suffering.’’
I have many written stories about elderly couples who die within days, or even hours, of each other, like two kites sailing to heaven on the same string. Despite the sorrow, there is joy in the ending.
The night before Bill died in those still moments between midnight and dawn, the family gathered at his bedside, held hands and prayed. Mary leaned over and told him: “We’ll be seeing each other soon.’’
They had both buried spouses in midlife. Mary and John Byrd were married 41 years. Bill was married 39 years to his first wife, Ellen, who died in 1985 following a seven-year battle with leukemia.
They met after Bill returned from World War II, where he served in the Army Air Corps. His mother introduced them. She had worked with Ellen at Dannenburg’s Department Store in downtown Macon.
They married in November 1946, and Bill began his long career with Central Georgia and Norfolk Southern railroads.
Ellen had a beautiful voice. She sang for the troops with the USO at military bases and was a regular on a WMAZ-TV music show in the 1950s.
They had two daughters, Donna and Karen, and later adopted a niece, Victoria Powell, and raised her as their own. Donna and Karen inherited their mother’s musical genes. They both majored in music at Wesleyan College, and Donna retired three years ago as the choral director at Mount de Sales, where 2016 Miss America Betty Cantrell was one of her students.
Like Bill, Mary’s first husband, John, was a World War II veteran. The families knew each other as members of Cross Keys Baptist Church. When Ellen was going through her chemotherapy, Mary loaned her some wigs. When Ellen died, John was a pallbearer and Mary coordinated the food that church members brought to the Reeves’ house.
The year after Bill lost Ellen, Mary became a widow. John suffered a heart attack while cutting the grass.
In the months that followed, Bill often would drop by to visit and comfort her. Two lonely hearts eventually would fall in love.
“Before she died, our mother told us Daddy was too young and needed to get married again,’’ Karen said.
Bill and Mary Reeves were a testament to those who find love again after losing a partner. They were supportive of each other and the blended families.
When Cross Keys Baptist merged with Vineville Baptist, they became active members at Vineville, where Bill sang in the choir. They traveled, went camping and square dancing and drank every drop of life together.
In their final years, Bill’s memory began slipping and Mary’s heart began to fail her. But they still clung to their faith, and to each other. They moved in with Karen, so she could care for them.
One day, Donna opened the door to find Mary, who could barely walk, had crawled into Bill’s lap.
It was funny at the time. Now it’s a special memory.
“We are thankful Mary was in Daddy’s life,’’ Karen said. “She was like a second mother to us and was a grandmother to our children. It was a great blessing God brought them together.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.