I had a singular honor last Friday (December 6, 2013). When I entered the Waffle House near my home, Ralph was there. To the servers and the grill masters, he is known as Mr. Ralph. (For those of you who don’t live in the South, that may sound strange, but for those of us in the South, it’s quite common. To call an elderly person by his or her first name is too familiar, but when you add the “Mr.” or “Mrs.” it makes the greeting more formal but still friendly.)
Mr. Ralph is in his 90s. I have heard several different ages: 92, 94, 96, but always in his 90s. He just recently lost his wife of 67 years. He had married her shortly after World War II when he returned to the United States after his service in Europe. She was a young war widow (That’s what we used to call them.) with two little girls. She was clerking at J.C. Penney’s where he had gone to buy some civilian clothes. The attraction was immediate, and they married two weeks later.
She had lost her husband on D Day. He had been one of the many thousands of young men who stormed those almost impregnable beaches. Ralph said that she didn’t know which beach her young husband had been killed on…just one of the beaches. Now here’s where the story takes an unusual twist. For on that fateful day, June 6, 1944, Ralph had been put ashore on Omaha Beach. That was the one that was backed by high dirt cliffs. I had learned this when Ralph and I had a conversation some months back.
The Waffle House was crowded that morning. It almost always is on Fridays, but Ralph was seated on one side of a booth near the door. I walked over to him, shook his hand and spoke. He motioned for me to sit with him and have breakfast. I like the Waffle House. I can order ala carte and yes, the servers call me Mr. Harry. I never know what I’m going to order until I’ve had my first sip of coffee. Ralph, on the other hand, has the same breakfast every morning: two eggs over medium, bacon, toast, and a spoon full of grits, that Southern breakfast delight, sometimes known as Georgia ice cream.
If they’re not too busy and the grill master notices Ralph drive up, take his walker out from behind the driver’s seat, and head inside, by the time Ralph sits down to eat and his server places his coffee in front of him, his breakfast is ready. The servers always open the little containers of cream and grape jelly, for Ralph’s old fingers are gnarled from arthritis and it’s virtually impossible for him to open those containers for himself.
That morning, he had a treasure with him. Someone–probably one of his granddaughters–had created a framed memorial to Ralph’s late wife. They had taken an 8-1/2 inch by 11 inch picture frame. In the upper opposite corners, they had placed two pictures of her, one when she was a young bride and the other one when she was quite elderly, but before the ravages of Alzheimer’s had destroyed her outer beauty. In the center was the obituary from our local paper. Ralph was so proud of that framed document. He called one of our favorite waitresses over and showed it to her and she walked through the restaurant showing it to the other servers and the regular customers who always spoke to Ralph.
I’ve never asked him much about his war experiences. What I have learned from him has come piecemeal. It was enough for me to be with him this morning and to see him smile as he talked a little bit about his wife even though his old 90 year old eyes filled with tears.
I said in the beginning of this little remembrance that I had a singular honor today. First of all, I was witness to the quiet love that was the very core of this old man’s body and soul. He misses his wife tremendously, but she hadn’t been herself for many years, and she’s at peace now and he’s happy about that. Sixty-seven years is a wonder in this age of short attention spans, but that’s the way those folks were back then. Secondly, I was in the presence of a member of the Greatest Generation, a generation of young men and women who saved the world from tyranny.
Rest in Peace, Mrs. Ralph. God bless you, Mr. Ralph.