Against all Odds, Nothing is Impossible with God: An Enduring 56 Year Old Love Story

 

1962.2016

A Letter to Chip and Joanna Gaines

Dear Chip and Joanna,

On February 27th my mom and dad, Chuck and Sue Lohenry, celebrated their 56th Wedding Anniversary. I wish you could know them, not only because they are two of your biggest fans, but because they truly brighten this world by their love for one another, their family and friends. (They actually remind me of a way older version of the two of you!) Their love is captivating; it is alluring in the way in which it draws you into something deeper and bigger, something exuberantly alive in the space between them. While the impact of such a love is truly immeasurable, they do regularly brag on the fruits of it, including three kids (I, their only daughter, am the baby and the favorite, wink wink!) and ten grandchildren, who range in age from 14 to 30 years old. Although their grandchildren are spread out as far west as California, as far east as Japan, as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as Arizona, whenever they are able, each one makes it back to Grandma and Papa’s home for the chance to reunite, and always for a game of Shanghai Rummy.  Around the table they can be loud or quiet, they can trash talk about their card skills or give each other a hard time about taking too long, but the real reason they gather is to bask in the circle of warm and unconditional love that exists whenever they are in the presence of their grandparents.

My parent’s marriage definitely hasn’t been a cake walk. From the start, they chose one another despite all the odds against them. My mom, within a span of a few short years had joined and left the convent, married her first husband, was deserted by her first husband, found herself as a single mom to her son, Todd and was again living with her mother. Back in the late 1950’s, it wasn’t socially acceptable to be a divorcee with a small child. But my dad wasn’t deterred. He still clearly recalls the moment he saw her downtown Libertyville, Illinois, walking with her son’s hand in hers, her head held high. To this day, he says that he was captivated by her poise, her pride and her long, beautiful legs.

Things got serious quickly and my dad knew he had found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Three times, he asked her to marry him and three times she answered “no”. It wasn’t for lack of love for him. It was just that she was concerned because she wasn’t free to get married in the Catholic Church until her annulment was granted, not to mention that she was hesitant for fear of making another mistake. Things cooled down a bit as she waited for news about her annulment to come from Rome. Yet they still regularly connected at church on Sundays and at the Fairhaven Bowling Alley, the place my dad managed. Then one fateful night changed everything. It was February 26, 1962.  My mom went to visit my dad at work. She had finally changed her mind and asked him to find the nearest state that waived the three day waiting period, so that they could run off and get married that night! Chuck was ecstatic! He immediately called a friend who recommended they head in the direction of Dubuque, Iowa. He called another friend, who happened to be a jeweler, and asked him to leave a couple of wedding bands in his mailbox. He then closed down the bowling alley, picked up the rings and left to pick up his bride-to-be.

In excerpts of a letter he wrote to my mom, he describes his drive to her house that night and the day that followed:

“All this time I am thinking, does she really mean it? What if she changes her mind? It was bitter cold and you thought I had changed my mind, so you were on your way back into your house when I pulled up.

You got in the car and our lifelong adventure began. Route 20 was not a four lane divided highway, but we found our way to Dubuque and were sitting outside the courthouse when it opened. I went in to check on things and determined that they had just changed the law the previous summer and now required a three day wait. I came out with a smile on my face and gave you the bad news. I had a plan B in mind. We could go back to Illinois, apply for a license and get married on the following Saturday. You were freaked out and told me that if we didn’t get married that day, you knew that you could not defy your mother. You then asked me if I knew anyone at the Lake County Courthouse who could waive the waiting period. I drove like a mad man to Waukegan, spoke to the county clerk who waived the waiting period, sent us to a doctor for our blood test and met us across the street where a justice of the peace married us. I had a very scruffy black beard and neither of us had showered for over 24 hours. Then came the hard part.

You had left a note for your mother, but she thought you had gone to Mass. Needless to say, she was hurt and disappointed and glared at us as we came to pick up Todd. I don’t remember if words were exchanged, but I do know that I was glad to get out of her presence at that precise moment. We found a motel and then I left the two of you to go and bowl in a singles tournament that I won that night. The trophy reads ‘February 27, 1962…What a great start to a marriage!’”

And that is the story of how my parents met and married-going against social norms, going against their parents’ wishes, going against their Church’s teaching, but following where they believed God was leading them-and started their love affair of a lifetime.

They suffered much in the first year of their married life. Dad had a massive stroke at age 25, and a couple of months later, they lost their first child together, Charles, Jr. who was stillborn at full-term. Thankfully, the year of silence from their families ended when both came around with the support and love my parents needed. My mom’s annulment was granted from Rome and they had their marriage blessed in the Catholic Church. As soon as it was possible, Todd was adopted by my dad and loved like one of his own, because as he says in his own words, “The day I first saw Sue and Todd, I fell in love with both of them.” And that bowling trophy? It is still proudly displayed on a shelf in their home.  

Four years ago, my dad suffered a traumatic brain injury, one he shouldn’t have survived. With prayer, love and support, he once again came back from near death and fought with all his strength for months to rejoin mom on their journey of love. When he was able to speak clearly again, he was even sweeter than before. If I had a dollar for every time he introduced Mom to doctors, nurses and even strangers as “my beautiful wife, the love of my life”, I would be abundantly wealthy! His ardent love for her is so endearing, it is the stuff that awesome romance novels are written about (think: The Notebook). She reciprocates this love every single day with the way she stays at his side, treats him with the utmost dignity and respect and celebrates even the smallest steps of progress.

Post-brain trauma, I made a commitment to see my parents weekly, so as make a point to enjoy whatever time we have left together. Faithfully each Sunday morning the three of us gather for “Breakfast Club”. During prayer before our meal, Dad makes sure to thank God for the two loves of his life, Mom and me! He then points to the bracelet on his wrist inscribed “Beloved” and points to my mom. When I ask him about the highlight of his days, he says it is any time he spends with the love of his life, but most especially he enjoys sitting side by side on their reclining sofa, watching old and new episodes of Fixer Upper on repeat, without tiring. I think subconsciously, he sees a reflection of a younger version of himself and my mom in the two of you and the way in which you love one another. On a regular basis, he tells me that one day he would like to meet Chip and Joanna Gaines. I think it is adorable that at 81, the only thing left on his bucket list is to road trip to Waco, Texas to meet the two of you!

While I know you probably get a million requests like this, I would love to take this trip to Waco with my parents, in honor of their 56th Wedding Anniversary, if they could meet you, even for just a couple of minutes. I know my request is against all odds, but just like a 56 year old love story with rocky beginnings and difficult obstacles to overcome, I believe nothing is impossible with God.

Thank you for your consideration of my request! May God bless you as you continue to write your own enduring love story.

 

Blessings,

Lisa Lohenry Gilligan
P.S. I’ve attached photos of them in 1962 and in 2016 (when their beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series ; )