LeumelWhen I looked up "Leumel Desirée" on the Internet, Google asked me impertinently "Do you mean L-e-m-u-e-l?" Of course not. She was named for her Uncle Lemuel but, as she told me, she wasn't a he so they just turned her name around. Thus Lovely Leumel.
She claimed that she fell in love not with me but with the back of my head because in the tiny Warm Springs chapel they put the basses in front and the sopranos and tenors behind. She also may have been moved by my enthusiastic rendering of "Come to the Church in the Wild Wood, Come to the Church in the Vale."
She was lovely and I suspect that our love was lovely too, the two of us coming out of those dark little hospitals that were 1950s American-style rehabilitation. Today these places would be the stuff of journalistic scandal: wards crammed with dozens of kids ranging in age from six to twenty, facilities lacking in anything that might be called privacy, the most primitive medical care --- including shock machines that were meant to revive comatose muscles but that only served to add to the general misery of our bodies.
But that was in the past and Leumel and I had graduated to the sun lit halls built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Warm Springs, a place of hope and no little laughter, a complex of grand architecture, spacious double rooms, and cheerful windows open to the North Georgia sun. Outside, there were fountains shaded by oak and loblolly pines and sculpted gardens, and in the massive courtyard between Roosevelt and Founders Hall carefully tended lawns with signs that exhorted, "Set an Example / Do Not Trample." Despite the fact that for most of us, our trampling days were over.
There was Leumel and me, along with Paul and Roxanne and Hugh and Janet and John Longstaff and Fred and Jerri and Mike Watters --- all of us there in the gentle hill country of Georgia where we would flower, the hundred or so of us who had come together after this astonishing upheaval in our lives, now freed from the past and, for awhile, from the future.
We ate together and went to physical therapy in the warm springs together and later went to "standing" and "walking" classes together. Twice a week we went to see movies in the old wooden movie house with Rock Hudson and Doris Day and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn living out their happy days in a world that was simple and normal and impossibly sweet.
There were other places for us to go in the evening. Lu and I often found ourselves in the recreation room of Founders Hall, empty except for the two of us and the old LP record changer playing Jackie Gleason's "My Funny Valentine" over and over again:
Your face is laughable
the three of us alone in that dark room where she and I supped endlessly on each other's lips.
And sometimes in the night she and I would slip out to hide behind the tall ligustrum near Builder's Hall, she in her wheelchair and me in my wheelchair reaching out to each other not with the clinical hands of nurses or doctors or therapists or orderlies but the gentle hands of our nascent love.
§ § §
Sometimes I go onto the Internet to look around and see what has happened to those I knew so many years ago. I recently found out that my grade school buddy George Tobias is now a retired architect and my old high-school drinking pal Bart Richardson (who taught me how to down "7-&-7" --- Seagram's Seven Crown with Seven-Up) is bedridden, a stroke --- learning the lessons that Lu and I learned so long ago.
I found Bruce Chadwick's personal home page with picture (he's still quite thin and aesthetic-looking). He has just retired from teaching English at a small college in the Northeast and I recalled that his love for Keats and Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay overcame my own natural disinterest in poets and poetry. One summer the two of us composed Shakespearean sonnets at a time when most of our peers were trying to imitate not the Bard but Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley.
And Leumel. When it came time to look her up after these fifty years, I wondered if she would want me to make contact with her again. Would she encourage a telephone call? Would she invite me to come visit and meet her family? Would she want to talk about that time so long ago when we were such innocents, such innocents in love?
So I type in her name, and,
Funeral services for Mrs. Jerry (Leumel Dante) Desirée, 70, will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, in First United Methodist Church. The Rev. Sue Pugh will officiate.
Mrs. Desirée died at 4 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2002, in her residence.
She attended Meriwether State University until 1951. She was a cheerleader, a 1950 homecoming court maid and Miss Meriwether 1951.
She was married to George Desirée for forty-five years, was secretary of the United Methodist Women and a former leader of the church junior choir.
"Sue Pugh will officiate." Leumel would have had a fine time with that one --- the sheer joy of the words. I can see her now, dark eyes so merry, her wonderful wicked wit making merry about the good Methodist minister they called "Sue Pugh."
And the junior choir! I found myself hoping that in there had once been a young lady, not unlike her earlier self, sitting behind a gawky young man, not unlike myself --- the two of them feeling, possibly for the first time, an unwinding of hearts as their voices were raised in holy song.
§ § §
These obituaries miss so much, don't they? This one tells us about Mr. Desirée and Meriwether College and the choir but it doesn't say a word about the time when Leumel found out something new about her body: that instead of moving about so easily as it had since the beginning of her days on earth (running, climbing hills, riding horses, dancing) she would now learn to move about on wheels, pull herself in and out of cars, pull herself into bed (slide over from chair to the bed, then pull your legs up onto the bed with your hands then let yourself down, and, during the night, wake up every hour or so to grab the edge of the mattress and pull to turn yourself over).
That singular change of her life, that upheaval from fifty years ago --- physical, psychological --- was not mentioned in the words they wrote about her. Nor was the fact that she and I and others like us were required to learn quickly to live in a new, alien, sometimes hostile world (no ADA in the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s; no curb-cuts, no ramps; no accessible movies or restaurants or stores).
And, of course, the article did not report on the times when my Leumel, fresh from hospital and rehabilitation and my arms, often found her days troubled by an overwhelming, implacable melancholy.
In 1950 she was named cheerleader. In 1951 she was named Miss Meriwether. In 1952 she learned an astonishingly different, often curious new way of life. And in 2002, this love of mine from half a century ago was laid in the grave.
§ § §
After leaving Georgia in mid-1953 we were reunited briefly in her grandfather's house in the Louisiana Cajun Country. At night the icy winds beat down out of the plains, bending the sycamores that grew at the north edge of the property, and the two of us lay huddled together in the single bed in the front room, parents at the back, no eyebrows raised for the two of us were cripples, the two of us (how do they say it?) the two of us were hopeless cripples, hopelessly in love in that dark time.
And as we lay together we created a child, a child that would, perhaps, have her eyes and heart and love; a child that would, perhaps, have my feelings, maybe an echo of my soul ... a child, we would hope, that would have none of my newfound fear.
For Leumel spoke about our future and marriage and what it was going to be like to spend the rest of our days together. And I said nothing but thought of the two of us in our wheelchairs together for the rest of our lives together.
The seeds of a new life were growing inside of her and at the same time a dark flower was starting to bloom inside of me, one that whispered that if I married a woman in a wheelchair the world would see the two of us in our wheelchairs, would see us with the double eye of pity, would think that she and I could only have each other because no one else would have us, no matter how beautiful and alive we were.
After I left that house with its gables and dewberry bushes, I found myself afraid but said nothing until the warm springtime when the sycamores returned to life and the child of us disappeared, as Leumel wrote, "in oceans of blood."
I wrote to tell her goodbye and the letter she sent me shortly afterwards was not one of please or why or how could you? It was a letter that only Leumel could send because she was a kind and a generous person, never clinging, never demanding, never cruel:
Perhaps 'tis better.