On August 2, I drove to Monticello, Kentucky to visit the First Church of the Nazarene and Marion and Gwen’s home. Gwen would meet me in the church parking lot. The route to Monticello was Interstate 64 east towards Lexington, US route127 south to Danville, US 27 south to Somerset, and KY Highway 90 to Monticello. I depart in the late morning for the three hour drive from Louisville to southern Kentucky. The summer day grew hot and hazy. No rain clouds threaten. (For Marion's story, see "Medical Aide Man" in Stories by our Users)
Leaving the interstate, I drive on mostly two lane roads through picturesque central and southern Kentucky. I encounter numerous country villages and the larger cities of Danville and Somerset. There are twenty four stoplights in Somerset, and each light has a square green sign hanging beneath with a white number. Instead of giving directions in terms of street names, in Somerset you say, “Turn right at number six,” or “Take a left at twenty two.” If you hit the lights on the wrong timing, you’ll be stopping twenty four times on the way through the city. Gwen warned me about the lights; there wasn’t a good alternate route. I am maybe fifty-fifty on the Somerset stoplights. Frequently, someone in a hurry passes me, and then I slowly pull alongside them at the next light. Maybe a lifetime with twenty-four stoplights makes you slightly impatient.
Entering Monticello, a sign advises you are entering the “houseboat capital of the world.” Sprawling Lake Cumberland is nearby, and several houseboat building companies have located in the city. I noticed two or three factories beside KY route 90 as I near the city limits.
The church sits on an elevated property on the right side of the highway. A large lawn of perfect green grass in front of the church surrounds a brick framed chocolate-colored wooden sign, “FIRST CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE.” The church consists of three sections and is chestnut-brown brick trimmed in white. The middle sanctuary section is crowned with an impressive white steeple and cross. The section to the right houses the church offices, and the section to the left Sunday school class areas. Hidden behind the church is a family life center. I drive up the slight incline and park on a gravel lot to the left of the church. Gwen gets out of a late model pickup truck and waves hello. We exchange greetings and step in the side entry of the church.
Just inside the entrance is a row of pictures hanging on a russet masonry wall. Gwen says these are family portraits of all the pastors. The church organized in 1927. The current building was built in 1975. I deposit my camera bag on the floor and ask Gwen to give me a tour.
The church is kept in excellent condition. Wood and glass outline the hazel brick walls. Gwen’s tour arrives at the front entrance. Here I see a ten foot long by two-foot high coffee-and-cream colored wooden sign, just below the level of the ceiling, with raised tan letters: “TOGETHER WITH GOD WE BUILD.”
Gwen says, “This sign was made by Marion, and it was the theme of our building program. It was placed in our old church before this one was built. The sign was moved to this church after the completion of our building program.”
We turn around and view a typical cedarwood register advertising attendance for the church. Marion designed and made the register. It announces last Sunday’s attendance as 128 compared to 169 a year ago today. The Wednesday night prayer meeting drew 50 loyal members. When was the last time your church had a prayer meeting? I grew up in a small town Church of the Nazarene in the hills of West Virginia. We used a register similar to this one.
To the left of the entrance there is a water fountain. A well-worn tawny step squats beneath the water fountain. Gwen noticed me looking at the solitary step and says, “The children couldn’t reach the water fountain, so Marion saw the need for a stool for them to be able to reach it. He made this little stool and it has endured for thirty years. Many thousands of little feet have stood on it to get a drink of water.” Gwen points out several tables produced by Marion’s carpentry skills, and leads me into the pastor’s study to admire two walls of sturdy bookshelves and cabinets Marion built for his pastor.
I ask Gwen to show me the pew where she and Marion sat at the church. She leads me to the third pew from the rear of the sanctuary. All the pews had small brass dedication plates on the side. The slightly corroded one on this pew reads, “Presented by Mr. and Mrs. Marion Bell.”
Marion’s cross hangs majestically in the upper portion of the forward section of the church above the platform, embedded baptismal pool, and choir area. The sanctuary ceiling is dramatically high and finished with exquisite toast-brown wooden beams. White glass globes dangling from the ceiling emit soft glowing light—each globe graced with a bronze cross. The choir seats and carpet are a rich crimson color. Three solid wood altars reside below the raised platform. The American flag and Christian flag are placed on the platform’s right and left respectively. The minister’s pulpit is centered below the cross.
Gwen describes the history of Marion’s building the cross while I film her from the pew behind her. “We sat in this pew because Marion was a taller guy; he didn’t like to sit up front because people couldn’t see over him. He sat to my right. Two song evangelists, husband and wife, stayed at our house during two separate revivals while this church was under construction. We gave them their own little bedroom, and we enjoyed each other’s company. They saw some of Marion’s handiwork, and they thought he should design the cross for the new church. So they inspired him to build the cross for the new church. The song evangelists spoke to our pastor, and he honored Marion so much by asking him to construct the cross. Marion felt it was one of the most precious things that he made in his lifetime.” The cross is approximately fifteen feet long and seven feet wide. There are lights behind the cross that gives it a holy luminescence. The cross is a work of art, and it perfectly consecrates the country cathedral.
* * *
Gwen and Marion’s modest home is about two miles from the church. She leads the way in her pickup truck east on KY route 90 and I follow in my sedan. After two miles, we turn left and drove a short way up a hill to a red brick, one story ranch style house. Trees and a myriad of flower gardens surround it. Parking beside Gwen’s truck in the elevated driveway, I remark on the beauty I see around me. She smiles and says they built everything together, one step at a time, one day at a time.
We enter the compact home through a covered concrete patio next to the driveway. There is a recently remodeled kitchen, den with fireplace and recliners, dining room and adjacent formal living room, bathroom and two bedrooms. The dining room and formal living room area are decorated with distinctive antique timber furniture and glass collectibles. One of my favorite television programs is PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, and I immediately feel there are several pieces of furniture and collectibles that would interest the program’s experts. Gwen tells me they enjoyed shopping for antiques and working together to refurbish them. Marion even hand carved ornate maple pieces to replace damaged parts of one bedroom set of dresser drawers.
Gwen shows me the oil lantern Marion was delivered by in 1912. She is particularly proud of several cedar and oak clocks Marion fashioned for her over the years. The house is filled with projects Gwen and Marion completed together. Everywhere I look there is evidence of the couple’s handiwork. How does Gwen live in this house alone, encircled by so many reminders of Marion?
We move outside to tour the plentiful gardens surrounding the home. Gwen calls these gorgeous, colorful areas Oaklawn Garden. Oaklawn was featured on the Wayne County Garden Tour several times in the last few years and won first place in 2003.
There are several groupings of three or more shade trees alongside the concrete driveway. Around these trees Gwen planted flower beds, some in rough-hewn logs and others in weatherworn hardwood barrels. One is in a circular stone bed; here a dozen hand-painted ceramic gnomes keep watch while lurking in and around the trees. Bright pink is the predominate color along the driveway. Leafy green plants guard the delicate flowers. As we walk down the driveway away from their home, Gwen points out the Impatience, begonias, and hostas. To the right of the driveway is the spacious front lawn with neatly trimmed summery grass. We cruise to the far right side of Oaklawn Garden.
Next was the “Rock Bed,” an expanse of vibrant, multiple colors. Using irregular stonework and imaginative landscaping, Gwen and Marion shaped a home for peonies that had just finished blooming, gladiolas beginning to bloom, and daylilies blossoming into a watercolor painting of yellow, purple and green.
Past “Rock Bed” Oaklawn’s “Sunny Goldfish Pond,” an elaborate, multi-tiered stone pond and adjoining wall, impresses me. Graceful golden koi, swimming peacefully, fill the shimmering pond. Stone swan statues, charming concrete angels and dramatic outcroppings of coralline, orange, violet and canary-yellow flowers accentuate the beauty of the pond.
To one side of the pond is the “Grass Garden.” Wispy, willowy miscanthus, zebra grass, and false pampas are arrayed around an intriguing plank bench with armrests and back supports. This odd looking cedar seat is stationed among four bulky, large stones. The bench is level, but each leg has a different length. Gwen explains Marion made each leg the necessary length to allow the bench to sit level. It was one of their favorite spots to enjoy God’s handiwork around their home.
Nestled below the pond between two flowerbeds is “Lazy Lizzy.” Lizzy is a gardener’s version of a snowman—her torso is a bulging, salmon-colored ceramic pot and her arms and legs series of smaller pots. A king-sized pair of garden gloves, no doubt Marion’s, encases Lizzy’s hands. A straw hat with checkered headband reposes on her torso, and a rake leans precariously on her left “knee.” Lizzy is dozing after a hard day of weeding. I almost hear Marion call out, “Hey there good lookin,’” to Lazy Lizzy on his way to build the crazy-leg bench.
The back yard holds more examples of Gwen and Marion’s gardening and landscaping skills. Lavender and rosy begonias, moon plants, and sedum nest in both precisely arranged and irregularly designed rock flowerbeds. I pause to admire two tiny plaster statuettes embracing in one of the beds; a young couple obviously in love.
A few more steps and we are in front of a ten-foot tall metal arch with coincident olive-green hedge. This is the entrance to the “Perennial Garden.” Generous zones of blended cream and pink hollyhocks snuggle next to lemon and plum daylily rectangles. Stands of white and sunny hybrid lilies sway above their shorter partners in the garden. Two bewitching magic fairies, each a knee-high masonry figurine, shyly peek at us from a daylily hiding spot. A stone sign anchored solidly in the ground confides, “These aren’t weeds, my garden is just camouflaged.” Another says, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
The final phase of our journey through Oaklawn is underneath dozens of lofty shade trees on the right section of the property, as you look at the home from the driveway. There is a stucco fountain, pinewood picnic area, cedar gazebo much like the one in front of the hospital, stone walkway, Japanese-style garden area, and another rock-ribbed fishpond. Gwen says she and Marion built the pond thirty years ago using rocks they found on weekend excursions to nearby mountains. I take out my video camera and film the goldfish swimming in a reflection of the trees off the water in the pond. The koi form miniature circles as they follow Gwen and me along the edge of the pond. A few come to the surface and ripple the water in search of morsels of food.
I ask Gwen about a large cedar swing hanging on chains from an overhead support. She replies, “I asked Marion to build me a swing, and this is what he came up with. In the summer he would read his paper out here in the morning before he lost his eyesight.” I invite Gwen to sit in the swing to film the final portion of her interview. It seems an ideal spot for her to reflect on forty years of marriage.
Gwen recalls how they met when she was a young woman and Marion a carpenter working on her father’s new house. Thousands of summer cicadas buzz persistently in the trees above Gwen as she recollected years of taking care of Marion’s parents as they entered old age and dementia. She and Marion never had children; nephews Gerald and Eddie belonging to Marion’s sister Louise were the same as their own children. Gwen laughs as she remembers when the young brothers cried as babies; Louise would rock one child and Marion would rock the other. There was only a year difference between older Gerald and younger Eddie. She is thankful for all the assistance both nephews offered when Marion entered the advanced stages of dementia.
After a careful and emotionally controlled review of their life together, Gwen appears to be finished. The afternoon is wearing into evening and shadows fall between shafts of sunlight in Oaklawn Garden. I turn the camera off, and then I’m reminded of something I read during my research into filming documentary interviews; leave the camera running even when you think the interview is over. The author believed the best footage came when the subject relaxed following the formal portion of the interview. I take his advice and turn the camera back on. Gwen, however, thinks the camera is off and I can see her relax and move to the left side of the swing. Is she in the habit of making room for Marion during their evening sessions on the swing? I feel a pang of guilt from tricking Gwen into thinking the camera is off. I will tell her later, and offer her complete control over the editing process.
Following her shift to the corner of the swing, Gwen gazes at the ground in front of her and says, “Marion had his parents to take care of. But we did get to travel some in the 80’s with another couple. The only regret I have is we didn’t get to travel more after I retired from teaching. It wasn’t to be; God didn’t provide it. We went on our last trip to Florida in 1993 and he didn’t do well at all.” Raising her eyes to mine, she gives her judgment on her marriage. “But we had a good life, I will say that. I won’t say we didn’t, because we did. We worked a lot here together. We did whatever we did here, one thing at a time.” Waving her right hand towards the brick home to her right, Gwen cackles and happily slaps her knee as she says, “We had a little cracker box house to start with. I can show you pictures of the cracker box if you want to see how poor we were! When we started out we had this little cracker box. In 1979 we added the, I call it this anyway, the wrap-around. We added the front porch and a big room and the bedroom.”
The day I took dad to the hospital was one of the most difficult days of my life—exceeded only by the day my wife told me she didn’t love me anymore. I ask Gwen, “What happened the last morning Marion was home?”
She answers, “I fixed him breakfast that morning.” Gwen pauses and studies the picnic table in the distance. She bites her lip and her eyes fill with tears. I’m not expecting her to respond this way. “And I knew it would be his last day. I asked him what he wanted, and he didn’t know. So I fixed him a real good breakfast.” Her voice softer now, she continues, “And he thought he was going to the doctor, and he partially dressed himself. Eddie told me I wasn’t going by myself, so Eddie’s little wife Sandy went with me.” The tears return as she collects Marion and his things once again that last morning. Gwen wipes her eyes with the back of her left hand. I want to give her something to dry her eyes; however, I don’t want to interfere with the rhythm of Gwen’s remembrances. I feel like a cad for not giving her a tissue.
“I picked Sandy up at her house around the corner here that last day,” Gwen says. “I didn’t know it until the next day, but Eddie followed us most of the way to the hospital. There at the last, dementia caused Marion to treat Eddie and Gerald badly. Marion would accuse the boys of stealing his things, especially his musical instruments. Actually, Marion believed they were taking his instruments and replacing them with second-hand, cheap instruments. Eddie would come to visit Marion, and Marion would soon say it was time for Eddie to go home. The boys understood that Marion was two different people now. Despite all they had done for him, Marion now treated them worse than anyone else.”
Gwen describes Marion’s first day at the hospital. “We were there about five hours. They brought him his food, and he sat there with his coat and hat on and didn’t eat or say a word. At the end of lunch, he told the nurse to ‘take the damned stuff away.’ That was the first words he said. I felt so bad answering personal questions in front of him during the admittance process. Sandy took him out to the car and sat with him there. Towards the end of the day Marion told Sandy he was ready to go home, and questioned
why they were sitting in the car. Before he could get out of the car, Sandy drove him around the hospital a few times to quiet him. Sandy could manage Marion well. He did what she asked, either in person or on the phone.”
Clearly, there is an empty spot on the swing next to Gwen. I know she misses him horribly. I ask her how she felt coming home that first day without him.
She replies, “Terrible, terrible. But the hardest part, harder than coming back here without him was…” Gwen reflects for a moment and then says, “The hardest part was turning my back on him up there.”
Beams of light highlight Gwen’s tear-stained face while the rest of her body remains in the shadow of the overhanging tree limbs. The temperature is steadily cooling. The patterns of sunlight and shadows somehow intensify the grief-stricken emotions that surfaces as Gwen looses control of her emotions. She cries out to me, “I couldn’t tell him goodbye, I had to turn my back and walk off. That was the hardest part. Still is. That is still my hardest part to deal with.”
The teacher of thousands of Kentucky children rubs the tears from her eyes and then says, “It just felt like I was turning my back on him.”
Gwen recounts how Marion adjusted to his new life. “He thought he was in a hospital, and then he thought he was in an army camp. He went through all these different stages. We all thought he might get violent when he discovered where he was. But he adjusted well. He was so calm. I don’t think he realizes when I leave. I believe it’s just me.”
I tell Gwen she isn’t turning her back on him. Marion can receive better care at the hospital than she could give him at home. She agrees and adds, “Now, that’s home to him. This wouldn’t be home to him. He wants to come to the home of his youth and see his mother and daddy. Marion still thinks his mother and father are alive—they died over twenty years ago.”
Gwen speaks of the compassionate clan caring for Marion. “The people are so good to him. I thank God every day for the people there and how good they are to Marion. He would not be treated that way anywhere else.” I ask Gwen why she believes the folks who work at the hospital love the veterans so much. Did she think God had something to do with it? “Yes I do. I think it’s the Lord working it out.”
Gwen is still acclimating to life without Marion. “My biggest adjustment is learning to sleep again at night. For the last few years with Marion, I didn’t sleep more than an hour and a half at a time. He slept during the day; you couldn’t keep him from sleeping. Then at night he would get up and ramble around. I had to get up every hour or two and see what he was doing. Eventually I put a security system on the house so I could sleep at night. My sister did the same thing as Marion before she passed away with Alzheimer’s disease. The law brought her home one night. Marion’s father liked to ramble at night. Marion would stay with him from eight at night until two in the morning.” Gwen shares that remodeling the house, changing her environment, proves to be a significant help in transitioning to this phase of her life.
The low battery light and low film remaining warnings now are blinking on the fold-out camera screen. There is less than two minutes of film left, and the battery could go at any time. This interview will be over soon one way or another.
Gwen says Marion did considerable damage to the “cracker box” trying to fix imagined problems. He had difficulties controlling bodily functions. In a sorrowful voice, she admits that it was a hard decision either way; to keep him at home or to commit him to the veterans’ hospital.
The film counter warning flashes for what seems longer than a minute. It finally clicks off in the middle of Gwen describing how Marion told her friend not to let Gwen sit on any barstools. Gwen grins and raises her hands at Marion’s wisecrack. I close the camera screen and tell her about my trickery with the camera. She is not upset, and gives me permission to edit the tape any way I wish.
Before I leave, Gwen lets me borrow three large picture albums. Working on the documentary later, I find over thirty pictures I can use to tell Gwen and Marion’s story. Included are a 1912 baby picture of Marion and a photo of the “Gap of the Ridge Roughnecks.” There are over a dozen photographs of Marion from his war years. Only one person is left to interview and that is Chris, the pastor of the Monticello First Church of the Nazarene.
To learn more about the Eisenhower Unit, please read my Blog and “Stories by our Users” entries listed below:
Reveille/August 15-January 1 (Blog)
Bricks of a Different Color-January 4 (Blog)
A Show of Love-January 10 (Blog)
Moving Day-January 13 (Blog)
Introductions-January 18 (Blog)
Sharing Our Grief-January 22 (Blog)
Love Stories-January 25(Blog)
Trashman-January 29 (Blog)
Holiday Gatherings-February 2 (Blog)
A Conversation About Alzheimer's-February 6 (Blog)
Nursing Dementia-February 8 (Blog)
A Dementia Care Philosophy-February 9 (Blog)
Ministering Demented Veterans-February 12 (Blog)
In The Shadow-February 17 (Blog)
A Gallant Vessel-February 17(Stories by our Users)
Memorial Day-February 19 (Stories by our Users)
Medical Aide Man-February 20 (Stories by our Users)
Nephew Eddie-February 23 (Stories by our Users)
Baby Sister Savannah-February 23 (Stories by our Users)