Prepping for the Future

best gc

Like most 19 year old boys I was immature, self-centered and rarely thought past the upcoming weekend. It wasn’t until Libby and I started dating that I slowly began considering the feelings of others  (okay, just Libby’s feelings, but progress nonetheless).  Even after our marriage, I really didn’t think much about the future, that is until the day we brought our son Jerod home from the hospital and I finally had the thought, “Wow, I now have a person to take care of for a long long time”  I realized that I and my income would be needed for another 22 years or so, maybe even longer if we were going to have another child.

Life expectancy charts suggest, and a walk through a nursing home will confirm, that women usually outlive their husbands by a significant margin.  Those actuarial numbers concerned Libby and I both and we wanted to make sure that she and the boys could make it if something ever happened to me.  Once again, with maturity being forced upon me, we began making preparations for my probable early departure.

Libby and I often discussed investments, insurance and possible credit needs, even going as far as putting everything in her name including all utilities and loan payments so she would have a good credit rating.  Libby maintained her teaching certificate and we eventually paid off our debts so that she could stay in the house at least until the boys left for college.  We succeeded in our planning so well that I often joked to friends that I was worth a whole more dead than alive, a statement that was always good for a laugh from everyone except Libby.

During those discussions I would talk with Libby about managing the finances, house maintenance and property upkeep. We even had conversations about whether she should remarry or stay single if I died, but Libby always said she would stay single if anything ever happened to me.  I always insisted that it just made practical sense for her to re-marry for variety of social and economic reasons, “Besides” I said, “After the boys are gone you will be lonely.” We eventually agreed that time and circumstances will often change the best laid plans, so the marry / not marry question would have to be a decision that she would have to make later, at which time I would be unable to cast my vote in the matter.

Libby then turned the tables and asked me the question that every married man dreads; saying, ” I know that you think I should re-marry, but if I die first would you re-marry?”  I’m not sure how it happens in other households but, I knew if I answered the  “would you re-marry” question with a yes, it would be followed immediately by question #2 “Who would you marry?” and if I were able to successfully dodge that question she would hit me with, question #3  “If none of my friends were married, which of them would want to marry and why?”  Now, every guy who has been married longer than 3 days knows this is a lose/lose situation.  If you answer question #1 with, “No way, I would never remarry, besides I already have the best” then you stand a better than average chance of avoiding questions 2 and 3 and the argument that would inevitably follow.

We kept working our debt reduction and we did such a good of establishing Libby’s credit that a few years ago I was attempting to buy a vehicle for our company and I decided to take advantage of some low interest loan money available through the local automobile dealership.  Even though the company was making the purchase, the dealer ran a personal credit check on me and the young credit manager came back into the room with a distraught look on his face as he said to me, “Mr. Gilley I’m not sure how to tell you this but, like, your credit report is not very good.” I told the baby-faced manager that it was easy to explain since we bought everything in my wife’s name.  “Oh yes your wife”, he said, ” I’m glad you mentioned her because I, like, ran her credit report as well and she has really, really good credit!”  I told the credit manager, “That doesn’t surprise me because, as I said, we have been trying to keep her credit rating high “.  Still confident that the credit score he had in his hand told him everything that he needed know about me, he said, “So, like, if you can take these papers home and have your wife, you know, like just, co-sign for you then we can complete the sale.”

I must admit that the whole process was a blow to my ego and it made me feel like a school boy being instructed by the teacher to take a note home and have it signed by my mom after getting caught talking during class. I thought about walking out, or talking to the owner in an effort to regain my dignity but in the end I decided to “man up” and do the right thing.  I swallowed my pride, took the papers home and asked Libby in best little boy voice, “Miss Libby will you sign my note so I can get me a bright shiny new truck to play with, please, please, please?”

The Big Ice Cream Fight——– The Honeymoon Was Over

I should preface this tale of woe by explaining that Libby’s dad the Rev. Jimmie Love Willis, spoiled his girls, especially when it came to their sweet tooth cravings.  If any of Brother Willis’s girls (Libby, her four sisters or their mom) wanted something from the store such as ice cream, or if they needed some sugar or cocoa to make a desert, their dad was quick to respond to the need, grabbing his car keys and jacket as he headed out the door; complaining only after the second or third trip back to store.   Full truth disclosure here, Rev. Jimmie Willis’ behavior may not have been completely altruistic since he was known to indulge in an occasional sweet from time to time.


At the complete other end of the spectrum from the Willis family was my family.  Our family lived further out in the country, and although we had Pace’s Grocery (the original convenience store) a trip to “town” was a big deal that my mom planned out and scheduled once every other week, on Saturday morning, while the bed sheets were drying on the clothesline.  My mom was the queen of making do with what she had when she was cooking, and because of that we had some unusual tasting dishes at times, but we rarely made sudden trips to the store, especially to stores who didn’t give Green Stamps. In the evenings after my dad arrived home from work, just after supper, he took off his boots which signaled the end of his day, after which he rarely left the house unless one of us boys was hurt badly enough to require stitches and then only if they couldn’t get find enough butterfly bandages to pull it together.

With that brief background into Libby’s and my families it should be easy to understand how foreign the actions of Rev. Willis appeared to me and yet how normal they appeared to Libby.  These differences helped cause one of the biggest fights that we had about, of all things, ice cream; and as usual when two stubborn people disagree on something, the source of the problem was soon forgotten as the conflict got bigger and bigger.

Just a few weeks following the return from our scuba diving, beach combing, month long honeymoon, Libby and I were sitting in our living room one evening when she said to me, “I just checked the freezer and we are out of ice cream”, I said, “Yea, I noticed that as well…”  Libby looked at me and said, “Will you run to the store and pick some up?”  I told Libby, “Sure, no problem, we’ll pick some up the next time we go to the store.”  Libby seemed to be getting more and more upset with me and said, “I don’t want to wait until the next time we go to the store, I want some ice cream now.”   Then she made some comments about it being my job, and about how her daddy would get it for her.  Words like spoiled and pig headed were batted back and forth between us as the argument grew.  Libby thought that getting ice cream would be a way to show how much I loved her and I decided that Libby was being selfish and completely irrational.  We were both stubborn and both wrong.

The intensity of the argument grew relative to its volume and we both said things for which we were ashamed, but the thing that neither of us realized at the time was that the first 21 years of our lives had far more influence over our current actions than the last two months of marriage and the marriage ceremony did not magically change that.

We eventually settled our argument or at least called a truce and because of that argument and few more after that, we learned a valuable lesson about the need to set some boundaries that had to be maintained regardless of the intensity of the argument, in addition we eventually decided on some “rules of engagement” for all future arguments:

  • No telling other friends or family about our disagreements in an attempt to get them on our side
  • No leaving the house  (we would, however, go to separate rooms to cool off)
  • No threats of “going home to mom”
  • And finally the big one, no threats of divorce

Although it may sound foolish to some, we could now argue with a measure of security because we had boundaries and with that framework in place, along with time and some much needed maturity for both of us, our arguments became less and less frequent and much less intense than the legendary Ice Cream Fight.

The Date That Nearly Cost Me…

During the spring of 1978 I purchased a well-used 1973 Toyota Landcruiser so I could join my friends when they went off-roading.  Although it was not much to look at, the old green and white cruiser was a lot of fun drive, especially in the summer when you could take the top off.  Later that summer that old cruiser would be the key component in one of our most memorable dates ever.


Libby and I went to a lot of movies early in our relationship, mainly because it was the expected thing to do on a date, but even though I didn’t have a whole lot of experience in this dating game it seemed like it would be much more fun to do active things when we went out rather than sit next to one another for a couple of hours and eat popcorn.  I couldn’t help but believe that an afternoon of four wheeling would surely make for a memorable date, which brings me to our mud-slinging, rock crawling, red neck afternoon.

It was a Sunday and I had driven my old Landcruiser to church in preparation for our adventure.  Several days before, I had talked to Libby’s dad about taking her on this date because I had planned several things that would require his permission. The first potential issue that required permission was that I would be taking Libby away on a Sunday afternoon, breaking a long standing tradition, if not a rule; second, I was taking her away from Sunday dinner (both a rule and a long standing tradition).  After some discussion and a stern warning to have Libby home by 6:00 PM for Training Union, the Rev. Jimmie Willis gave me his permission to take his daughter on this unusual date.

On the way to church the morning of our outing, I remember thinking that I had come up with the ultimate date, one that Libby would never forget (and, as it turned out, I was right).  I wanted to surprise Libby so I didn’t tell her about my plans until church was over when I asked her to change into her jeans, telling her only that we were going on a different kind of date. Libby was a lot of things, but adventurous was not among them, in addition she had trouble understanding why someone in their right mind would buy a vehicle specifically to take it in the mud, so this would be a first for her.

We left Libby’s house on that Sunday just past noon and and headed south toward Lafayette to begin our date.  Leaving the paved road, we turned onto a dirt road and entered the Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Preserve, then we took a treacherous switchback jeep trail to the top of Pigeon mountain where I surprised Libby with a “gourmet” lunch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley.  I arranged a blanket on top of the rock and unpacked the picnic basket which had ham, Velveeta cheese, bread, Golden Flake potato chips and Welch’s Sparkling Grape Juice (obviously, I had pulled out all of the stops).  As we finished our grape juice I told Libby that we should leave, explaining to her the conditions that her dad had put on our Sunday afternoon date.

The road over the top of Pigeon Mountain during the 70’s was very rough, often times requiring a jack to lift the vehicle over some of the larger boulders covering the road, along the way we would straddle large ravines and plow through lots of mud, all adding to the fun and the challenge.  As we continued our journey across the top of the mountain I was busy explaining to Libby Willis how, when driving on some of these rough trails, the driver needs to stay alert to keep from hitting the oil pan on boulders, pick the best line through mud, and all while keeping your momentum so you don’t get stuck.

With the worst of the hazards behind us, Libby decided she was ready to try her hand at driving, so I decided to swap sides with her and let her in on some of the fun.  I said to her, “There may be some mud and a few small boulders the rest of the way, so go slow over the rocks, avoid the mud when you can, but whatever you do, don’t stop, just keep going and you should be fine”    Libby drove like a champ even though it was straight shift transmission, had no power steering and she had never been off-road.

We topped a rocky hill and headed down onto the flatter portion of the trail where Libby would see the first muddy section. Since we were getting close to civilization, I began trying to find some music on the AM radio to accompany our adventure. Suddenly the Landcruiser veered off of the trail and came to a halt, when I looked up from the radio we were buried in a swamp.  I asked Libby what happened and with a sheepish grim, she pointed to a mud hole in the road and she told me that she didn’t want to hit that mud hole, so she dodged it.

I couldn’t afford one of those large $2000 bumper mounted electrical winches that would have gotten us out in 15 minutes, instead I had a ratcheting come-along (mail ordered from J.C. Whitney for $19) which, with a lot of cranking,could move the 3600 lb Landcruiser about 3 feet every hour.  Using a long cable that I kept wrapped around my front bumper, I strapped to the closest tree, hooked the other end of the cable to the bumper and began pulling.  And pulling.  And pulling.

In hindsight, it is unclear if we left from our picnic spot in time to complete the trail ride and make it back before church, but now, at the exact same time that church was starting at Flintstone Baptist, we were sitting axle deep in a swamp needing to cross 15 feet of mud, 4 miles of mountain trail and 25 miles of paved road just to get home.

Libby was very upset about her decision to avoid a 6 inch deep mud hole in favor of a 3 feet deep swamp but I told her that there was no damage done and eventually we would get out.  We did get out after several more exhausting hours of pulling on that come-along and resetting the cable.  We stopped at the first house we came to after getting out of the woods and asked to borrow their phone to let everyone know what had happened and then we finally made it home just after midnight.

I don’t remember all of the details of the encounter with Libby’s dad that night, only that he was gracious in his response and my fear of what might happen was far worse than the reality of what actually did happen. It was the first and last time we ever broke curfew, but of course it was a whooper.

On my way home that night after an exhausting day I decided it would be prudent to wait a few months before asking Libby’s dad the next big question for which I would need his permission.

Libby’s Correction to My Reminiscings

From the first moment we started dating, Libby had her work cut out for her in the quest to keep me in line.  You see, Libby was a rule follower and she saw the world in black and white, so whether I was telling a story in which I misstated a date (insignificant to the story, in my mind) or if I made a joking comment to someone in passing, either way, Libby would correct the date that I had messed up and she would tell the person that I joked with, that I didn’t really mean what I said (although in my mind they should have known that I was joking).  That correction is apparently still going on today.

Recently, Nathan was looking through some old keepsakes when he found some of Libby’s writings from a composition class that she was required to take as a part of her continuing education classes.  Below is an excerpt from a paper written to Nathan and Jerod in 2006 to describe the beginning of Libby’s and my relationship along with some of her thoughts leading up to our first date.

In an earlier post, I described how Libby had shown up at my parents house with an old jersey, seemingly out of the blue. A portion of Libby’s story to Jerod and Nathan is reprinted below and it fills in some of the blanks and explains what happened leading up to the jersey episode.  Libby remembered details that I had forgotten, I did remember going to see my old friend from high school because she was sick, but I never knew until later how that visit had changed Libby’s view of me.  So as usual Libby has corrected one of my stories:


For My Boys

I thought it might be of some interest for you both to know how our story began and the things about your dad that secured my love for a lifetime.

        It was one of those times when you just know in your spirit that you need to go home.  The year was 1977 during the spring quarter of my first year of college, when I noticed a drastic decrease in my energy level.  Over the next few days, I completely lost my appetite and by Friday midterms, my fever was up and down, between the chills of a Russian winter and the heat of an Arizona summer.

        Driving home half-delirious from the fever and the other half from pain medication, all I could think of was snuggling in my warm bed and being lovingly cared for by my mom and dad.  I needed rest, lots of rest!  Much of the next few weeks, I only remember in snippets.  “She has a severe case of mono which has caused an infection in her teeth,” the doctor said.  “She needs plenty of rest, a liquid diet, and I am prescribing some high-powered antibiotics.  She is one sick little girl.”

        A true Southern lady, I had always been taught to make yourself “presentable” and would not think of leaving my home without bathing, “fixing my face,” and curling my hair.  With that being said, when you are truly sick, the only priority you have is getting well and the only energy expended is to achieve that goal. 

        After several weeks of high fever and drastic weight loss, my mom told me I had a visitor.  Too weak to protest, I looked up to see my good friend Barry walk through my bedroom door.  Friends since eighth grade, we always had a special relationship, but today, little did I know, would take our friendship to a completely new level. With his dark raven hair, beautiful smile, quick wit, and outgoing personality, he was definitely a desirable date but the character he displayed over the next few days was decidedly, what secured my love when choosing a life mate.

        I am sure as he saw me he was taken back by not only the stench from the infection but also my appearance, but if he was, he never showed it.  He caught me up on all the “Valley People,” the latest in loves lost and gained, brought me eight track tapes of some of his favorites, Elton John and “The Eagles,” and made me laugh with his funny mix of humor and sarcasm.

        As he left, my spirits had truly been lifted, but in my heart I felt he probably would not be back.  Even my own family had to take turns waiting on me because of the terrible odor caused by the infection.  As I lay back down, I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror and could hardly believe the frail, weak figure whose hollow eyes stared back at me.  Oh, would I ever be well again?

        To my surprise and delight Barry’s spirit was undeterred and he returned many times until I was well enough to resume my studies at Mercer.  Over the last six weeks, we had talked about many things: our dreams, God, careers, football, music, family, and friends.  In all those chats, I began to believe this was more than a good friendship.  

        I believe with all my heart God allowed these circumstances to take place… I began to realize the difference between true love and infatuation.  In that little window of time, Barry had shown me unconditional love.  Love not based on emotions that rise and fall but the choice of your will to put someone else’s best interest above your own, the choice to persevere even in undesirable circumstances, the choice to remain faithful even if beauty fades and the body fails.

        Even though we did not start dating until several months later, I realized that this young man possessed qualities of character that were rare and would make someone a great husband.  Maybe that someone could be me!

        Now, after twenty-seven years of marriage, your dad’s character has only deepened.  He’s the hardest working man I know, not only to make a comfortable home for us, but is always there to help others in need.  He is not a man who lets his emotions lead him.  He makes daily choices to put us first and deny himself of his own desires.  Your dad is not perfect but we can both testify that he loves the Lord and serves Him daily through his actions.  He has truly loved us well because of his desire to please God.  I thank God for him daily and cherish him as the servant leader of our home, my very best friend, … a wonderful dad to you both, and as my beloved husband.

        May God fill you with wisdom, power, perseverance and faithfulness to love well until “death do you part.”  You have both been a delight and a challenge and I am proud of the young men you have both become.


                                                       Jerod and Nathan, I love you forever,


The Dance

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts but throughout high school it seemed as though Libby and I were always making plans for a dance. The problem was during our era it was not considered a “real dance” unless there was a live band, so in preparation for each dance we spent many afternoons traveling from garage to garage listening to different groups.  The search process involved enduring a lot of really bad music in our attempt to find the perfect band who had to be able to perform certain “classic” songs such as Free BirdHotel California and of course, the southern national anthem, Sweet Home Alabama.

Although a lot of time was spent selecting the bands and decorating the gym, in reality there never was a lot of dancing during any of our high school events, which was okay by me since I never really danced anyway.  Libby, on the other hand always enjoyed dancing, a fact that frankly shocked me since my church had always taken a such strong stand against dancing and yet here was Libby a preacher’s daughter, dancing every chance she got.

Most of the time during our high school dances Libby and I were busy working the gate or asking the band to turn it down because of complaints from the chaperons, or we were asking the band to turn it up because of complaints from the students.   If we weren’t adjusting the music volume or taking up tickets at the door we were trying to fix the mirrored disco ball that had quit turning, so even if  I was willing to “lower my standards” enough to dance, we rarely had opportunity.

Back in Macon, Libby and I had found an excuse to spend every evening together during that first week of our three-week dating marathon and to close out that first week of dates, Libby’s Chi Omega sorority was sponsoring a Saturday night dance at the local country club.  I had already planned to drive to Macon to meet Libby and go with her to the Chi O mixer but now that my job assignment had me stationed in Macon for three weeks, it made the entire weekend a lot less stressful especially since this was going to be the first dance in which neither one of us would be working.

Chi O 1

On the Saturday of the dance Libby and I spent the first half of the day together walking around the campus and generally enjoying the day with no agenda.  That afternoon I picked Libby up in front of her dorm with plenty of time for us to go out to dinner where we had a relaxing meal at a quite restaurant, then we made the short drive to the country club.

Libby, always the social butterfly, wanted to introduce me to all of her friends (and yes, she seemed to know everyone there).  After introductions and during one of the band’s breaks Libby had a part in her sorority sister’s program as they made a presentation to the senior girls who would be graduating, after which, those seniors recognized their favorite incoming pledge (you probably already guessed this one, yes, it was Libby).

Chi O3

With Libby’s social responsibilities complete we finally had some time to ourselves, but the warm humid evening combined with the large group of hot sweaty couples dancing in every corner of the room, had overwhelmed the ballroom’s air conditioning system making the room very uncomfortable.  I had convinced Libby to step outside and so we walked toward the back of the ballroom through some large doors which lead outside onto a patio, away from the band, the sorority sisters and the heavy air.

While we were inside I felt completely out of my element, but outside everything seemed perfect as we settled into some large wooden Adirondack chairs and relaxed on the edge of the 18th green.  We were separated from the main event by multiple sets of French doors which had been propped open during the evening to allow the cool night air into the ballroom.

It looked like a scene from a movie as we sat looking back toward the ballroom with the tall glass doors each flanked by sheer white curtains billowing out of the openings as the breeze blew them out toward our haven on the stone patio.  The evening took on an even more surreal atmosphere as the bright lights from inside the room cast silhouettes of the dancing couples on the sheer curtains.  It seemed as if we were completely alone beneath the stars, yet surrounded by several hundred people.

Outside on the patio the damp night air felt nice compared to stuffy ballroom and the music was now muffled enough that we could still talk without yelling as we began to dance.  Oh yes, I need to explain here that the temptation to dance with Libby had eroded my resolve to the point that I finally gave in.  My dancing was horrible but Libby never said a word about it and I was just enjoying my time with her.

Despite my inept dancing and repressed guilt, the evening became another milestone in our young relationship because, for the rest of the night, no one interrupted our dance, nor discovered our secret dance floor.  Our week of dates had come to an end as Libby and I danced together outside that ballroom, and although memorable, I had forgotten about that evening until just recently when I was scanning stations on the radio and I heard an old Garth Brooks song entitled “The Dance” and the words to that song brought back all of those memories from 36 years ago:

“The Dance”

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared ‘neath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbyeAnd now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the danceHolding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I a king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it allAnd now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the danceYes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance

Now, a disclaimer here, I have never believed that our lives are left to chance, and I know that Libby didn’t believe that.  But with that said,  I can understand how much easier it would be for a songwriter to find lyrics which rhyme with “chance” instead of “the sovereignty of God”.

So with that exception in mind, click on this link if you would like to hear Garth’s version of  The Dance.

The Way We Were

Libby and I had several long talks following our “cow date” to clear up some misunderstandings and repair the damage to our fledgling relationship.  Although that initial meeting between Helen and Libby got off to a very rocky start, years later the two would become inseparable friends, in fact, when our boys were young they were heartbroken to learn that Miss Helen was not even related to them and worse than that, Helen and Kelly’s children were not their cousins.

Despite the pitfalls of that first date, Libby and I went out several more times that summer but it seemed, in my mind at least, that just days after we began dating during the summer of 1977, the fall semester began at Mercer University and she left for Macon.

Libby needed to maintain a high GPA in order to continue to receive her academic scholarship, so her school work really needed to take precedence over our relationship, at least for the present time.  The coming of Fall not only meant Libby would be back at college, it also meant that school and sports pictures would be taking up a lot more of my time here at home.

My job was still new and challenging as I was busy learning about portraits, lighting, processing, printing and selling. Early in my career, my job with Olan Millls was to fill in for someone within the company’s network of photographers as they went on vacation, or help if they had overbooked and didn’t have enough of their own people to cover the number of sittings that had been scheduled.

I really enjoyed the variety and travel which was always a part of the job, but since Libby and I started dating just months earlier, my job was suddenly less glamorous and I began thinking seriously about my future.  Soon my perspective changed completely and I started to view my job more as a way to support a family (a means to an end) instead of an end in itself;  pretty heady stuff for a self-centered 20-year-old boy who, just months before, thought he had everything he needed.

During the weekends that I didn’t have to work in the winter of ’77-’78, I would drive to Macon on Friday evening and bring Libby back home for the weekend, then, take her back to Macon Sunday afternoon following church.  One such weekend became a watershed moment in our relationship and the memory of what happened during those three days left an indelible impression in my mind.

I had driven the 3 or 4 hours to pick up Libby on a Friday evening (it was always 4 hours or more going through Atlanta on Friday afternoon) and then we made the return trip home, delivering her to her parent’s house about midnight.  We had spent the day on Saturday splitting time between her parent’s house and my parent’s house, but Saturday nights were always reserved for a date which normally involved our favorite Caecilian pizza from Caesar’s Pizza (no resemblance, whatsoever, to the modern, Pizza Caesar’s).

Cesar's Pizza close shot wo ring copy

After church on Sunday, we always had a “lite” Sunday dinner with Libby’s parents which would normally consist of roast beef with onions, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, fried okra, brown ‘n serve dinner rolls and several deserts.  Sunday dinner at the Willis house was an event not to be missed, which could have been the main reason why the Rev. Jimmie Willis’s sermons at Flintstone Baptist Church rarely, if ever, went past noon.  After dinner, as the rest of the family began looking for their favorite napping spot, Libby and I would leave for Macon.

During this particular drive south, Libby and I were discussing some of our favorite music and movies and how we were both suckers for love-story movies, sappy love songs and ballads, a fact not lost on our friends in high school who often made fun of the songs we discussed, especially since some of our friend’s musical taste leaned more toward The Rolling Stones than James Taylor.   But now, out of earshot of our classmates, we freely discussed Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel and one of our all time favorite songs by The Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody.

Those frequent 4 hour trips between Chattanooga Valley and Macon turned out to be very effective pre-marital counseling for us and we would often spend that time discussing our beliefs, our families, our goals and our future.  That’s not to imply that all of those conversations were serious, but that time alone without any distractions helped us better understand one another’s past and how that history shaped our views.

Libby came from a family with five girls who spent a lot their free time cooking, studying and gathering around a large table for elaborate meals, often on fine china.  I, however, came from a family with four boys who spent a lot of our free time damning up creeks, building forts, blowing up damns, hunting, blowing up forts, fishing and eating bologna sandwiches that had been in our blue jeans pocket during a hike.  The differences in how were each raised made for interesting conversations during many of our “interstate counseling sessions”.

Arriving in Macon on this particular cold, rainy Sunday evening, we exited I-75 onto Mercer University Boulevard and at the end of the exit ramp we saw an advertisement for a movie entitled The Way We Were.  This movie, which starred Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand could be a trifecta, a love story, a sappy love song and a date!  But this was even better than a trifecta because the movie had been out long enough that it was now showing at the dollar theatre, could this possibly be a “quadfecta”?

We decided dinner and a movie would be the perfect end to a great weekend.  There was very little discussion during the short drive from the exit ramp to the girl’s dorm where I proceeded to unload piles of Libby’s freshly laundered clothes courtesy of her mom’s washer and dryer.  While I carried the clean clothes from the car into the dorm lobby (which was as far as boys were allowed to go) Libby went to her room to get ready for our impromptu date. When my laundry duty was complete,  I went back to my car instead of staying in the commons area where the dorm mother kept giving me suspicious looks.

It is still a mystery to me how Libby could always seem to look so good during those long hours in the car, but then she could go inside her dorm room for 15 minutes and still cause me to do a double-take as she came back out.  She looked amazing, with fresh makeup, more curl in her hair, a bounce in her step and that “look”.  The “look” happened often when Libby would self consciously drop her head down and give an embarrassed smile anytime she was complimented or if she thought someone was admiring her and, right now, I was in the process of doing both.

Glancing up at my reflection in the rear view mirror, I quickly realized that I would not be able to do anything to make myself presentable, so I jumped out of the car and ran to the passenger side of the car to open Libby’s door, bowing deeply, trying to dazzle her with my chivalry.  Libby laughed self-consciously at my actions as she accepted my hand to help her into her seat, then I closed her door and hurried to my side of the car to make the short drive to our favorite steak place in Macon.

There was rarely any discussion about where we would eat, only what we would eat, because Libby didn’t ever want to try a different steak restaurant after she found a good one, because that is where we ate steak, always.  The same held true for pizza (Pizza Caesar’s), sandwiches (Lotts Sandwich Shop) and most other foods.   When Libby found something she liked, she stuck with it, which annoyed me because I wanted to try new places in the hopes of finding an even better place (the same principle would apply to the TV remote years later).  Eventually in our relationship, I began to realize that if she really liked me, this “flaw” in her character would turn out to be a good thing for me.

After finishing our meal, we quickly drove to the local multiplex theater just as the previews were ending and the feature was starting.  Just for the record, I’m not sure if either one of us ever considered the fact that dinner and a movie that didn’t start until 9:30 on a Sunday night would make it hard for both us to get up on Monday morning (harder for me than for her) but we were young and in love.

We both enjoyed the movie and we started discussing our favorite parts on the drive back to her dorm.  Libby was convinced that Barbara Streisand was a rare beauty and although I may have used the rare in my description, “beauty” did follow in my assessment of her looks.

The title song The Way We Were became one of those songs that, when we heard it played, would instantly transport us both back to that rainy night in Macon;  back to the image of Libby running out of her dorm toward my car, to the feel of sticky shoes on the theater floor, to the smell of popcorn, and back to our ongoing argument over Streisand’s nose.

What made the night special wasn’t the movie, or the songs, it was that indescribable feeling that we both experienced as the night came to an end.  It was during this date that we both realized that this relationship was about to change both of our lives forever.  As the date was drawing to a close, Libby began telling me what a good time that she had and what a fantastic day it had been, but then, unexpectedly, she started to cry.  I must admit, I was following along in the conversation really well (for a guy) until the crying started, but now I was confused.   Between sniffles and sobs Libby said she was sad because she didn’t want the weekend to end, besides: it would be so long before we saw each other, she was homesick, we were too far apart and she wasn’t even sure that she wanted to keep going to college.  Although the feelings were mutual, I didn’t express it like she did, nor did I feel the need to use tears.

Reality soon set in and we both knew that we had responsibilities and obligations, but it was getting harder and harder to bridge the 200 mile gap between Chattanooga Valley and Macon because of my work and her school, that distance, added to her tears, made me want to move to Macon and find a job.  We sat in the commons area of her dorm until the University’s midnight curfew put an end to our date and I reluctantly decided I needed to get home and get some sleep before going to work on Monday or I wouldn’t have a job at all.

I was working with another photographer at the time and we had discussed the next week’s assignment and my plans to be gone for the weekend, but at that time, our destination for the following week was still undecided, and he promised to call my house and leave a message when he found out our assignment.  After our dinner and a movie on Sunday night in Macon, I finally arrived home just after 3:15 AM where I found the note that my dad had left next to the phone on my mom’s china cabinet, it read simply,” Long drive / pack for three-week trip / meet @ Waffle House Ringgold 4 AM.”

I was really going to be cutting this one close, so with no time change clothes, must less sleep, I hurriedly packed some clothes, loaded my photographic equipment into my car and drove to Ringgold.  When I arrived at the restaurant I recognized my fellow photographer through the smoky cigarette haze of the waffle house dining room; he looked up at me and said, ” You look horrible, rough weekend?  Grab something to-go or we ‘ll be late.”  I said “No!  Great weekend” and then I added sarcastically, “Thanks for the compliment”.  I quickly ordered a biscuit and orange juice, then I headed out the door toward my car, just as he was getting into his van he shouted across the hood of my car,  “Follow me, we are going to be shooting senior portraits”.

Our destination didn’t really matter to me, but if we were going to Dallas or Houston again, we would be flying not driving, unless we were leaving from the Atlanta airport, in which case, we would normally leave on Sunday evening.

So now, I was curious.  As he was closing the door to his van I yelled “Hey man, where are we going so early on a Monday morning?”  Poking his head out the window of his van as he shouted back, “Macon, Georgia………….. y’ever been there?”

A First Date

Libby and I would meet, date, marry and raise a family in the small community of Chattanooga Valley tucked into the mountains of Northwest Georgia.  During the 60’s and 70’s most everyone in our valley knew one another or at least they knew one another’s families, often attending church and school together, or at the very least, catching up on things during the annual Chattanooga Valley Kiwanis Club Bar B Q, a summer tradition held in giant circus tents on the front lawn of the elementary school.  Although not native to the area, Libby would call the Valley home for the rest of her life after her family moved here from LaGrange, GA when her dad, Jimmie Willis, accepted the call to pastor Flintstone Baptist Church in that summer of 1971.

Even though I was slow to pick up on Libby’s ulterior motives when she brought back that ratty old jersey after collecting dust in her closet for several years,  I did eventually “get a clue” and I asked her out for our first date.   Now, I had put a lot of thought into this and decided that the “cool” factor of driving my sporty blue ’72 Chevrolet Camaro was outweighed by the fact that it had bucket seats and a center console.  I never really dated a lot in high school, it seems like I was always busy shooting pictures for the school annual, planning events and going out with a bunch of people (what our kids now call group dating).  I did, however, know enough to realize that when going on a date with just one person it was generally expected that your date would eventually sit next to you in the seat.   I wasn’t sure if Libby would decide to sit next to me on our first date or not, but at least in my mom’s ’74 Chrysler I could fold up the arm rests and make the front seat one very long bench seat, just in case she decided to slide over.

I had made reservations at a new restaurant on Brainerd Road called the Sailmaker where each table had a different movie or TV show theme and the wait staff dressed up in character.  I left my parent’s house in plenty of time even after spending most of the day washing my mom’s car and vacuuming out the interior.  Throughout high school I never really had a “girlfriend” but I did have several “girl” “friends”, but now, I had just asked Libby Willis out on a date and we didn’t have an upcoming Physics test to talk about, so it goes without saying that I was nervous and anxious about this date.

I arrived at Libby’s house a little early, fidgeting nervously as I watched Libby come down the stairs while her younger sisters, her mom, and I all looked on.  Libby’s head dropped forward-looking down at the floor, genuinely  embarrassed by all of the attention, but her sisters and her mom were all smiles, rotating their heads almost in unison back and forth, as if in a tennis match, looking at Libby and then back at me to gauge my reaction.  I could tell by the wry smiles and glances between each of them that I had been the focus of the conversation just a few minutes earlier.  But now, with the “presentation” completed and with her younger sisters holding their hands over their mouths to suppress giggles, we were finally headed out the door on our date.

Dressed up for date copy

Libby and I had been friends ever since her family first moved to Chattanooga Valley six years earlier, and during all of time we were able to talk about any number of current events, plan school functions, laugh and study together for hours at a time, but now that I was about to go out on a date with her, and I silently wondered what we would talk about during dinner.  It had been less than 48 hours since Libby had shown up at my house using some flimsy excuse and my whole world was turned upside down, because now, things were different.

Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to me that when we started dating, friends from school would ask, “Hey, I heard you and Libby Willis are dating now, how’s that going?”  I would answer, trying to explain the change that I felt as I was falling in love, “It’s going good, but things are different now”.  The real irony is that I often used that statement during the time when our relationship was just getting started, and now 37 years later people will say to me, “I heard that Libby died, I am so sorry.   How are you doing?”  I normally respond, “I’m doing okay, but things are different now”.  The term, “things are different now” became the bookends of our life together marking both, the beginning of our relationship when I was falling in love, and again now as our relationship has ended and I adjust to a life without her.

As we left the Flintstone Baptist Church parsonage on our date, Libby slid just a little closer to me in the seat about the time we passed the Ace Hardware (quite possibly because we were now out of sight of her sisters, who were all looking out the window).  My worries about having nothing to talk about were short-lived as we stopped within a mile of her parent’s house because of a wreck in the “S” curve between the two bridges on Happy Valley Road.  We sat discussing the option of turning around and going through Chattanooga toward Brainerd, when I looked up and noticed that I knew the person that had just wrecked.  I turned to Libby and said, “That’s Helen Buckner, a friend of mine.  I need to go see if she is okay.”

While Libby waited in the car, I went to see if I could help and as I walked toward the wreck I noticed Helen was very animated and understandably upset having just wrecked her 1973 white Dodge Challenger .  As I walked toward the accident, Helen saw me coming and, recognizing a friendly face in the chaos, ran and put her arms around my neck and began to cry while trying to explain what had happened in between sobs and sniffles.  I was trying to understand her muffled explanation while at the same time reconciling the things she was telling me with the things happening around me, but since I couldn’t see another car I was having trouble understanding how this wreck had happened.  That’s about the time I saw the “victim” lying next to Helen’s car, a black and white, 1600 pound Holstein and according to Helen, “That heifer stepped right out in the road when I rounded the curve, and that’s when I hit her.”  The damage to Helen’s Challenger was significant, but as it turned out, the cow got the worst end of the deal.  As I was absorbing everything, Helen went on to tell me how that this was the second time she had wrecked a car by hitting a cow, which explains her apprehension in calling her dad to tell him she hit a cow and wrecked her car, again.  Soon though, Helen’s dad arrived on the scene about the same time as the farmer who owned the cow (actually steaks and hamburger now).  So with things getting back to normal and one lane of traffic open,  I told Helen that I really needed to get back to my date and she thanked me again for stopping to help, hugging my neck once more before leaving.

Pleased at myself for my good Samaritan deed, I climbed back into the car to continue our date, but now Libby seemed cold and distant and I was clueless as to why (the first of many times).  I thought if I used my reasoning skills I should be able to figure this out, so I asked, “Is there anything wrong?”  Libby said, “No, nothing”.

My first instinct was to take her word for it and just drop the subject, but her body language was telling me that things had changed since I had left the car a few minutes earlier.  Libby had moved to the other side of the car where she was looking out of the window, staring at nothing in particular and all conversation had stopped.  As we drove toward our destination I was still wondering what had happened and against my better judgment I asked nervously, “I know you said nothing was wrong earlier, but it seems like you are upset, am I missing something?  Did I do something wrong?.”  That’s when she turned completely in her seat to face me, her  head was tilted back and her arms were folded across her chest (I couldn’t help but think to myself at this point that the bucket seats may have been the better option).

“Who was that girl?” she finally asked.   Now, at last, I was starting to understand the problem.   I said haltingly, “Who…Oh you mean that girl….. Helen?    She’s nobody……She means nothing to me… We’re just friends.”  (Now, looking back, that was probably not the best way to phrase my response).  Libby had leveled a look at me (repeated often over the next 37 years) which let me know I had made a mistake and I had better figure out what I had done, fix it and not ever do it again.  The only problem was,  I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, in fact, in my mind I was showing sympathy for someone in distress and Libby should have been able to see that I was compassionate and considerate, or at the very least, chivalrous.

That night was our first of many lessons in relationships and communication and it took us both a while figure it out our responses, because we would continue to misunderstand, apologize and forgive from that day on, never mastering those lessons completely.  Today,with the advantage of hind site, I have often thought that if I knew on that first date, what I know now, I would have responded differently to Libby’s question,”Who was that girl?” I would have taken Libby Willis (Gilley) by the hand and walked with her over to Helen Buckner (Hawkins) and said, “Libby, I want to introduce you to Helen; she will be your best friend for life.”

Macon Again

Thanks to everyone who have taken the time to share, read, follow and comment on these posts; I am humbled and slightly embarrassed that Libby’s blog has had almost 6000 views from the US, plus additional views from 7 foreign countries.

 Readers of the previous post learned that after I took Libby back to Mercer on Sunday afternoon, we decided to go out and see a movie and, after some lengthy good-byes, I had left, drove home and then found out that my next assignment was in Macon, so without sleep, I turned around and went back to Macon.

Nearly every time I attempted to call l Libby when she was in school it would become a long drawn out ordeal.  The process would always began with a call to the payphone in the first floor hallway of Libby’s dorm, then I would ask the girl who answered the phone if I could speak to Libby Willis, adding that I was calling long distance in an effort to speed up the process.  I would then wait as my reluctant assistant would inevitably drop the receiver, letting it bang against the wall, where it would remain upside down, suspended  by its cord, as she went off on her quest for Libby.  For the record here, that old black payphone handset could pick up an amazing amount of conversations, with stunning clarity, while dangling above the tile covered hallway of the girls dorm.

Because of time constraints and the fact that I had spent too much time during past phone calls eavesdropping on girl talk, I elected not to call Libby on Monday morning when I got into Macon.  Besides, I had just spent the entire night driving from Macon to my house and then back in Macon arriving just after 7:00 AM and I still had to set up my photography equipment before starting senior portraits.  With no free time before I was scheduled to start at 8:00 AM, I decided to wait until after work and surprise her, since she had no idea I was back in Macon.

In the 1970’s our group of photographers used terms when discussing our work that would never be used today because of recent tragic events in schools, such terms as,”I am booked at a large school for three days and I will need to shoot at least 500 kids per day just to stay on schedule”.  One such large school was Southwest-Macon High School with a total enrollment over 25,000 total they had over 5000 seniors in their graduating class and it was said to be the largest high school in the United States.  The project to which I was now assigned at Southwest Macon would require five photographers to shoot senior portraits and I would have a different senior scheduled in front of my camera every 5 or 6 minutes for the next three weeks.

By 4 o’clock on that Monday afternoon and after “shooting” my quota of seniors for the day I was in my Camaro and headed the two miles across town to see Libby.  Within fifteen minutes of leaving the high school, I was standing in the lobby of the Mercer University girl’s dorm, in the exact same spot where I had stood just a few hours earlier.  

Some of Libby’s sorority sisters were in the commons area of the dormitory as I walked in on that Monday afternoon and, somehow, they all knew that I had just left at midnight the night before, even though at that time there were no cell phones, Facebook or twitter.  The girls did, however, have good old-fashioned gossip (which, in Chi-Omega circles, was faster than Facebook with about the same level of accuracy).  I told the girls the story of my sleepless night and my intent to surprise Libby, they said, ” Uhhh…..Wait right here, we will find Libby and bring her out here to you”.  The girls ran squealing and giggling down the hard tiled floor toward Libby’s room right beside that old payphone on the wall with its receiver hanging upside down (poor guy).

Very soon that same high-pitched shriek from the returning gaggle of girls rose sharply through the corridor as the group approached the commons area.  The escort group had now doubled in size as a very confused Libby shuffled along in the middle of the mob with four sets of hands covering her eyes, all the while being steered by her captures in my direction.  The spectacle drew even more attention as the giggling group halted in front of me.  Although the girls still had their hands covering Libby’s eyes, each girl was now attempting to move around behind Libby so that when she opened her eyes they would be out of her field of vision and she would only see me.  In addition to altering their position, each girl wanted to be able to able to see both of our faces simultaneously before removing their hands from Libby’s eyes.

Libby in dress late 70's copy

It was evident by the number of girls gathering around, that everyone who met Libby, fell in love with her and wanted to see her happy. Libby’s genuine love of others had endeared her to most everyone she had come in contact with during her first year at Mercer.  The interesting thing about this particular group of girls standing around Libby, about to “present” her to me, was that many of the same girls who were standing beside her now,  would be standing beside her as maids of honor during her wedding in less than 18 months.

It would be an understatement to say these girls “enjoyed them some drama”, but, the girls were making way more of this than was necessary.  My fear was that after all of the hoopla and build up, Libby would be disappointed when I was the only thing there as all of the girls took their hands away.

Finally, Libby was finally able to open her eyes and see why everyone was making such a the fuss.  “It’s just me,” I said, sheepishly, “I’m back”.  Once more, in less than 24 hours I was holding Libby and consoling her as she began crying in the dorm lobby.  But this time the crying was multiplied by about 12 others who had joined Libby.

Reminiscing…The Start of Something Amazing…

I am getting away from the CaringBridge site.  It served a wonderful purpose but this new site fits the need much better in this next stage of writing.  You can sign up to be notified of any new posts and write responses on this site just as you did on the CaringBridge site. 

Some have asked that I continue to write about Libby and our relationship and although it puzzles me as to why anyone enjoys reading about our life, I will write a few things, if, for no other reason than it gives an outlet for my thoughts.

How it all Started:

My memory of the start of Libby’s and my relationship is not real clear, after all it has been 37 years, but then, I’ve never been one to allow the facts (nor the lack thereof) to get in the way of a good story.  With that preface, this is how I remember the events surrounding our high school graduation and the year following:

During our high school years, Libby Willis and I served on several committees together, talking often about different school events that we helped plan such things as proms,homecomming 1 homecoming dances, student government etc.  During this period of time we also talked extensively about physics homework and typically those discussions would begin with Libby telling me how that she had no clue how to set up a particular problem, much less solve it.  Now, Libby was a straight “A” student for as long as I knew her, but her strength was in liberal arts not applied science, so one day she threatened to drop Physics before I talked her into staying by telling her that Physics would look good on her high school transcript when she began to apply to colleges.  Libby gave in, telling me one afternoon,  “I will stay in Physics but you will have to be my tutor because I have to make an A”.  We would meet after school or talk on the phone (black rotary dial, not cell) for an hour or more almost everyday to discuss linear acceleration, torque, conservation of energy or any other number of problems and then, without fail, she would have a higher grade on the test than her tutor (teacher bias, I am sure).  We never dated in high school, we were just close friends who could relax around each other and discuss everything from politics to religion, to relationships (including personal confidences).  Could there be a relationship lesson there?  In short, Libby made her our A in physics but in the spring of 1976, high school graduation changed our convenient friendship.

grad photo

I remember several things from the night of our graduation from high school.   I remember feeling a strange sense of pride knowing that the person delivering that inspiring valedictorian address had been my best friend during my high school years and quietly thinking to myself,  “She is going to make some lucky guy a good wife”.  I also remember Libby calling me earlier that week and asking if I would talk with my pastor, Rev. James Millard, about praying the benediction following her speech (yes, times have changed)  I remember it being hot and humid in our un-air-conditioned gym and wondering why our teachers had insisted that we dress up with in our “Sunday clothes” when we each had to wear a cap and gown which covered everything.  I remember how nervous Libby was about her Valedictorian speech and how many times she practiced in the days leading up to graduation night, and how many times I had heard that speech over the phone.

After graduating from Chattanooga Valley High School with the class of 1976 (Go Eagles) Libby and I had gone our separate ways with only minimal contact since walking across that stage.  Libby had been awarded a full scholarship to Mercer University in Macon, GA, leaving soon to pursue a teaching degree, meanwhile, I was offered a job as a photographer for Olan Mills in their school division, so during the following year we rarely crossed paths.

I really need to set the stage here for this next encounter because I was a 19-year-old kid who thought he had everything he needed.  I had a job that paid $150 a week (a considerable raise from the $3 per hour I earned hauling hay) I lived at home with my parents on the weekends but I left every Sunday afternoon and traveled all over the Southeast shooting pictures, arriving back home late Friday or Saturday, only to leave the next day on another trip.  My job allowed almost two months off in the summer (no school, no school pictures) and I had friends in Florida with a beach house in New Smyrna.  I had an expense card for gas, food and motel bills, a Toyota Land Cruiser for trail riding and a Camaro for dating.  It was summer time and except for paying rent to my parents, I had almost no place to spend my money,  I was on top of the world and I thought that things could not get much better.  Then it happened.

It was a warm sunny Saturday afternoon during that summer of 1977, I was mowing the yard at my parents house when, out of nowhere, Libby showed up our driveway, she had just completed her freshman year in college and she was driving up in her ugly green Chevrolet Nova ( I’m sorry, it really was ugly).  The fact that Libby Willis had just driven up, unannounced seemed very odd to me and I began thinking, “I wonder what’s wrong?”  (It might be helpful for the reader to understand at this point in the story that I have never been real quick to recognize relational subtleties and signs).  After an awkward silence, Libby said she had just gotten off of work from the Red Food Store,red food store but even that seemed odd because if she had just gotten off work why didn’t she still have her uniform on?  Instead of her red and white store uniform she was dressed in nice jeans and a new top that I had not seen before and her makeup looked really good for someone who had been working as a cashier at a grocery store for over 8 hours (once again see the note above about my lack of skill in this area of relationships).  After several awkwardly silent moments, I asked what she was doing there (even at 19, I was a gifted conversationalist). Libby said that she wanted to bring back some old, long forgotten jersey that I had given to her during high school to keep her clothes clean as she painted some backdrops for a play (confession time here; the jersey had been given to me by another girl).  I said something really intelligent like, “I don’t need that jersey, in fact I didn’t even remember you had it, and I hate that you drove all of the way down here to bring it back”.  After I told Libby that I didn’t need the jersey I expected her to get in her car and go back home because I still thought that was the only reason she drove down to my parents house, but she stayed and after several more awkward moments,I finally asked if she would stay for supper ( after all she did look really nice) and to my utter amazement she said “yes”.  That inauspicious start in the spring of 1977 was the beginning of a “more than just friends” relationship that would last for the next 37 years.

on couch

As fall came Libby left for Macon to start back to college and it felt like our relationship was still in its infancy because even though we had known each other for several years since we were both in Junior High school we knew one another as friends. I knew what she thought about politics and religion, but suddenly, that wasn’t enough.  Living in today’s instant access world of cell phones, texting, email and Facebook it requires some effort to imagine, depending on your age, a time when long distance phone calls were an additional page on your phone bill (that could be conveniently handed to you by your parents monthly) and you had to actually go find a phone on which to talk.  But now I was smitten and I wanted to communicate with Libby Willis, so with phone time severely limited I started writing to Libby several times a week, hoping she would take the hint and write back.  It never happened, in fact I can count on one hand the number of letters that I received from Libby in the first ten years of our relationship.   To her credit after receiving each letter Libby would call me and remind me very sheepishly that she was not a letter writer because she would much rather talk than write (that, obviously, would eventually change) but for all of our dating life and about the first ten years of our marriage I wrote letters to her all of the time sometimes once a day.  Then later as I attended college I even took a composition class, writing a few poems for her.  Our roles changed later in our marriage as she would, far too often, have to plead with me to write something for her.

Recently looking through some of Libby’s things I am finding most of those letters that she kept and it brings back so many memories.  It also reminds me of why I began to write.

If you are interested enough to still be reading these reminiscing’s I’ll post some more later.