Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 30, 2015

Forever 31

When I think of him, I see his deep dimples, broad grin and baby-blue eyes. Every now and then, I imagine strolling across campus or around the park with his right arm draped across my shoulders. Sometimes, I can almost hear him laugh.

We had grown up 50 miles apart - Jerome in the Wichita area and I in Marion County, Kansas. We both studied journalism. He became a reporter for the largest newspaper in the state, while I had done a bit of everything for the owner of several small weeklies.

But we didn't meet until we were both in Costa Rica. I was working on an English-language newspaper in San Jos� and he was in the Peace Corps. We met on a sight-seeing trip to Volcano Po�s. He joked that one of the papers I worked for was probably called "The Burns Blabber." I countered by saying he was a cocky, big-city reporter.

He fell for me quickly. After only two weeks, he left a note saying he loved me. I was flattered, flabbergasted and scared to admit I had also fallen. I responded with a neutral, "I love being with you too."

We married seven months later on a sunny September day in 1979 in an outdoor wedding on my parents' farm. We fashioned flower arrangements from the wild sunflowers we gathered along the dusty country road. We made no allowances for bad weather. We were young and optimistic and didn't think we needed to. We were lucky.

We returned to Costa Rica as co-managers of the newspaper and loved it. But the 60 to 70 hours a week were exhausting and so we reluctantly decided to return to Kansas, not knowing what we would do. Within a few weeks, I was working on a small weekly and he was teaching English-as-a-Second-Language to immigrants from Vietnam, Mexico and other countries.

After about seven months, we moved to Manhattan, where I began my master's degree in business and he studied engineering. He was interested in solar energy and other forms of alternative energy after working on related projects in the Peace Corps.

We walked to class no matter how hot or cold it was. His mother thought it was so funny that we considered our $3.82 taco supper "splurging." We made Christmas gifts that cost little or no money. One was a "family tree" - a poster board with small photos of family members with names and birth, marriage and death dates. Another was a beat-up two-drawer filing cabinet we spray painted in our bathtub after taping newspapers on the inside and around the walls.

Jerome took a job writing for the College of Engineering and I had a job working for a trade institute. By 1982, we were able to buy a two-story fixer-upper.

Boy, did it need fixing up! Fortunately, he knew quite a bit about plumbing, electrical work and carpentry. We worked day and night - tearing out old carpet, taking walls down to the bare lath, adding storm windows, sanding and painting. I'm not sure why we decided to replace the shingles in August. We began at 4 a.m. and worked until about 9 when it became too hot. Exhausted, we slept on the floor in front of the air conditioner. The next day, we did it again until the roof was finished.

Being tired so much, we'd sometimes squabble. One day, we maneuvered a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood into position for the porch ceiling. I was on a ladder helping to hold it in place when he announced that he had forgotten his hammer. He returned soon, but my arms were aching by that time and I was muttering under my breath - well, muttering is not quite accurate.

Another time, we were moving an old wood stove up the steps from the basement. I couldn't get a good grip on it and Jerome lost patience with me.

"Damn it, I wish I'd married a good German-stock woman," he said.

"I wish you had, too!" I retorted before stomping off.

Before long, he sheepishly approached me and apologized.

Our parents and siblings helped us with the house - cleaning, giving advice, painting and doing other odd jobs. I think they thought we were nuts - maybe we were.

We traveled when we could. We saw the Panama Canal before we left Central America. He tagged along to Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Mexico when I had work-related trips. We accompanied his brother Kenny and family on a summer canoe trip to the Ozarks. We visited sister Gaila in La Paz, Bolivia one Christmas. He was endlessly amused by different cultures, and he enjoyed engaging others in long conversations about those differences.

He enjoyed philosophizing about any topic. One time, when I met him at the K-State Student Union for a coffee break, he was deep in conversation with several others. He had drawn a bicycle wheel on a napkin. "We can be represented by this middle point," he said. "And each of these spokes represents the many different paths we might take in life. We never know for sure where we might end up."

Shortly after that, Jerome decided to switch from an undergraduate degree in engineering to a master's in English. "I could be a good engineer, but I'm a damned good writer," he said. And that he was.

Twenty-nine years ago this past December, we celebrated his 31st birthday and his completing his master's degree. We also learned I was pregnant with our first child. I had a good job at the university and the fixer-upper home was to the point we weren't ashamed to invite family and friends over. Life was good.

It all changed the day after Christmas. He had a stroke and never recovered. He died Feb. 3, 1986.

The deep grief has long since passed, yet I still get a twinge when I think how he didn't have the chance to experience so many of life's joys. I take comfort in the fact that he lived life intensely during the years he had. He was smart, funny, exasperating, ornery, curious and loving. I miss him, but I'm glad I was lucky enough to be with him - even if it was for only six years.

The house was a good investment. The upstairs apartment was rented for many years and both Mariya and younger daughter Katie have lived there while in college. Husband Art has his business in the lower part. I think Jerome would be pleased and probably somewhat surprised that I still have it.

Jerome would have been 60 in December. But to me, he'll be forever 31.

Left: our first Christmas together; center: Jerome grading papers and holding Chadwick, the cat we acquired with the house; right: the day I received my master's degree.

Left: shingling the house; right: shortly after we met in Costa Rica.

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