She met her husband in post-war Germany. She worked for the American government there, and he stayed on as well after his stent in the army. She didn’t talk much about her husband’s experience during the war: “I never really asked him about it much. Those were such dark days for us. Isn’t it funny how human beings can block out so much of our past. I guess I’ve blocked out a lot about the war. I don’t like to talk about it much. Still,” she explained, “he loved Patton. Of course everyone loved Patton, though.”
I asked her how they met, and she talked about soap.
“Americans could afford soap, and during the war, we were so poor. There was no soap! We got used to it, but Americans smelled so good! I still consider soap a luxury.” And so they were married (not on the sole basis of hygiene, of course) in Germany and then spanned the Atlantic on a ship bound for New York City. “Plane travel was so expensive in those days. We traveled by ship, and I spent most of the journey sick!” When they arrived in New York, she was so afraid that they would not have anything to eat. She took apples from a table in the ship and stuffed her pockets full of them.
“But New Yorkers were so nice!” I was shocked at her comment. “One time when we were in Coney Island, a couple heard us talking and invited us over for dinner at their home. They were all so helpful.” I can’t image that happening now unless someone invited you over to murder you and sell your kidneys on Ebay. The couple moved on quickly from New York and settled in Florida, where she worked in administration for a local hospital. They moved around the South for a bit and finally settled in Tuscaloosa, AL, where life played itself out.
After her three children were born in Florida, ten years of so after the couple’s marriage, she did find out an interesting fact about her husband: his last name was not, as he had told her, Johnson. Her husband had moved from Chicago down to a farm in Alabama, seven miles from the coast, after his family bought a 40-acre farm (site unseen) for $500. They knew nothing about farming, but to acclimate to the new area, he changed his name, albeit not legally, from the “too-Northern-sounding” Lindquist (his mother was Swedish) to Johnson. He enlisted in the army under that name, and this was the name she took when they married. Still, his legal name was Lindquist, not Johnson.
Their marriage lasted 50 years and ended when he passed away in 2000. “Marriage is hard work,” she said. “And my mother always said, ‘You can change the person, but all you change is the hat.’ You’ll still have the same problems and same troubles if you were to marry another person. It’s about compromise. It’s hard.” The last years, though, were by far the hardest. His health declined significantly because of Parkinson’s and an alternate form of Alzheimer’s. “It was so hard, you know. During the war I was a girl, and I didn’t know anything. But this, this was a situation that seemed hopeless. It was out of my hands. But I knew that the Lord had plans, “ she smiled and said. “And He knows things better than I do.”
She talked about how her husband, at one point, began to quit swallowing. “And then one day, he just started up again!” These moments, however, were little peaks in the swift and steady decline. Toward the end, “I was visiting him in the hospital and feeding him everyday. I use to come into the room and say, ‘Hi Sweetie!’ I called him sweetie. ‘How are you today?’ And it was so funny, because he shared a room with another fellow. One day, when my husband was unresponsive, I came in and said the usual, ‘Hi Sweetie! How are you today?’ And the man in the next bed popped his head up and answered!” But her voice lowered as she began to talk about the final days. “I used to just go out in the hallway and cry. I didn’t want him to see my crying, but it was all too much. It seemed hopeless.”
And then she described another little moment where the Lord’s rays penetrated her dense cloud cover.“There was one day when one of the lab technicians played that song about the sparrow. You know the one. “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”?” Her eyes watered. “I’m even about to cry just thinking about it. It was so good. And it’s those moments, those little ones, that linger. I remember that moment more than any other.”
Towards the end, her husband was not able to eat or swallow, and she had to make the difficult decision to either give her husband an eating tube or allow him to die. “There was no quality of life for him. He would just be breathing, so I made the hardest decision: I chose not to give him a feeding tube.”
Since then, her life has been filled with cooking dinners for neighbors, visiting her children, and dating. In fact, she dated a man for ten years after her husband’s death until he passed away as well. She’s still here, though.
As our plane touched down roughly on the tarmac in Philadelphia, I asked, “Before we leave, I’ve got to ask: What’s your name?” She smiled: “Annemarie Johnson. My Christian name is Anna Maria, but the secular version on my birth certificate is Annemarie.” As we de-boarded, she briskly unloaded the overhead compartment above and turned to face me. I was still seated, as she was first out of our isle. She leaned down and hugged my neck. We exchanged our goodbyes and she walked away.
Her speech was not impeded. It was a voice crafted by German origin and Southern influence. Her voice and our moments together on the plane linger in my mind. These times, the moments that linger, are times when eternity breaks in, when the Lord’s enduring light and love penetrate our ever-changing existences. Annemarie’s time and story were gifts to me, as all moments are that remind us of eternal, enduring truths. These moments can be times spent on a farm in the Alps, around a piano and a hymn, living through a committed marriage, or eating a good meal. They can be conversations with friends, both old and new. It is good to be reminded of permanence and stability amid a world of impermanence and instability. It is in these moments that we are reminded of greater, deeper Realities, Realities which endure and continue past time and change, that go on and on and never end.
There are Houses still standing which were built to last. There are Relationships we have which will never end. There are Joys and Beauties which time cannot change, which death itself cannot mangle. It is a noble, almost impossible, task– however hard it may be amidst the death, chaos, and shifting nature of our world–to turn our eyes to the Enduring One. As we look to Him, our very being is anchored to ground which no storm can overturn, no earthquake can undo, and no amount of time can weather away.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
-from “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”