Two Lives Marked by Love, Loss
Every morning, Lula’s brother lifts her into the living room chair, and she sits there for hours, a blanket draped over her withered legs. She watches TV, or reads, or stares out at the golf course, where dry leaves skitter in the wind.
The days are short and dim now--so different from last summer, when Lula Johnston, at age 94, walked through a world lit up by love.
Her college sweetheart had found her, 76 years after their first kiss, and romance bloomed once more. They married in June. Five weeks later, a car crash ended their honeymoon.
Now she is alone again.
“I know why you’re here,” she says, straightening in her chair, speaking so the tape recorder catches every word.
She’s a curiosity, Lula understands, marrying at an age that most people don’t even live to see. But she also knows her story reaches deeper, touching anyone who ever loved and then parted, only to wonder if someday there might be a second chance.
In September 1923, Lula Packham was barely 18, a farm girl just starting classes at southern Idaho’s Albion State Normal School.
Five feet two with hazel eyes, a quick smile and curly blond hair, Lula fit in from the start. “I was a puppy,” she says. “I met people easily.”
She met Paul Johnston the first day. He was a second-year student at the two-year teaching school, a greeter assigned to guide freshmen. He was slender, with wire-rim glasses and brown hair combed carefully back. He stood just 5-feet-4, but he carried himself with confidence, and he looked tall to Lula.
She told him she had wanted to teach since she was a girl. He said he wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so here he was.
Paul was an intellectual, Lula thought, and more comfortable with jokes than with emotional talk, but she could tell he was interested in her.
They gravitated toward each other at school functions like hayrides and picnics. They sang together in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” At dances, Paul took breaks from playing drums to dance the waltz, fox trot and two-step with Lula.
After one dance, Paul escorted Lula to her off-campus house. Lula’s sister was sleeping in the living room, but Paul stepped inside anyway. He kissed Lula, then quickly left.
The romance was on. They did nothing unseemly, of course, none of the carrying-on that passes for courtship these days. “We were proper,” Lula says. “Kissing was about it.”
Kissing was enough.
“I’d gone with boys in high school, but that was nothing,” Lula says. “They were just boys. Paul was really my first love. Do you ever forget your first love?”
Paul graduated the next spring and left to teach at a country school in eastern Idaho. Lula took summer courses, then quit school to teach first grade in Malad City, 80 miles from Paul.
Neither had a car, and telephones were not for idle chat in those days, but they wrote every week or two. Paul’s handwriting was beautiful, Lula remembers, fluid with long, looping lines.
For Christmas 1924, he gave Lula a book called “101 Famous Poems.” It was bound in hand-tooled leather, with a thin, red-ribbon bookmark tucked to page 107, a poem by Robert Browning called “Summum Bonum.”
Lula loved that poem, especially the end:
Truth, that’s brighter than gem,
Trust, that’s purer than pearl--
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe--
all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.
In June 1925, after Lula’s first year of teaching, Paul borrowed a car and drove her home to Fairfield, Idaho, where he met her parents. They liked him very much, Lula says.
That fall she returned to Malad City, and Paul took another teaching job 100 miles away. They kept writing, though a bit less often.
As much as she loved Paul, Lula was puzzled. He never spoke of marriage. She could think of reasons why not. They were young, and neither had much money. Still, she thought he might say something about his intentions, if indeed he had intentions.
But he didn’t say a word, so Lula started dating others. She assumed Paul was doing the same.
Lula socialized with a group of young teachers in Malad City. A math teacher named Laurence Marschat seemed especially fond of her. They spent more and more time together, and she realized she was falling in love with him.
But what about Paul? Near the end of 1926, three years after they met, Lula wrote her hardest letter to Paul. Larry had asked her to marry him, she wrote, and she was thinking she’d probably say yes.
Paul never wrote back.
Lula didn’t know--how could she?--that Paul was too heartbroken to reply. She didn’t know--for he had never told he--that he had planned to marry her all along.
Lula Packham became Mrs. Laurence Marschat on June 2, 1927.
The newlyweds moved to Oregon, where Larry worked first as a teacher, then as a school superintendent and finally as a planner with the state Department of Education in Salem. They had three children: Laurence Jr., Gerald and Marilyn.
In summer 1933, Lula and Larry were in Eugene while Larry worked on his master’s degree at the University of Oregon. Paul was there too, taking summer classes, and when he learned Lula was in town, he came to visit one day.
It seemed to Lula that he’d gotten over her quite nicely. Paul was married too, and he brought along his wife, Sara, and their two boys, Lael and Paul Jr. They all chatted for a while, then went their separate ways.
There were no more visits, no letters, no phone calls. But every now and then, Lula would open that leather-bound book to page 107.
“My husband knew I had a soft spot for Paul,” Lula says. “He said Paul was probably the best fellow I ever went with--before him. I thought of him often, wondered how things were going. But he wasn’t that important to me at that time of my life. I had a husband, I had three children. I was very, very busy.”
The years marched on. The Depression gave way to World War II. The kids grew up, and Lula took a secretarial job with the Tuberculosis Assn. She worked there for 25 years.
In 1987 Larry died of a heart attack after a series of strokes. Lula, age 82, was on her own after six decades of marriage.
She stayed active with friends, church and the League of Women Voters. She took aerobics classes. She moved north to Woodburn and lived alone in a house across a golf course from her youngest brother, Willis, and his wife, Gena.
She was lonely, yes, but she considered that her lot as an elderly widow. Her health was excellent, her mind was sharp, and she didn’t feel old.
But the world makes assumptions about a woman in her 90s, she found. People started speaking loudly to her, even though she could hear them fine. Strangers called her “Lula” instead of “Mrs. Marschat.”
As for the world of passion, well, don’t be silly. Old ladies don’t fall in love--even Lula believed that.
Last April 21, Lula checked her mail around noon, as usual. There, amid the fliers and bills, was a white envelope with her address written in small, cramped letters. An old person’s handwriting, Lula thought, then caught her breath when she saw the return address: Paul Johnston.
“Dear Lula,” the letter began. “I think of you often. . . . “
She called him that night.
Paul explained that he’d tracked her down through one of her sisters, whom he had looked up in Jerome, Idaho. He told her his wife had died in 1997. He said he lived in Boise but had lots of family in Oregon, and he wondered if Lula would mind a visitor.
She wouldn’t mind at all, she told him.
Three days later, Paul flew to Portland and caught a ride with a grandson the 20 miles south to Lula’s house. As they pulled up in the driveway, Lula came out the front door.
She had wondered how they should greet. With a handshake? With a hug? What was proper? What did she want?
The wondering ceased when she saw him standing by the car. Paul had white hair and was slightly stooped, but he still looked tall to Lula.
“He held out his arms,” she says, “and I just walked into them.”
She stayed there awhile. They kissed--once, twice, many times--and Lula knew her lonely years were over.
Paul had led a full life too, she learned. In World War II, he was plucked from the Pacific after a Japanese torpedo sank his ship. He taught high school history in Boise and fathered a family grown huge: four children, nine grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren, three great-great-grandchildren.
He walked more slowly than Lula. He was hard of hearing and a bit more forgetful than she was. But the old Paul--the curious intellectual, the gentle teaser--was still there.
Two weeks later they had dinner with relatives.
“We were sitting around the table after dinner was over,” Lula says, “and Paul’s son said to him, ‘Well, Dad, have you proposed to her yet?’ Paul looked at me and said, ‘Have I?’ and I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, will you marry me?’ I looked at all the people, and they all sat there with their mouths kind of open, and I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
They were wed the next month, on June 10.
“At age 94, time is of the essence,” Lula says.
Two hundred friends and relatives watched them say “I do” and ride away in a rented limousine. People asked Lula how old she felt, and she didn’t know how to answer. She just felt young, she said, and very much in love.
The newlyweds were inseparable. They shopped for groceries together. They shared fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant. They went for walks, holding hands. They read poetry to each other. Lula noticed Paul had grown more affectionate since his youth, and she responded in kind.
They knew their time together would be short--maybe no more than a year or two--and they meant to make the most of it.
“When we die,” Lula recalls Paul saying, “I just hope we can die at the same time.”
Yes, Lula replied, that would be best.
On July 18, a brilliant blue-sky day, Lula woke up ready for adventure. She wanted to pick some peaches. The Early Red Havens were in, she told Paul.
“I wanted him to see this beautiful farm where I get them,” Lula says. “The trees are low, so you can pick your own. It’s fun.”
Lula drove, taking her brand new Hyundai for the 20-mile trip. About halfway there, along a straight stretch of two-lane highway, an oncoming car veered across the center line.
Lula remembers the air bag exploding toward her. She remembers struggling to breathe. Then nothing, until she was in a hospital bed with tubes in her lungs. The crash had broken her leg, sternum and several ribs.
Paul was in another room with a dislocated hip, crushed hand, broken ribs and a fractured vertebra in his neck.
Nurses wheeled him into Lula’s room for visits, and the two commiserated over the indignity of it all.
“We would have died that day, if they’d just left us alone,” Lula says. “I told them I never wanted to be on a respirator and be fed through a tube, and here they made us do it.”
Their fragile bones mended slowly. Paul was transferred to a nursing home Aug. 8, two days before Lula’s 95th birthday.
On Sept. 5, Lula moved into Paul’s room at the nursing home. The staff called it the honeymoon suite, but Lula says there was little charm to it.
They were in beds 10 feet apart. Lula’s legs were paralyzed, a complication from a pump implanted to deliver pain medication to her spine. Paul couldn’t hear well, and Lula had a bandage around her neck, making it hard to talk. They said “Good morning” and “How’s your food?” but not much more.
Two days after Lula arrived, Paul took ill in the night with an infection and high fever. Aides rushed him out of the room on a gurney, and Lula knew he wasn’t coming back.
“We didn’t have time to exchange words,” Lula says. “I didn’t have time to say I love you. As they took him out, I just said, ‘Goodbye, Paul.’ There wasn’t anything else I could do.”
The doorbell rings. It is Lula’s physical therapist, here to help her regain use of her legs.
When Lula resumes telling her story, two hours later, she is lying on her back in bed, her head propped on a pillow.
Paul died Sept. 9. Six weeks later, Lula moved out of the nursing home and in with Willis and Gena.
They have been very kind, she says. They gave up their bedroom for her. Every day, they move her from bed to chair and back again. On Sundays they take her to church.
Doctors predict she will walk again, though it may take a year of therapy. Friends and relatives visit often, and they tell her things will get better, but Lula has her doubts.
How is life for her now?
Lula glances toward the bedroom door, making sure Willis and Gena can’t hear.
“Torture,” she whispers. “It’s just hard work. I’m trying to survive each day, and hoping I’ll do better the next.”
Lula gazes silently at the ceiling, her wrinkled hands playing with the edge of her blanket, her new wedding band and diamond engagement ring sparkling from her finger.
On the bedside table lies an old, leather-bound book. The thin red ribbon is still tucked to page 107, and Lula’s visitor reads aloud:
. . . all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.
On the day she wed Paul, there were showers in the morning, but the clouds soon parted, and raindrops sparkled everywhere. For the next month it hardly rained at all, and to Lula it seemed as if the world was bathed in a golden glow.
“It was much brighter, happier,” Lula says. “Everything was beautiful. It didn’t matter that he was old, or that I was. It didn’t make any difference. Isn’t that funny, what love does?”