They met in a bakery in Davenport, Iowa, where he worked in the shipping department and she was a secretary in the office. Les Elder was 23, lived over in Moline, Ill., and was not much of a ladies man. But something about 19-year-old Mary Ann Daehler caught his eye. Looking back now, he says in classic Midwestern parlance, “she was pretty and everything.”
He was Don Juan in molasses. “I didn’t think she’d even go out with me,” he says, but an older woman in the office slipped him the word that, yes, Mary Ann would go out if he screwed up his courage. “It threw me,” he says.
He invited her to an University of Iowa football game for their first date in the fall of 1961 and then drove her back to her family farm in Thompson, Ill. When he left that night, he backed out of the driveway and went the wrong way on the country road; Mary Ann’s father had to chase him down to set him straight.
Of such inauspicious beginnings can great love affairs grow.
And as Les Elder, now 68, tells the story of his one and only love affair, the words come out in a mixture of stoicism and tears. He’s a grown man but at times sounds like the shy, self-effacing young man he must have been in October 1962 when he and Mary Ann got married a year after that first date.
He is describing a love that became the great balm of his life but which now, when he most needs to be soothed, only seems to reinforce his pain. Because try as he might, he can’t make peace with Mary Ann’s unexpected death 4 1/2 years ago.
He knows he should. But for reasons locked tight in his psyche or, perhaps, his DNA, he can’t.
He doesn’t want to move on. He wants to remember.
That’s how we came to meet, when someone showed me a tribute he’d bought to run last Friday in the Orange County Register on what would have been the couple’s 44th anniversary.
It was a Frank Sinatra recording, titled “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You.” Elder heard it a couple weeks ago while sitting in his car in the Home Depot parking lot where he works and spends his lunchtime listening to standards on 540-AM. Finally, he’d heard the song that captured what he’d wanted to say publicly to Mary Ann.
I hadn’t anyone, till you/
I was a lonely one, till you/
I used to lie awake and wonder if there could be/
A someone in this wide world just made for me/
And now I see, I had to save my love for you.
I had wanted to tell Elder’s story of permanent love. It touched me that so long after his wife’s death, he still had a love song in his heart. And, in the main, that’s what Elder wants to talk about, too, as we talk in his mobile home across from the ocean in Huntington Beach.
But it’s clear there is more to his story.
“I’ll be honest about it,” he says, “I want people to remember my wife. I want people to remember that name, Mary Ann. She’s been gone 4 1/2 years, and people tend to forget, and I don’t want them to forget. I don’t forget. It’s a tribute to my wife.”
I ask if he can express what they had, and he answers in everyday language, not the flowery prose of poets. They had common interests and enjoyed doing things together, like trips to Arizona for spring training baseball games.
More than that, he says, it was an evolving relationship that grew from traditional husband-wife lexicon into a deep friendship. He noticed himself changing over the years, wanting to do more things with her that she liked, just as she had early on enjoyed his fascination with tinkering with old cars and drag racing.
The best analogy of their marriage, he says, is a “runner’s high” in which a long run -- which a marriage can be -- suddenly becomes a smooth and pain-free experience.
That’s where things were in March 2002 when, on the eve of another baseball trip to Arizona, Mary Ann came into the living room after dinner, holding her head and saying, “Pressure, pressure.”
She sat down in the corner of the sofa. She said she was having trouble breathing. Elder called paramedics. The couple never had another conversation. She died five days later of a stroke resulting from bleeding in her brain. She was 59.
It had never occurred to him, Elder says, that his wife would die before him.
Since then, instead of turning on its axis, Elder’s world has stood still.
“Everything is sitting here exactly like my wife left it,” he says. “I’ve still got her clothes, her earrings, purses, everything that was here that day when she left for the hospital that Thursday night and never came back.”
Everyone has told him, nicely or otherwise, to get on with things. “It’s been 4 1/2 years and I don’t feel any different than I did the day my wife passed away,” he says. “I’m not any better.”
He knows that flies in the face of conventional wisdom that people rebound, that time moderates intense emotional pain. He knows millions of people suffer losses every day but eschews therapy as pointless.
“I think that’s why it hurts so much, because we were so much in love,” he says.
“In life, with the deaths that happen, to your parents or even if you have a child that something happens to, you can always go home as a couple and put your arms around each other and get through the grief or whatever happens. But when you lose your partner, you go home and you can’t put your arms around anybody.”
He won’t eat in restaurants alone, preferring to get food at the drive-through window. He doesn’t want to travel. He still wears his ring so that no one will think he’s single.
I tell him I love the story of his feelings toward Mary Ann but lament his pain.
I ask what he thinks Mary Ann would tell him. “She’d probably say, ‘Les, why don’t you get on with your life? What are you doing at home?’ ”
I ask how he answers her. “I talk to her. I go to the cemetery twice a week. When I hear her say that, I say, ‘I can’t.’ ”
In 2002, he buried his wife on a Friday and went back to work the next Monday, he says, pushing carts in the Home Depot parking lot in Huntington Beach.
The couple’s two grown children live nearby and they, along with his friends at Home Depot, want him to find peace.
He can’t picture it, confiding to a torment that love isn’t supposed to bring.
“When you’re married to a person for 40 years, it’s just like a broken heart,” he says. “Ever heard of anybody putting a broken heart back together again? It’s just a broken heart that I can’t seem to find something to put it back together with.”
Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.