At the heart of February is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for expressing love to that special someone in our lives. Often we do that with cards, candy or flowers. But for those whose valentine is no longer living, Feb. 14 can be a melancholy day. That’s especially true for someone I met a few months ago.
Merle Phillips is the oldest person I’ve ever known. She will celebrate her 111th birthday in April. I made her acquaintance while attending church with my oldest daughter in Chicago. As we turned to pass the peace, this little lady who loves her Lord stole my heart with her signature smile. I sought her out when the worship service was over to find out more about her.
Here was a 4-foot, 10-inch giant whose life perspective towers over most everyone living. She was born six months before the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 1907 and 18 months before Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T. She was 5 years old when the Titanic sank. Her first President was Teddy Roosevelt.
With a winsome glance she told me about the only love of her life, someone who left her through death too soon. Merle met Leonard in graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1937. Within a month of meeting at a party, Leonard proposed to her on Valentine’s Day, presenting her with an original poem.
But then I discovered how Feb. 14 became a tangible means of celebrating the heart of their romance. Every Valentine’s Day throughout their marriage Leonard created a homemade card. It was something Merle looked forward to every Valentine’s.
Tragically, after only 30 years of marriage, Leonard was diagnosed with leukemia. Dreams of spending their retirement years together were dashed. After months of being cared for by his adoring wife, Leonard died on Feb. 13, 1968.
Losing her sweetheart the day before their special day was heartbreaking enough. Then came the realization she would not be getting his personalized expression of his love. It was almost more than Merle could take.
But the next day as she shuffled through papers at home, she discovered the unexpected. Leonard had anticipated he might not be around on Valentine’s Day and had created a card in advance of the actual day. It was in an envelope with her name on it.
Half a century after Leonard’s death, Merle’s eyes well up with tears recalling that final valentine. To hear her tell it, her heart was so full of one man’s love she didn’t see a need for getting married again. Rather, she gave herself to her work as a chemistry lab worker and later as a child care professional.
When I asked if I could have my picture taken with her, she agreed but promptly tossed her walker aside and stood as tall as her 4-foot, 10-inch frame would allow. My smile grew even wider.
Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is the full-time chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island. He is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter and contributes original poetry each Blue Friday to KOMO news radio.