In Memoriam: Geraldine H. Wagner
Monday morning, April 19th, Gerry Wagner slipped away from us. She had suffered a severe stroke a week and a half earlier. There could be no expectation of recovery. Husband Tom notified me the day of her hospitalization when the waiting by her bedside began. Gerry and he had expressed their wishes for their funeral services, and she hoped that not only the current pastor but the one who had previously had that honor for twenty-nine years might be willing to participate in their celebration of her life. No way I could turn her down.
Tuesday evening, April 20th, at the Moore Funeral Home in Valley Stream, a venue with which I was as familiar to me as the Grace Church building, family, friends, fellow congregants, gathered for the funeral service. Grace Church pastor, John Cole, presided; Tom and Gerry's son, Gary, presented a biographical tribute to his Mom, appended below in its entirety; and I offered the following message and prayer.
I’m want to speak about sweethearts, in general and about two in particular. You can guess who are the two in particulars I have in mind.
But first a disclaimer, because so much of what I’m going to say is in praise of marriage, it may sound like any hope for salvation depends on it. No, of course not. Praise for golden sweethearts is to be heard as praise for every affectionate, considerate loving relationship, in which, loving relationships, we discover God’s purpose from the beginning to the ending; and it’s certainly not limited to marriage, but includes the whole panoply of human connections.
Grace Church has had a surplus of sweethearts, couples who met one another early and stayed with each other late. Dorothy and Henry. Mildred and her Freddie. Bob and Marie. Marion and Sherm. Bert and Peg. Charlotte and Dick. Marianne and Don. Tell me later the names of the others I should have listed. Yes, yes, Tom and Gerry, after a twelve day courtship, a marriage of sixty-five years. Barbara and I are working on earning that reputation, sweethearts, but she has a handicap in that pursuit: me.
Leo Tolstoy famously claimed “Happy families are all alike; [but] every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It may be nervy of me but I would quarrel with the Russian novelist; that in my experience, largely at Grace Church, happy families are also happy in their own way. Some sweethearts bicker affectionately all the time; others seem always to be in total harmony and agreement. Some do all the household chores together; others divvy them up according to individual strengths. Some embrace the same circle of friends; others have very separate sets of best friends. Some wives play bridge and their husbands play the clarinet.
But, I also note, sweethearts are always the other’s biggest cheerleader. Tom’s Emails to this old pastor in Connecticut never fail to mention Gerry and what a terrific person she is, not just flattering him for his excellences but engaging him in trying to understand the world and the events into which they have been immersed. Like the Lord said to the people of Israel through Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together.” And sweethearts do… reason together, talk together, maybe even think together, which isn’t hard to do when you have lived and loved one another in kitchen, bedroom, living room and every other conceivable venue for sixty-five years. Half the time Barbara and I are ordering a meal in a restaurant, I say, after she has ordered, “Double it.” Lives that have grown old together, been there for each other, through thick and thin, raised children, worried over them with their successes and setbacks and accidents, even when they were no longer children, celebrated the arrival of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All that, and Tom can add chapter and verse to the beautiful testimony already provided by Gary.
It’s rarely said, but to this preacher’s eyes sweethearts are a glorious confirmation of the second greatest commandment (to love your neighbor as yourself); and who, after all, is the nearest and dearest neighbor but the person sharing your bed and board. I Corinthians 13, the selected reading for 50% of modern wedding services, explains sweethearts like Tom and Gerry: that their “love is patient… kind… not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Having come this far in life, looking back on where I’ve been, the people I’ve known, the hopes and disappointments many of you have shared with your pastor, I reach the conclusion that among God’s greatest gifts to anyone of us is to be privileged to share life intimately, fully, generously, and, especially, for a great length of years with another soul. Certainly it makes us look better. a lot a better, in the eyes of God. There’s plenty of statistical evidence for the benefits of durable and affectionate marriages. But who needs charts when all we have to do is to point to Tom and Gerry?
In the next verse beyond the ones I’ve already quoted in I Corinthians 13 comes this one “love never ends.” Like that benediction the old ritual for Methodist marriages, said with the pastor raising his hand in blessing over the kneeling couple: “the Lord graciously with his favor look upon you with all spiritual benediction and love that you may so live together in this life that in the world to come you may have life everlasting.” Indeed, would life everlasting be endurable without the other with whom we have endured here the trials and sorrows, as well as celebrated the joys, of this mortal life? The love so ardently practiced here, whose details we have learned from each other in very personal ways has just got to be the currency of eternal life.
We tell ourselves at times like this when the future stretches before us in shadows, “Life goes on.” By God and God’s Christ, so does love… go on. The deep and abiding friendships, the passionate and patient love of sweethearts, does not end with death. Those who have learned to love one another truly, dearly, as Jesus loves us, lay hold of eternity within this life and take it with us into the next.
Sweethearts here, sweethearts forever.
God and giver of good gifts, more than we could list with an eternity to do it, we thank you for one very precious gift to us, a human one, a loving human one, our Gerry, friend, great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, wife and lifelong helpmate. We thank you that in your providence a girl from Illinois should make a loving long and productive life with her soldier boy from Long Island, and through the years she and we should spend our time under the gaze of your eternity doing all the things, faithful as well as frivolous, that made us glad to be here. We thank you for Gerry’s good sense and unfailing sympathy. We thank you for her courage and perseverance in the face of illness. We thank you for her motherly devotion to three generations of children. And we thank you for her love and support day in and out, year after year, for her Tom by whose side she will ever appear in our mind’s eye. On her behalf we thank you for family and friends who surrounded her from beginning to the end of her days with encouragement and affection; with a special nod in the direction of her sweetheart, in whose arms and heart she found a secure place in this world. Hold her, we pray, in your everlasting arms. As she loved to sing your songs in these scenes, give her to hear and sing the bright melodies of the angels. Provide her with a special place at the banquet feast of heaven and a special room in your house with many, many rooms. And, please God, when it is our turn to pass through these shadows to the sunlight of eternal day, make it a moment of grand reunion, with you and Gerry and the communion of saints who loved you and sought to serve you; in the name of him who makes us bold to share this hope for all that is to come, our Lord Jesus. Amen.
The following day, Wednesday morning, April 20th, the family drove to the National Cemetery in Calverton L. I. for the committal service. Three generations of Tom and Gerry's offspring bid Mom farewell as they held Dad in a strong family embrace.
Good evening and thank you for joining us today. Your presence is greatly appreciated.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Gary Wagner and I speak to you this evening on behalf of my father and my brother, Paul.
I begin my remarks with some words from “The Living Bible”, a version of The Bible intended for laymen. These words are intended to comfort all who face the challenge of life or the challenge of death and they may be found in 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 4 Verses 16 through 18:
"That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our inner strength in the Lord is growing every day. These troubles and sufferings of ours are, after all, quite small and won't last very long. Yet this short time of distress will result in God's richest blessing upon us forever and ever!
So we do not look at what we can see right now - the troubles all around us - but we look forward to the joys in heaven which we have not yet seen. The troubles will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever.”
While the troubles and sufferings are now over for mom, it is fitting to know how we came to this day.
Personal history (youth):
Geraldine Bernice, mom, was born to Harry Benjamin Hickey and the former Hattie Summers on May 10th, 1921 in a home located in Benton. Benton was, at that time, a small coal mining town in southern Illinois. She was their second child. A brother, Wendell, preceded her and a sister, Mapha, followed her.
Harry and Hattie operated an independent grocery store, a “mom and pop” operation. Harry was a gentleman by all accounts, walking up town each morning just for a shave.
Although a few years after mom’s birth, the country collapsed amidst the “Great Depression”, the Hickey family generally fared quite well. However, during mom’s junior year in high school, tragedy struck changing forever the lives of the three children and Hattie.
While driving over an unguarded railroad crossing, a train struck Harry’s new car and he was ejected. Harry lie in a coma for 3 months before passing. Suddenly, Hattie, mother of three, became the breadwinner, assuming full responsibility for the family business.
Despite Harry’s untimely death, mom matriculated into Southern Illinois University in 1940. Her co-ed status, however, was short-lived. Concern over the cost of her education caused her to drop out after a year.
Not content to live out her life in a small coal mining town, one that offered few opportunities, mom moved to Springfield, Illinois with plans to live with her Aunt Stella and Uncle Ed. Aunt Stella and Uncle Ed quickly took on the role of surrogate parents, a role that they played for many years.
While in Springfield, Illinois, mom accepted a job with The Franklin Life Insurance Company, a job she kept for nearly 3 years.
Now Uncle Ed was a bit of a Renaissance man, a man fluent in many different languages. Although he had a good job with an affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the fledgling television network beckoned him to come to New York City to fill a special need.
Although mom remained behind in Springfield, Illinois living with a friend, Muriel Heal, and her family, she too eventually succumbed to the siren cry of the “Big Apple”. It was 1943 and mom moved to New York City once again to live under the roof of her Aunt Stella and Uncle Ed.
Maybe you have noticed an astonishing theme by now. In a time when women generally played a supportive role to men, mom shaped her own future. To a large extent, she was a pioneer in what eventually came to be known as the “women’s movement”.
Anyway, while living under the roof of her surrogate parents, mom landed a job with J. C. Penny and the opportunity to work at their main headquarters on 34th Street in Manhattan.
The year was now 1944 and indeed the role of women was undergoing change. “Rosie the Riveter” and her big city counterparts took on jobs formerly held by men. After all, most men were in the military because the country was in the midst of the Second World War.
Personal history (love and marriage):
Now, as fate would have it, mom set out one evening with some girl friends to have dinner at Stanley Smith’s Restaurant in Jamaica, New York. When they arrived their table was not ready, so mom and her girl friends decided to wait at the bar.
While the mores of the times were changing, some old notions lingered on. The bartender refused them service without a male escort. Our dad, already seated at the bar waiting for his date, overheard this conversation and, ever the opportunist (excuse me, I meant gentleman), offered the young ladies the pleasure of his company.
After some small talk, the young ladies left when their table was ready. But dad was smitten. He followed them into the dining room and asked mom to dance. The tune that filled the room that evening was: “A Fellow on a Furlough”.
Although the dance ended far too soon, dad managed to secure mom’s phone number, writing it on the back of a shoe ration stamp.
The remainder of dad’s furlough was but the beginning of a whirlwind courtship. Mom and dad were out together every night until the wee hours of the morning.
While every furlough eventually comes to an end, the same is not true of romance. Thus began a 4-month period during which mom and dad wrote letters to each other every day.
As the year came to a close and the holidays approached, the two lovebirds began to make plans to marry. Mom, though, had some doubts. Was this young man, a musician never-the-less, suitable “husband” material?
She posed that question to Aunt Stella and Uncle Ed and, while we don’t know what consul they offered, plans to marry progressed.
Finally, on Feb 9th 1944, mom and dad were married in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Maybe mom did not know it at the time, but dad only had 21 dollars in his pocket that day. 21 dollars though paid for a nice spaghetti dinner for the newly married couple and their entire bridal party. Somehow, they also managed a 5-day honeymoon in New Orleans.
Not too long after the wedding, dad was transferred to Martinsburg, Virginia where he served out the remaining six months of his military service.
While in Martinsburg, mom and dad shared a “railroad” apartment. In the morning the ice man would come through the front door, pass through the bedroom and deposit his load into the ice box in the kitchen. Of course, this occurred while mom and dad were still in bed. So much for privacy…
After his discharge from military service, mom and dad moved into an apartment in Jamaica, New York. Mom returned to J. C. Penny in Manhattan, while dad… well he pretended to be a bank teller during the days.
In the evenings though, music beckoned and dad resumed the life he knew so well. It was during this period that dad met 3 men who would eventually change the course of their marriage: Don Luckenbill, Bil Doar, and Herby Creager, three well-educated and highly-gifted musicians.
Although I now leave out a lot, mom grew increasingly impatient with the toll that one-night stands (and I refer to life of a musician) was taking on their marriage.
She asserted herself and insisted that dad get a “real job”. After all, dad was soon to become a father.
Personal history (parenthood):
I arrived on September 27th, 1948. In the midst of his excitement, dad told his own father that he had a son. Proudly, albeit somewhat confused, he announced the vital statistics: 14 lbs. 7 oz. His father quipped in return: “Oh my god, poor Gerry”.
The apartment in Jamaica, however, proved too cold and drafty for an infant. So mom and dad soon moved in with dad’s parents in Floral Park, NY, giving them time to look for a home of their own.
Finally, in 1950, mom and dad moved into their own home in Franklin Square, NY, a home they occupied for the remainder of their 65 years of marriage.
Although now in their own home, mom continued to insist that dad get a “real job”.
With that on his mind and with encouragement from Herby Creager, dad set out to earn his Graduate Equivalency Diploma (GED) so that he could enroll in college.
With his GED in hand, dad matriculated into Hofstra College in 1951. Within 3 years he earned his Bachelor’s degree; simultaneously playing in the band for Herby Creager at the Park Inn in Valley Stream, NY.
Despite working both day and night, dad still found some time for mom. Of this I am certain since Paul was born on March 27th, 1953.
Now, upon graduation in 1954, dad finally got that “real job” as a teacher for the Bethpage School District. A year later he earned his Master’s degree from Hofstra College.
Three years later, dad left Bethpage for a position with the Garden City School District.
Mom, a woman who really never felt an urgent need to have children, increasingly became the buttress that supported the entire family.
With dad either in college or teaching during the days and playing with Herby Creager’s band most nights, mom assumed almost exclusive responsibility for raising two boys while also caring for a home.
As if that was not enough, she also worked on a lot of dad’s college assignments, reading books for him and preparing the 1950’s equivalent of Cliffs Notes.
Once again mom sublimated self interests on behalf of the family. This theme would continue for the remainder of her life. Others before self… Family first…
There was, however, a point in time when it appeared as if mom might finally get the opportunity to pursue self interests and thus realize her full potential.
It was at this time that she matriculated into Hofstra College. Although no longer a young co-ed, it seemed that mom would finally have the opportunity denied her so many years before.
Personal history (illness):
But in 1960, years of working day and night caught up with dad. With his health seriously compromised, mom once again set aside self interests for the well-being of the family.
Mom, however, did not escape threats to her own health. At the age of 56, mom was diagnosed with a very rare form of intestinal cancer, so rare that Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute agreed to take charge of her case.
For a year following surgery, mom underwent an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, one that required hospitalization one-week out of every month.
As was typical of mom, before the start of that dreadful week, she would prepare a big pot of stew to keep dad going in her absence. Others before self… Family first…
Such an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, one punctuated by endless bouts of nausea, loss of hair and other symptoms to awful to describe, causes many to opt out and elect to die rather than to fight on.
Mom, however, simply donned a wig (her concern with her appearance not diminished by her struggle) and through shear tenacity completed the regimen as prescribed.
Ultimately, mom won her battle with the dreaded disease, a battle she fought despite no guarantees. Apparently God felt that she was still needed here. Simply put, her work in this world was not yet complete.
Personal history (parenthood 2):
As Paul and I grew she handled both nurturing and discipline. Let’s be honest, young boys have a lot of energy.
More than once she got angry with me and chased me around trying to smack me with a yard stick. I, on the other hand, would flee to the dining room knowing full well that she could never catch me when I was on the far side of the table.
While the need for discipline abated over time, nurturing continued incessantly.
Mom served as both a Cub Scout Den Mother and as an active member of the Parent Teacher Association during our formative years. Moreover, the family always sat down to dinner together at the table each night.
I guess you might say that mom had become our family’s own version of June Cleaver, a role she never envisioned for herself.
While in his teens, Paul got into some trouble at Nathan’s in Oceanside, NY, a popular hangout for high school students at that time. By wearing the wrong jacket Paul became the victim of an unprovoked attack. His mistake was merely the fact that he displayed the colors of a rival school.
Now, forget the fist fights you see on television, one punch and for Paul it was “lights out”. When he regained consciousness he was awash in blood. A short time later, he and mom were on their way to the hospital. Only stitches could fix the gash in his lip and mom was there for him.
I too have memories of my teens. Living close to school, each day I went home for lunch, walking each way with a couple of friends from my neighborhood. Upon arriving at home, mom always had hot soup and a sandwich ready for me. Accompanying both was always some good conversation.
A special time of year for Paul and me was our annual trip to Benton, Illinois, mom’s birth place and still the home of her mother and other relatives.
Throughout this period, her mother, Hattie, still ran the general store. That store and other opportunities found when one escapes the suburbs still evoke vivid memories, memories that will live on forever.
As I mentioned, mom was a pioneer in the “women’s movement”, yet she only learned to drive a car after having two children.
Paul and I both recall the harrowing experience of riding in the back seat of the family’s 1951 Buick Roadmaster as mom navigated nearby streets.
It is quite possible that we both uttered a sigh of relief as metal whiskers signaled the proximity of the curb since we knew the car would soon be parked.
Personal history (retirement):
Dad’s retirement from public school teaching at age 61 afforded mom and dad more opportunities and more time together.
They especially enjoyed travel which included trips to Bermuda, the Caribbean, Hawaii and various locations throughout Europe.
All this was possible since from the onset of their marriage, mom took care of the money. It was she who managed the family’s finances.
On the occasion of their 55th anniversary mom and dad returned to Alexandria, LA to renew their vows. When a local television station learned of the celebration, they interviewed mom and dad. That is when mom told her now famous “two rooms” story.
If you are not familiar with that story, I suggest that you ask dad about it sometime. I am sure that he will enjoy sharing it with you. And it will certainly evoke a smile.
Greater involvement with Grace Methodist Church in Valley Stream, NY also became possible during this period.
Mom especially enjoyed working in the church’s Thrift Shop. And together, mom and dad worked for years on behalf of Meals on Wheels.
Given her intellectual abilities, mom was drawn to the card game known as Bridge. Not only did this game stimulate her mind, it also widened mom’s circle of friends.
Nurturing did not end with childhood or even those troubled teenage years. It was a life-long calling for mom. Others before self… Family first…
Let me share but one personal example. In July 2003, at the age of 53, knee replacement surgery went terribly wrong. Infection set in almost immediately.
Over the next 10 months, I underwent 3 subsequent surgeries one of which involved total removal of my artificial knee.
During this period, mom and dad traveled frequently from New York to Pennsylvania to care for me, although both were more than 25 years my senior. You see, my wife, Linda, had to work and I was simply unable to manage at home alone.
It is examples like this that help us realize that none of us can ever repay our parents for either their love or their sacrifice. Our only responsibility is to pass it on! We must pass on that which was given freely, given without any expectation of repayment. This I call the “debt of generations”.
Personal history (great grandchildren):
As the years passed, some forms of travel simply became too difficult. Trips closer to home were a better fit. They also made more sense for by this time the family was growing. Grandchildren got married and a whole new generation entered the world.
Although always an intensely private person, one not given to outbursts of emotion, mom hid deep within herself a treasure trove of emotion. Only on a few occasions would she allow others to see what lie beneath the surface. One such occasion, was the opportunity to cradle a great grandchild in her arms.
Fortunately, she had that opportunity often within the past few years.
On my side, first came Anna to Chris and Angie followed by Corinne to Ellen and Mike.
On Paul’s side, Scarlett arrived to Michael and Amyra quite recently.
Then, a day after Easter, a day synonymous with rebirth, when told to expect a call from Chris and Angie, she correctly guessed that another great grandchild was on the way.
Personal history (discovery and remembrance):
Now, a few days ago, while trying to help dad understand the finances mom had managed so well, I found a poem stuffed in the drawer of her nightstand.
I truly do not know how it came into her possession. I do, however, know why she kept it. I now wish to conclude my remarks with a reading of that poem so that you too will know as do I.
Should you go first and I remain
To walk the road alone,
I'll live in memory's garden, dear,
With happy days we've known.
In spring I'll wait for roses red,
When fades the lilac blue,
In early fall, when brown leaves call
I'll catch a glimpse of you.
Should you go first and I remain
For battles to be fought,
Each thing you've touched along the way
Will be a hallowed spot.
I'll hear your voice, I'll see you smile,
Though blindly I may grope,
The memory of your helping hand
Will buoy me on with hope.
Should you go first and I remain
To finish with the scroll,
No length'ning shadows shall creep in
To make this life seem droll.
We've known so much of happiness,
We've had our cup of joy,
And memory is one gift of God
That death can not destroy.
Should you go first and I remain,
One thing I'd have you to do:
Walk slowly down that long, lone path,
For soon I'll follow you.
I'll want to know each step you take,
That I may walk the same,
For someday down that lonely road
You'll hear me call your name.
Should You Go First
By A.K. Rowswell