We were the last ones to leave that day. Right before we stepped out of the hotel room to head to the airport where the long journey back home awaited us, Kathy stopped us midway and said something that caught me by surprise
“Girls, no matter what happens, please marry the person you want to and you love and not the one you’re forced to.”
Kathy Adams is Assistant to the Dean at the University of Oklahoma and was our coordinator for a month-long new media course at the SUSI (Study of United States Institutes) program.
Why was our coordinator concerned about something as personal as our marriage?
During the one month that we were an integral part of her life and she ours, for us this sturdy Oklahoma woman had become – 1) Captain Adams, for she would command us and watch out for us everywhere; and 2) SUSI Mother, for she would take care of our every need, pamper us, scold us, love us, and like all mothers do: worry about us.
With our backpacks flung around our shoulders and suitcase handles in our hand, we listened to her parting motherly counsel.
As she spoke, my mind replayed other farewell moments of that day – with my dearest roommates, the funny guy, the adorable girl, and other talented bunch of my SUSI friends. And I wondered to myself how amazingly human connections advance – from strangers formally shaking hands with each other just a month ago to close acquaintances holding on to each other in parting, eyes brimming with tears, and clasped into hugs filled with all the love in the world.
The trip was the beginning of many special bonds with some lovely people I met from different parts of the world. I can’t start narrating on this page about each of them. So let me tell you about two people with whom I share one of the most special connections I made there – Pat and John Roller, my new American Nanny and Poppy.
Pat is 75 and John 81. John is a little shorter than Pat and Pat is a bit impatient with John. But whenever one strays away from the other’s sight, they’re anxiously looking for each other until they finally find themselves back together.
That’s the first impression I got of Nanny Pat and Poppy John.
On the day they picked me up for the homestay weekend, we drove around the peaceful city of Norman in their Toyota and then to their favorite place in town – the Sam Noble Museum.
Both retired science teachers, they loved the museum for it not only housed poodle-sized to four stories-tall dinosaur structures and other fascinating animal models but also because the place offered so much to learn about nature and the evolution of life on earth with interactive exhibits and tools.
Pat later told me that they had been in the museum with their grandchildren more than a dozen times. But they still found the place fascinating. It was apparent by how she took her time with every display, reading every placard, and like John said “Soaking it all in.”
At the museum, I observed their camaraderie for the first time. When Pat had gone to the ladies’ room, I saw how restless John was, looking out for her in the crowd. That day was particularly crowded as there was an opening of a new month-long exhibit.
“She just got cataract removed from both her eyes,” he explained his restlessness to me.
Together, they complimented each other beautifully. During the three days I stayed with them, I saw them joking and getting impatient with each other. While Pat would unnecessarily fuss over John, I saw him hold his tongue. When John sometimes burst out in anger, I saw Pat maintain her calm. All through it, they somehow would manage to get back into being best friends in love.
They have been married for 37 years. John told me how they met in the science teachers’ meeting. Pat was married to someone else back then. During the 10 years of their friendship, they had been each other’s pillar of strength.
“When her husband was out dancing with other girls, I was there talking to Pat, being there for her when she was sad. When she finally decided to leave her husband, after 10 years of my knowing her, I went ahead and asked her to marry me. She did, and I had three kids as bonus,” John told me with his wide smile and bright eyes that always seemed to spark with childlike excitement whenever he was happy.
At the dining table, after meals, Pat and I would just sit and talk about many different things – from Nepal’s political unrest to America’s education system, changes in gender roles, relationships, and more.
She also shared with me her own life stories – about how she had grown up on a farm, working the soil since she was four, feeding and cleaning hundreds of chicken and cattle, driving the farm tractor by the age of eight with four pillows on the seat so she was tall enough to look ahead as she drove.
I was amazed, listening to the stories of life on the farm, living off the land for food and income in “America.” Stories not too different from my own grandparents’.
“But I got education,’ Pat said, pausing, lips sealed for a while as her grayish blue eyes wandered from my face to somewhere else and back again, “That’s very important, you know! Education. Changes lives.”
She told me more stories as we walked around the park behind their house and during other after-meal conversations: from how she fell in love with teaching to how she had survived through a bad marriage, then married her best friend, raised children, then grandchildren. We also talked about her active participation in promoting gay rights in Oklahoma, having raised two grandchildren who were gay, and how it pained her that even their own church still didn’t accept homosexuals as good people when she has seen they are no less good or beautiful than any of us.
Though Pat and John never had children of their own, John talked about their children from Pat’s first marriage and grandchildren with no fewer ardors than Pat did.
Now living retired lives, they usually have their youngest grandchildren visit them often, when they spend time in their backyard learning about different plants and butterflies. Like many American couples, they have their extended families spread in different cities and even in countries. But they come together during festivals and always in times of need.
Other times, they have each other – always.
Though Nanny and Poppy are living peaceful retired life, they have found ways to keep themselves busy. Besides daily activities and chores in and around the house, they have maintained an organic garden in their backyard where they grow their own vegetables using compost that they make themselves.
Nanny, who has received several awards for her teaching style and has written books for children, also runs a website/blog, www.free-energy-env-exp4kids-blog.com that she updates at least once a week. There, she has educational and fun experiments to do for children so they can learn and appreciate nature and its science. Poppy, on the other hand, busies himself with writing proposals, meeting people trying to raise funds for their service center at their church where they give free food and clothing to needy people every Friday.
In leisure, Nanny mostly reads books and Poppy plays Sudoku. Together, they watch a movie or stroll around the park. Or they have people like me over in their peaceful abode and shower them with all their love.
For me personally, there’s something about seeing old people in love. I go hopelessly romantic and I think I’m so in love with them because they are so in love with each other. I was talking about it with my colleagues and somehow later on we went down a familiar road of conversation leading up to how love and happiness are all too fleeting and ultimately just an illusion. Cynicism comes so easily.
But I also know that what I saw in Nanny Pat and Poppy John wasn’t illusion. It’s rare but not non-existent, either. And even the new friendships and relations that I gained out of the trip, I worry it’ll be lost in the daily chase to meet demands and deadlines. But until it lasts, and the memories I have that I can always look back to with a contented smile on my face and it makes it all worthwhile – even in its transience.
P.S: I had emailed Nanny about how seeing her and poppy so in love even after so many years of marriage broke the stereotype we have of America as a land of divorces and failed marriages. She replied, saying there were many happily married couples in America and everywhere, of all ages. But older ones share rare contentment, knowing their time together is short. So what I got to witness, she wrote, was a very special time of their lives
And she also sent her share of advice on choosing a good man for myself.