|Bess and Jesse Fifer 1917|
It’s a prized photo. A young couple stands in the shade of a tree in the yard of an Illinois farm. She has her arm lovingly thrown around her partner’s shoulders. With his hat clasped in his hand, he is dressed in his nicer clothes and not the overalls he usually wore on the farm. Her bobbed hair and manner of dress suggests the time period is the 1920’s, but I know it is even a little earlier than that. In fact the year was 1917. The couple was newlyweds, and they were deeply in love. The pride of their new-born life together and the hope and promise of their future was very evident on their faces. Their names were Bess and Jesse Fifer, and they were my grandparents.
They had reason to be proud of this marriage. It hadn’t come easy. After the usual courting period, Jess finally worked up the nerve to propose. They went for a ride in the buggy and when the time was right, they stopped; Jess got down on his knees and “prayed” that Bess would marry him. She played coy at first and said no, but finally she acquiesced and said yes. According to Bess he was so startled by her reply that he fell out of the buggy, startled the horses and sent them running. Bess quickly reined them in and brought the buggy back to see Jesse on his knees and rubbing his head. He looked up and said, “Did you say yes or no?” She assured him that her answer was indeed yes.
There is no wedding photo of the couple, however. That is because there was never a traditional wedding. Because Bess was not yet 18, the couple was not allowed to be married. That did not stop these two love birds. On a cold, cold day in February, 1917, Bess climbed out of the window of the home where she and her sister were staying, and she and Jesse eloped. They were to be instantly tested. February of 1917 was the ninth coldest February ever recorded in Illinois. On the day they eloped, even Georgia and Florida did not climb out of the 20’s. In central Illinois, the temps were subzero. Family legend has it that even the trains were not running that day due to the severity of the weather. Nonetheless, the young couple climbed into their buggy and began a 40 mile trip over frozen muddy roads from Arthur to Sullivan, Illinois. It must have been brutal, but their love for each other and the excitement of the moment kept them warm.
Finally, they arrived in Sullivan and still had one more obstacle to overcome, Grandma’s age. No problem. Bess was not going to be put off by the fact that she was still a few months shy of her 18th birthday. As she explained it, “I wrote down the number 18 on a piece of paper and put it in my shoe. When the judge asked me if I was over 18, I said yes. And I was…I was standing right over it.” Problem solved.
|That hand is still on his shoulder more than 60 yrs later|
And that is why the two people in the photo look so happy. They had conquered the weather and they had conquered the law to start on what would be a 67 year love affair. It was a life tested by two world wars and the Great Depression, but their love carried them through. In 1983, just a week shy of their 67th anniversary, Jesse suddenly died. Grandma Bess, who had always been so full of life and playfulness, became just a shadow of herself. Although she would fight back, she never fully returned to that carefree person I see in the picture. What carried her along the next five years was the belief that they were still together in spirit. Grandma would often disappear into her bedroom, and we could hear her talking to Grandpa. Love never really dies. That’s why I’m sure that on that morning in March of 1988, when sipping her morning coffee at the breakfast table Grandma collapsed and passed, there was a scene in heaven much like the old photo. A couple was again snuggling together, their arms wrapped around each other, and their faces once again illuminated by those big, beautiful smiles. Yes, love never dies.