Storkfest ’17 was Dad’s last stop on his farewell tour, our wedding day, family reunion in the grandest sense, and the introduction of Honky-Tonk Queen Sarah Gayle Meech to central Wisconsin.
There were a hundred Kodak moments that scorching September day. In addition to the “I dos” and our first dance, there’s another image I’ve burned to the hard drive.
Sheila’s army had converted the barn into a reception hall with early-fall wildflowers in Mason jars on six-foot folding tables, and a chandelier fashioned from icicle lights and hula-hoops. In the feeding frenzy that preceded the hoedown, Kaleb Walker searched for three empty seats. He parked his Rocky’s Revenge and three-ply Chinet bending with brisket in a suitable spot and pulled a chair. Without conscious or concern, he dropped his head and silently gave thanks.
I’ve known Kaleb’s dad Jay for thirty-five years; he’s like a brother. As a husband and father, Jay is the high-bar.
He’d stand a touch over six feet, were it not for the scoliosis that drops his left shoulder. Just out of high school, he was a dead-ringer for the pitch-man of a pre-Walmart discount store on the east side of Urbana. His drawl was from somewhere south of his native Effingham, Illinois, his diction straight out of the Fox Fire Books, his jump-shot from the Harlem Globetrotters. We’d call next game on the first court at the Intramural Physical Education Building. The Pi Beta Phi’s would look at us like the Duke Blue Devils would look at Lakeside Lutheran, laughing whether to guard the six-foot Indian, a David Letterman doppelganger, or the country-boy Mick Jagger in Chucky T’s. When the defense collapsed under the hoop, we’d just kick it out to the happy Cherub patrolling the three-point-line. Jay would launch a bomb over the melee, and we’d head to the other end of the court. After the third swish, the frat boys would start to grumble, “Is somebody going to guard that kid?” But no one ever did.
In the spring of ’85, a classmate introduced Jay to the fresh-faced daughter of Erv and Leona R., from Cissna Park, Illinois, population 800. One particular tequila-soaked misadventure that has forever been blamed on me did little to deter them. In August of the dust-bowl summer of ’88, with congregation wedged into an un-airconditioned church in Champaign, they forever became Jay-n-Joy Lou.
I was studying gastrointestinal physiology my third year of vet school when the touch tone on the wall rang. “Hey Bill, I’ve got some news,” as he held the receiver to Tom Petty singing, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like a bun in the oven.”
They bought a small two-story in the last subdivision before the corn fields. Micah and Hannah would follow in the next few years, and 1305 Alpine Drive was becoming tight quarters. Well into their 70s, Erv and Leona came up from Cissna. While Leona helped cook and take care of the kids, Jay and Erv set every truss and rafter, and built every stick of furniture as the Little House on the Prairie grew to accommodate three kids, two in-laws, a dog, a cat, and an occasional visitor from Wisconsin.
Priorities well placed.
Erv drove his last nail at ninety-two years old. When Leona was no longer able to live on her own, she came to the Walkers. I once asked Jay to join me on an out west cycling adventure, oblivious to their obligation, “Nah Bill, that sounds great, but we’ve got our hands full here at home.”
Joy Lou did the heavy lifting, but the three Walker kids would all take their turn, with Hannah’s future husband stopping by to play euchre with grandma once a week.
Kids these days are awesome. Hannah was the first to get married, Memorial Day 2018. A merciful breeze ruffled the knee-high corn as the sun set over Hudson Farm, just west of Urbana, Illinois. The best man regaled the three-hundred guests with how he and Jake were drawn together by their faith and competitiveness. Jake being more so, often resulting in a lost bet and a naked lap around the Alpha Gamma Rho house at the University of Illinois. The DJ breezed through the dollar dance and tossing of the garters. By nine o’clock the concrete dance floor was a mass of humanity pulsing to hip-hop and pop-country.
Above it all sat Leona, a corsage tied around her right wrist, pink dress, and hair freshly blue, she watched without expression. I prayed she could appreciate the beauty of the event. Just then, Kaleb emerged from the throng. He set her walker to the side. With his tie dangling and collar loose, he hauled her to her feet. Toe-to-toe they stood, with hands steady he bobbed his head and rolled his shoulders and shared a dance, with his grandma.
The day after I thanked Jay, for the amazing day. I congratulated my friend on his kids, and shared the image of Leona’s smile dancing with Kaleb.
“Aw, Bill, as we all know, things have a way of working out.”
Jay’s father was a pipeliner. Summers in college he’d drive to Alaska to spend time with him. Jay rides his bike eleven miles to work. He coached his kids in basketball and was a fixture on the sidelines at every soccer match. Friday nights at the Walker household, Jay-n-Joy Lou, and all three kids watched movies, played games, and slept together in the living room… until the day they left the house.