Wendell and I met just as I was leaving New York City for Charlotte, North Carolina.
We met in the laundry room of the apartment building where I had been living for six years, in my grandparents’ apartment, in Harlem. I rarely do chores on Sunday, but that Sunday I was making an exception. I had enrolled in a job fair the following week in order to secure a teaching position Down South. Since I knew I was moving soon, I was unusually chatty and open to the strange man (Wendell) in the laundry room.
We spoke of the spiritual hunger in New York, and we discovered that we were both practicing Episcopalians. Further conversation led to the revelation that Wendell served communion at Saint Philip’s Church where I was baptized, my parents were married, and my grandparents were married. I always say, God put in neon sign over Wendell that flashed, “PAY ATTENTION!!!!! This is no coincidence!”
I dropped $3.00 on the ground which Wendell kindly retrieved and presented back to me. I babbled on and on about how much $3.00 could buy—a pan au chocolate at my favorite patisserie, a yummy café au lait. I thanked him profusely for returning so much money. When he had finished his laundry, Wendell left and returned a few minutes later with his business card. He offered to take me out to celebrate if I got a new job. After he left the room, I read the card which said “Vice President” of a Wall Street investment bank. I nearly died! I called several girlfriends to explain what an idiot I had made of myself. They all agreed that it was simply too embarrassing an incident. I couldn’t use his business card and call him. I would have to throw it away.
Besides I didn’t want any complications in my life. I was moving forward – going to a new life. No one would hold me back. Yet, I remembered the neon sign and kept the card. I got the job in Charlotte teaching high school English. Three weeks after he gave me the card, I called Wendell.
He was at work and couldn’t talk. Honestly, he seemed to have no idea who I was when I called him. I had to describe myself and remind him that I was a neighbor. He called me “dear” because he didn’t seem to be able to place me. Furthermore, he was leaving for California for a week to watch the Dodgers play baseball.
Little did I know, Wendell had been watching me for years. He had been asking people about me and had gathered lots and lots of information. He knew about my biographical research on my great-grandfather, the Harlem stride pianist, Luckey Roberts. He knew my family background. He knew which car I drove. He had watched me drive off every weekend to my parents’ country home, laden down with bags. He had checked me out – – – thoroughly.
Wendell called me back from Dodgers Stadium while he watched the team warm up and drank a cold beer. I love baseball (if not the Dodgers) and wished I was sitting beside him sipping on a frosty one and feeling a breeze through my hair. He made it all sound so wonderful.
As a kid, I had taken the bus after school (with my little brother in tow) over to Yankee Stadium to buy seats for Opening Day. I bought the New York Times just to read the baseball stats. I wanted to be a pitcher and tried to get my dad to practice with me during our summers in Iowa. I made my boy cousin, Barry, teach me what kind of mitt to buy and how to oil it. I had a poster of Bucky Dent on my bedroom door and buttons with pictures of Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson hanging from the ceiling light fixture. I loved the Yankees so much that my mother let us skip school on Opening Day to see the game.
Wendell grew up loving the Dodgers as part of a family tradition. His dad was a huge fan of the team to hire the first black player into the major leagues. Wendell’s mother encouraged her husband and son to go on trips around the Midwest to see the Dodgers play. She felt those trips would help her only son bond with his very busy father, the doctor, who was frequently at the hospital working. Wendell’s mom had herself grown up bonding with her own father over sports. She had listened to the radio for the scores and had checked the newspapers so that she could give updates to her father when he returned from his busy job as a doctor. She knew the power of sports to bring a family together.
Wendell and I dated “casually” before I moved away. He told me firmly that we were going to take our relationship lightly and not fall in love. We went to hear Anita Baker play Radio City Music Hall. We heard Nancy Wilson in Carnegie Hall. We hit the Harlem hot spots. We had a ball!
Except, I fell completely and dizzyingly in love with him while his heart kept trying to escape from the vault into which he had locked it. I cooked dinner, and he brought the wine. He charmed of me, and I teased him. We had a romantic summer, and then I moved. Neither of us knew what would happen.
We dated long distance. We struggled. We hit hard times. We tried to be free of each other and start again. We tried to find an easier way. A local person, someone geographically desirable. I bought a house, and he stopped visiting.
We got back together after six months. Wendell came with a plan to bring us back together. We would visit each other once a month (at a minimum). We would see how it goes, and we would get engaged if it went well.
But complications arose. I lost the use of my right hand, and I am right-handed. I had to undergo intensive occupational therapy three times a week. I could no longer cook the meals he had enjoyed. I couldn’t mow my newly purchased lawn. I couldn’t even unpack my boxes and finish moving in.
The recession hit hard. Wendell’s job became even more demanding and his company’s future uncertain. Rival firms started to go under. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs.
And yet… He came to Charlotte every 2-4 weeks. When I discovered I had nerve damage in my neck, down my arm, and through in my entire hand, Wendell told me that we would get through this crisis together – that I wouldn’t have to do it alone. So, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM each morning and put my arm in a heating pad for 20 minutes. Then, Wendell called me every morning at 6:20 to tell me it was time to stop the heating and begin in the massaging. I would massage my hand to keep the muscles and tendons from atrophying until he called to tell me my 15 minutes of massage were up. Because I had trouble dressing, getting lunch, and putting on a coat one-handed, he asked me to call him when I got out of the house safely. Because I had to drive left-handed, on an interstate to work, I called him when I got there safely. At the end of each day, we reversed the process.
As hard as my recovery has been, I never did it alone. I had company and love each step of the way. Wendell mowed my lawn. He even learned to cook. When I dropped food down the front of my shirt over and over again because I couldn’t balance my food on a fork, he told me it was okay. When we went out to dinner, he told me to order the steak and cut my meat for me because I couldn’t eat meat by myself when he was out of town. He listened patiently when I lost my temper over my slow progress and showed compassion despite my outbursts.
I feared I couldn’t marry him, that we couldn’t go forward because I was no longer the woman he signed up for. I couldn’t cook. The fronts of my shirts were all stained. I was no longer B. Smith. I needed help. I believed I took more than I gave. Yet Wendell loved me anyway. And by some miracle, one day he told me he would take me with only one hand if I never recovered its use again because he loved me. That day, that conversation, that moment, I lost my heart completely… to him. I don’t know when he lost his, but that’s when I lost mine.
Whenever Wendell came to Charlotte, he brought champagne… for our shared bubble baths. We cooked dinners together. He was my hands to measure, and stir, and lift as I gave the step by step directions and used the Cuisinart to slice things. We grilled out on the deck. We went swimming at the pool. We sipped cognac and ate chocolates by the fireplace. We had brunch after attending church on Sundays.
Our love it deepened. We learned to communicate, how to listen, what to say. We learned how to help one another, to provide support. We grew. Each became a better person for love of the other. I found ee cumming’s poem to be true:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go, you go, my dear; and whenever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
And so, we got married.