MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 25 - The Camellia Garden Apartments
Monday morning dawned bright and sunny when our son, hungry, very wet, and obviously unhappy, woke us with screams of indignation after his first small cries had not produced any movement from his exhausted parents. Finally, sighing deeply, I rolled over to my side of the bed and reluctantly but quietly, slipped out from under the sheets. I had already changed Michael’s diaper by the time Billy emerged from the mound of covers that always seemed to wind up on his side of the bed. In other marriages this could be a problem, but since I always slept in his arms, we were both warm and cozy all night long. The look in his eyes was not that of a sleep deprived new father, rather his familiar ‘come hither’ look I had become so used to during the almost two years of our marriage. Reluctantly, I ignored him this time, out of necessity and a hungry son. As I slipped on my robe and retrieved my slippers from under the bed, kissing Billy on the forehead (I did not dare go any further or our son would have stayed hungry for a while), I told him to go back to sleep since I knew he had to be tired from our night of making love. I know I was, and both of us rarely enjoyed the luxury of eight uninterrupted hours of sleep.
With the retrieved slippers on my now cold feet I took Michael upstairs to prepare his breakfast, but regardless of my plea, Billy followed behind us about 5 minutes later, composed and ready to begin our journey. Silently, I wondered what surprises and problems we would encounter around this bend in our road, which we would begin to explore with the coming New Year. I relied heavily on my instincts that certainly our lives could only get better, and better, since so far in our marriage each new bend had led us to days filled with increasing love for each other, and now our perfect son – the living symbol of that love. It was difficult to imagine I could possibly be any happier than I was that morning, with my brand new lieutenant and our beautiful, healthy baby boy. Perhaps this was God’s way of making up for all the years of misery spent in my parent’s house, and I would have chosen once again to suffer through those often-terrifying days and nights if life with Billy was my final reward. He was worth anything and everything life had handed me, and now I was eating off a platter made of pure gold. I felt that this day, like all our days, was the first day of the rest of my life with this charming, handsome, smooth talking man who claimed my heart from the very first date. Just standing close to him still sent chills up my spine, and my heart filled with love when he came up behind me and held me in his arms.
"This is quite an exciting day, you know," he said, and I agreed with him completely.
I could hardly wait to get to Columbus and begin setting up our new home, and I just hoped we would be able to stay at Benning for at least a year or two, although I did not voice my desire. Never would I want Billy to think I was reluctant to move on to his next assignment, wherever that might be, from Alaska to Hawaii, and I would try my best to make sure every bend in the road would be another adventure. My entire life wrapped around my husband and my son, and I wanted to create a home where Billy could relax and unwind, yet feel free to ask anyone to stop by at anytime, or bring friends home for supper. I also wanted our son to have a home where he could play with his toys, and not have someone constantly on him about picking up, so I knew our home would reflect that a child lived there too.
Now I just needed to find a happy medium. However, the one thing I wanted most of all was for our home always to contain love and laughter, and that would be the easiest part. How could we miss? All the ingredients were in place, and now I just had to work on myself and make sure that when Billy walked in the door, I was there for him – to be ready to fulfill his needs. If he was tired, I would see he had his rest, if he was hungry, he would have a meal, but if he was feeling ‘frisky’, then he would have that too, again maneuvering around the child in our home. Working on me was the most difficult part since I had always been determined to have my way, but I had finally realized by giving Billy his way, I could have my way too. I just had to remember you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar and it would be a hard lesson to learn with a lot of dips and bumps in the road – but I was more than willing to try anything – anything at all to keep Billy happy. His love was worth whatever I had to do, and I knew I could not survive if I ever lost him. It never even entered my mind that perhaps he too felt the need to keep me happy, but it certainly would not have been difficult.
It was not long before Gene joined us. Michael, sitting in his new high chair and swallowing cereal and fruit as fast as I could shovel it in his mouth, gurgled with glee to see his grandfather, and held out his little arms wanting Gene to pick him up. Since he was almost finished with his breakfast, Gene took him in his arms and let him sit on his lap while he drank a cup of coffee and ate some toast. Certainly, there would be years ahead when Michael and Gene would become closer, and perhaps someday Michael, who no doubt had the McConnell salesmanship, would choose to take his father’s place at the store. Oh, I was a dreamer! Billy had already chosen a path for his son, and that included West Point, and a military career far beyond his own aspirations. He too was a dreamer, but had the world’s greatest minds not been dreamers, we would still be living in the Stone Age!
After he finished his first cup of coffee, Gene asked to give Michael his bottle while Billy and I ate breakfast, and he was delighted when his first grandson settled contently in his strong arms and actually allowed his grandfather to hold his bottle.
I had learned by now that Helen would not appear during the week until after 9:00 a.m. since she wanted everyone out of the house before she began her own day. With the boys on Christmas vacation, I decided she might not come out of her bedroom until we were safely on the road to Columbus, and the maid had arrived to take charge of the house and the boys. I was not expecting her to come out to say ‘good-bye’, so I was not disappointed when it did not happen. I knew her all too well by now and had no anticipation of change where she was concerned. It did not surprise me though when three sleepy little boys did wake up so they could give us all big hugs as we packed the car for our short journey.
It is strange, but in the following few years, I found that journey from Columbus to Griffin VERY long, but from there back to our small apartment, very short. Sometimes the mind decides what consists of a long period and what just the opposite is, and when anticipating a pleasant destination, the journey is condensed. On the other hand when faced with an unpleasant situation, the time seems to expand with the degree of unpleasantness. It was hard to believe now with the day still so new that we would actually be sleeping in our brand new bed this very night!
Billy and I both became more excited the closer we got to Ft. Benning, and he reached over, took my hand, and said, "My little family, oh, how I do love you. Life does not get much better than this!"
I held his hand tightly, just as I had always done when facing a new challenge, but I could not have guessed who was the more excited – we both felt as if we were king of the world.
Once again, we talked about how we were determined to have the perfect family if there is such, with no arguments, no shouting, no harsh words, no alcohol, no neglect, and particularly no physical abuse. Certainly, we both were dreamers, but we thought we had our lives under control and could fulfill all of our dreams for our future. The only dark cloud I could see on the horizon was that of Vietnam, and I knew someday my beloved Billy would have to go to war, if it did not end by the time he finished his basic and specialized training. This was still a very ‘secret’ war, with no published list of casualties, although there had been some, mostly advisors and a few helicopter pilots. These were the only Americans who were there at the time outside of the embassy staff, but the public and even most of the military had no idea our soldiers were dying in this far off land. For the moment, Vietnam remained a harmless little country where America had chosen to take a stand against communism and with our superior arms and forces; this little ‘police action’ certainly could not be considered a war zone. Foolishly, most of our contemporaries thought no puny third world country or a group of rebellious farmers could dare the might of the United States. Then again, many did not know, and none of us took it too seriously, that this same puny army had defeated the elite French, and had sent them running back home with their tails tucked under them. Dien Bien Phu was not a household word in America either, but I had heard Billy talk about the famous battle, and he thought our better-equipped and better-trained soldiers would take up where France left off, but I prayed it would be over with very quickly. The thought of Billy going to war made me physically ill, and I could not imagine how I would be able to handle it, especially if something happened to him and he was far away! None of our friends from North Georgia had been there yet, although several we knew were in training to become helicopter pilots, and surely would be among the first to go, but so far, so good. At this moment it was still a ‘Special Forces’ and ‘Special Advisors’ war as they trained the South Vietnamese to defend themselves, and most thought that was all that would come of it. No, the American public did not want to get involved in another war where thousands of our young men would die, and for that, I was grateful.
We had only known one North Georgia graduate to die on active duty, and this tragedy happened during Billy’s senior year. David was a graduate of the class of 1961, and while on a training exercise with his armor unit, he had died when his tank drove over a steep embankment, rolled over and caught on fire. It had been a shock to the entire student body and I thought about David’s brother, Allen, who had come to my rescue the day I met Billy. Ann, David’s recent bride, and now a young widow, returned to North Georgia after the tragedy to resume her education, and I remember the haunted look in her eyes. How could she come back where they had met and fell in love? I knew if anything ever happened to Billy, I would not want to live, much less go back, to where we had met and been so happy. North Georgia would have remained a ‘forbidden’ place for me, as would any place where Billy and I had been together. However, she did go back, and later remarried another soldier, and everyone was very happy for her, as she deserved all the happiness in the world. I could never even imagine myself in her place, but then again, I had a son now who depended upon me, and hopefully in a few years, another son, because anticipating a daughter from a McConnell was like asking for heartbreak. With three brothers, Billy was not very likely to sire a girl!
We arrived at the apartment’s rental office about 11:30 a.m., and while I waited in the car with Michael, Billy went inside to pick up our key. We had already paid our deposits and only had to arrange to have the telephone turned on that morning since the other utilities were included in the rent. Billy returned with the key and the manager, the same attractive blonde lady who now walked ahead of us as we followed slowly in our car. She wanted to make sure the apartment was as it should be, although I will have to admit a twinge of envy since I thought she paid too much attention to my handsome husband, almost ignoring me.
Holding Michael in one arm, Billy, for the first time, turned the key in the lock of our new home, for however long we would be there. The empty apartment echoed without curtains and furnishings, but showed a lot of promise as I went through, room-by-room, and decided where each piece of furniture would go. We expected the moving van from Dahlonega around noon but the Army was notoriously late, so before Billy started to unload the car he set up Michael’s playpen in the middle of the living room floor to keep him off the cold tile and out of mischief. As soon as the manager went through the apartment, she turned to Billy and told him if he, not we, but he, needed anything at all to call her, or if he found anything not to his satisfaction. Was I just imaging this, or was I invisible?
The manager, since she knew we had a baby, had kindly turned up the heat that morning when she arrived at work, and the apartment was nice and warm. We had brought our cleaning supplies with us so we rolled up our sleeves and began to work wiping down the kitchen shelves and drawers with bleach in preparation of lining them with the paper we had bought on our shopping trip to Sears.
I wanted our kitchen to be bright and cheerful, although there would not be much room to maneuver once the washer was in place. With the drain hose stretched across the door to the sink, the back door would be unusable when the machine was running, and I had long decided it was worth that small bit of inconvenience if it meant I did not have to take our dirty clothes to the Laundromat. I also had to remember to watch Michael carefully once he began to walk, so he would not pull the drain off the sink, burn himself with scalding hot water or flood the kitchen since I could almost visualize this happening.
While I worked in the kitchen, which Billy considered a woman’s domain; he scrubbed the bathroom, hung the new matching shower curtain and window curtains, and then put out our thick new towels and bath rug set. He cleaned all the floors on his hands and knees with a scrub brush, then used the old towels we had packed just for cleaning, to rinse them. He concentrated on the areas where we decided to place large pieces of furniture, since he knew he would have to go over the traffic areas again after the various deliverymen had finished their jobs.
About noon, as anticipated, the truck from Griffin Sales and Service arrived with our new furniture, but still no Army truck. While I fed Michael his lunch, Billy directed the placement of the furniture, and I was able to give Michael his bottle while sitting on our new overstuffed chair while Billy placed crisp, freshly washed, new sheets on our new bed. Since we had no idea what time the truck would arrive with our few possessions from Dahlonega, someone had to stay at the apartment, so Billy left to pick up some hamburgers from the bowling alley for our lunch. I had hoped to go to the commissary that afternoon, but with the uncertainly of the next delivery, realized we might have to wait until the next day.
Just as Michael fell asleep in his playpen, and before Billy returned with our lunch, the truck arrived, and with a cranky, too soon awakened baby on my hip, I directed the placement of our few remaining possessions. The most important items were Michael’s furniture and the washing machine, but Billy would have to put the crib together when he returned since the movers would not do it. I would be so glad to get my little boy back into his own little bed, and this time in his own room, allowing his father and I to have all the privacy we needed!
Blinds had come with the apartment so we were not in a big hurry to hang the curtains, but I think Billy was just anxious to make our new ‘home’ look lived in and comfortable so we worked until almost midnight. We took a break when it was time for Michael to eat, and for the second time, Billy and I ate pineapple sandwiches, which we decided would be our tradition every time we moved into new quarters. Billy had picked up two cans of pineapple, bread, mayonnaise and cokes when he left to buy lunch, but this time I only ate three sandwiches while Billy again had eight! He really did like those sandwiches, but his appetite was always huge when he had food he enjoyed. I just wished I could teach him to eat vegetables, but had long ago decided that was a lost cause.
Now that we had created our first family tradition, Billy thought it would be nice to have many of these time honored rituals since his family, and mine had few, and those they did have had not been observed with any regularity. It was important to both of us to create an atmosphere of stability and continuity for our small family. While Billy hooked up our new color television, I took a break, sat on the comfortable overstuffed couch, and held Michael while he drank his bottle, and soon we had our happy little traveler once again tucked into his own little bed and sound asleep.
I thought surely, Billy would be far too exhausted to want to make love that night, but I was greatly mistaken. After what he now called our ‘ritual’ shower, we ‘christened’ our new bed and made love for hours, on our new sheets, in our new home, and this too would become a time-honored tradition, according to him.
Oh, the words he whispered in my ear while making love; he must have had the help of the angels to make the promises he made, and the endearments that always turned my knees to jelly. Billy McConnell was a born salesman and he certainly had sold himself to me! I loved this man with all my heart and could not imagine loving him more, although I knew that with each new day, I would. Once, I told him he was the answer to my prayers; and he echoed my sentiment and said I was everything he ever dreamed of in a wife. We were still very much newlyweds emotionally and physically, and I hoped this would last throughout our lifetime together. Sometimes I would watch him while he slept and think how blessed my life had been since I had met my handsome Billy. It was all I could do not to wake him and ask him to hold me in his strong arms, and it was not too many months later, he told me he often watched me in my sleep, wanting to wake me and take me in his arms.
Lovingly I pleaded, "Please do. I could not imagine being awakened in a more comforting way," and from that night sometimes one of us would feel the need for a cuddle, and of course waking the other in the process, but oh how wonderful it felt!
When Michael woke us the next morning and I opened the blinds in his room, the sun streamed through the windows, and painted stripes on the bedroom floor, a phenomenon we never saw in our dark basement apartment. Michael squealed with delight while he tried to catch the sunbeams, and I knew I would capture that moment in my memory forever. Our little boy, brought home to a dark basement apartment, now had sunbeams to waken him, and he laughed as they seemingly slipped through his chubby little fingers. Billy and I never tired of watching him as he thought he finally caught one, and rapidly closed his little hand, only to open it and find the sunbeam gone. Like his parents, though, he was persistent as he tried over, and over again, and this became his morning playtime on days when the sun was shining.
We still needed some things at the PX, including a throw rug for the nursery and, of course, we needed to shop at the commissary and ‘stock up’. At that time payday came only once a month, so I had to learn how to shop for the entire thirty to thirty-one days, but very carefully, and I knew exactly how much money we had to spend. Often I would have to put back non-essentials, such as ice cream or Coca-Cola since we no longer had the generosity of Mr. Moore and his store to fall back on when we came up short.
We already had our I.D. cards that we obtained when we came down to look for an apartment, and we had located the major facilities we would be using – the clinic, the commissary, the post exchange facilities, the nursery, which I would be reluctant to use but would find necessary at times, and the Student Brigade. As we drove through the gate, although Billy was in civilian clothing, the M.P. on duty saluted because of the officer’s blue sticker. I think Billy was almost getting used to the salute, but not being in uniform; he just nodded his head at the gate guard, and smiled.
Since my father was a Navy officer during most of my childhood, I was used to the respect shown an officer, and the benefits that came with rank, but Billy was just beginning his career journey, and I enjoyed watching him. He was so proud of his uniform that he still spent hours and hours spit shining his shoes, boots, and the bill of his cap, and even more hours polishing his brass insignia and belt buckle. His gold 2nd Lieutenant’s bars were almost silver from his efforts. I had heard it was easy to tell a military school graduate by the shine of his shoes and brass, and I learned to tell the difference immediately. I always enjoyed watching my husband, sitting on the couch, the television turned to a ball game, with an old diaper wrapped around his right index finger, the top half of the shoe polish can half filled with water, polishing away. Once I commented that he never knew what he was missing until our son was born since diapers were such perfect polishing cloths.
He would be so concentrated on the task before him, trying to have a conversation was useless, although I had my own ways to get his attention if necessary. I think Michael could have flown through the air in front of his face, and he would not have seen him, he was that involved. He still had his habit of just barely sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth when totally concentrated on anything, and even today, it takes very little effort to conjure up this image. I think perhaps he even took a bit of ribbing from fellow officers for his spit and polish, but he never, not for one moment, hesitated to pursue the standards of the military dress code drilled into him over, and over again while at North Georgia College.
At the commissary, we loaded two baskets, not completely, since Michael took up half of one basket, but our refrigerator was now full. Fortunately, they carried Michael’s soy formula and we made sure that was our first purchase along with his jars of food and boxes of cereal since our son’s nutrition was top priority, and we bought enough for the entire month. Then at the Post Exchange, we found a bright yellow rug, the color of the sunbeams, for the nursery floor, and the same color cushion for the rocking chair. Now our son would have a soft rug to play on in his own cheerful little nursery.
After we arrived home, as soon as Michael went down for a nap, Billy began hanging the green curtains from Dahlonega after I pressed them to remove the creases. By that evening, our apartment was complete, cozy, and inviting. Our choice of earth tones for the living room had been a good one, and there was a feeling of warmth as soon as one opened the front door. The colors of autumn pervaded the living room and dining room, but our bedroom was cool with green drapes that matched the painted stucco walls almost perfectly. The nursery was all I dreamed it would be, bright and cheerful with its white curtains trimmed in yellow and the large, round, yellow rug in the center of the room.
Although small, our apartment was already ‘home’. We were fortunate we had our own furniture since all the furnished apartments looked the same, but ours reflected our ‘personality’ and I hoped our friends, old and new, would find it warm and inviting too. I knew the other wives would envy our good fortune, since most were living in the smaller furnished apartments, not wanting to bring their own furniture on a TDY tour, or not having any to bring. In addition, since the larger two-bedroom apartments were on the end of each four-unit building, we had two windows in both of the bedrooms. No more living in a dark basement for the McConnell family, although we had been very happy there, but we now had sunbeams in the morning. With the coziness of the living room, the cool green of our bedroom, Billy and I had two rooms where we could entertain our fantasies. Although the couch was not nearly as comfortable for making love as the old green daybed – our own bed was more than sufficient, and there was no doubt in my mind that it would be well used.
So here we were, in our third home together. Soon we would be celebrating our second wedding anniversary, and even Billy thought the time had flown by so quickly, we barely noticed. So many good things had happened to us that we knew this new home would bring many, many more, but most of all, we knew we would continue to love each other more than life itself.