On our first date, Labor Day Weekend 1977, Bill said he was going to marry me. “Whatever,” I thought, “Nice guy. Fun to spend time with.” He moved in a week later.

I could not wrap my abused brain around Bill’s tales of his idyllic childhood, and before the snow flew, we embarked on an eight-hour journey—with his two children, ages eight and ten, and my four-year-old son—to his hometown of Black Creek, New York. By the time we turned onto a bumpy, dirt road, the kids were sound asleep and soon we turned into the driveway of a beautiful stone farmhouse, all lit up and welcoming. A petite woman came from the back door and gave me a hug. Bill’s Mom, Lena, spoke to me so sweetly that I thought she was the phoniest person I’d ever met; that is, until I saw her with her grandchildren and with people around town. Lena was not phony at all; I simply had never met anyone that nice. I was skeptical and trying to be nice, but I was aloof working to take this in. Looking back, how sad that I saw the world that way.

The Swyers were people with open hearts and unlimited love. They were Presbyterian and on that first visit, they gave me a beautiful menorah from Israel and I knew they accepted me, and different religions weren’t a problem. By the time Bill’s aunts arrived to check out the new girl, I was making matzo ball soup, wanting to run out the door, but wasn’t sure my legs could even keep me standing. Family was foreign to me. A big, loving, family was something I’d dreamed about, but I was overwhelmed. Although matzo balls shouldn’t be disturbed as they simmer, I kept stirring the soup. I needed busy work. Everyone loved the soup. I loved the aunts. The visit was a huge success. Lena and I became close. She referred to me as her daughter and took in my son as her grandchild.

Many things made Lena special. She was there for her children, but never judged them. Lena also never asked for help, but was always appreciative of anything you did for her and not just in the moment. For example, years after Bill and I took care of Lena following her surgery, she would tell people what we’d done for her.

Lena was a music teacher for 25 years and years after she retired, her students visited and called and wrote to her. Lena and her husband, Bill, Sr., a man who laughed like Santa Claus, donated their time singing and playing the piano at the hospitals and churches and nursing homes, wherever they were needed, for whoever needed it. Lena was a Girl Scout leader, the den mother, and the list goes on, but Lena did not, would not toot her own horn.

After Bill Sr. died, Lena called to say that she was moving to an assisted living facility “for professional people.” We jumped in the car to visit the place. We checked out the room she’d reserved, talked to the residents and staff and agreed the place was perfect. I helped select her furniture and design her room. Lena had a wonderful time giving her treasures to the family members and she became a heroine to my friends who were dealing with aging parents. Bill talked with Lena often, sending my love but I pulled away from her to protect myself from yet another loss.

Then, when Lena was 92, we stopped for a quick visit and learned that Lena had degenerative spine disease and had put herself in the hospital because her pain was out of control. We found her in good spirits, trying to hide her discomfort. The surgeon said there was nothing he could recommend and advised us to call the kids home. I was honored to become her caregiver and was with her when she passed—ironic that I’d wanted to put space between us. At Lena’s memorial service, each of her kids, including me, read or said something about this very special lady. What a gift it was to have Lena in my life. I am glad that Bill decided to marry me on that first date over 36 years ago.

— Denise Swyers

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