Sifting through the many shoeboxes on closet floors in my childhood home in Indiana, I found a few gems, including a black and white class photo. On the back is handwritten “Westwood School 8th Grade Graduation Class 1940”. My dad and mom, Francis and Ruth, are seated in the front row. He’s fourth from the left, and she’s second from the right. Are they thinking about each other? Did they have any idea in that moment so long ago that they would spend most of the the rest of their lives together, and that their son would one day share their story with the world on his blog?
One year after that photo was taken, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese military launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and the lives of all the kids in that photo changed forever.
When Francis and Ruth were both 17, he shipped off with the Navy to fight in the war. He had enough credits to graduate high school but he and several of his classmates left for war before their graduation ceremony.
Francis served for three years in World War II as a radarman on the light cruiser USS Miami, one of the ships that escorted the battleship USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay to receive on board the surrendering of Japan. He watched the treaty signing from the deck of his ship. The following photo isn’t mine (it’s provided courtesy of the Truman Library Institute), but it captures that moment in Tokyo Bay. Francis might be out there on one of those ships. I can only imagine how incredible that must have felt. After years of war, it was time to go home.
Back home, Francis studied broadcast engineering on the GI Bill in Kansas City, then returned home to Indiana and landed a job as Chief Engineer and occasional DJ at the local radio station, WCTW. He still hadn’t hooked up with Ruth yet, but one night while spinning disks he received a phone call at the station. Ruth was too shy to call herself, but someone called on her behalf and asked Francis to dedicate a song to her. He did so, and as Dad told the story, “the rest was history”. What my sisters and I always wondered, and will now never know, is what he said on the air that night that charmed her so, and what song he played.
But the rest was history.
Francis and Ruth were married on September 8, 1950.
A lot happened in the 13 years after they were married, but four days after their 13th wedding anniversary, I was their anniversary gift (only slightly late).
Right about the time I was born, Francis decided to take a huge chance. After 13 years at the radio station, he left the security of a full-time job to pursue the American dream and started his own business. He setup a tiny shop in the basement of our home, hired one employee, and started servicing Motorola radios under contract with local emergency services, highway departments, and others. He kept getting more clients, and kept hiring more employees. He quickly outgrew the basement and built a shop in the backyard, then added a second building, then before long had outgrown all that and purchased a new place north of town. At its peak, Thompson Communications and Electronics was a thriving business, and Francis had somehow managed to build it from the ground up working 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. At 5:00 he’d come home – never late – and Ruth would have supper waiting for him.
Ruth was a housewife. In addition to cooking supper, her days were devoted to providing a safe, loving space for my sisters and I, and to decorating the house. The latter was how she expressed herself.
She painted a farm scene on the kitchen wall.
She created an underwater scene on the bathroom wall ‐ a happy pair of fish with bubbles, mounted on ocean waves.
She painted the laundry room wall with morning glories, sunflowers, butterflies, and hummingbirds, and above that she mounted old country scenes of covered bridges and watermills.
She collected cardinals — dozens, maybe hundreds, of them were perched in various places around the house, especially around the organ, which Francis played many nights.
Ruth played keyboard too, but she preferred the piano, and that too was nicely decorated. Two lovely lamps provided dim ambience for late night music, and my sisters and I watched from our senior photos while she played.
It was a good life for me, so much love and support for so many years.
Ruth passed away on Valentines Day 2010. She and Francis had been married for 60 years. They had vowed to love each other “until death do us part”. But the love didn’t stop at death.
For 13 more years, Francis lived alone in that house, and never rearranged anything. Every decoration remained exactly where Ruth left it. He even continued to sleep in the pink bedroom with her paintings of his and her swans mounted behind the bed.
I spent the last two weeks of Dad’s life with him. While he was still able to speak, he was often sweet-talking the nurses, and on more than one occasion I heard him call them Ruth.
Once he hit the home stretch and was no longer receiving food or water, he continued to survive far longer than anyone expected. My sisters and I were convinced he was shooting for Valentines Day. I sat with him on his final day, and he looked me in the eye and for the first time in a long while, he recognized me. He started sobbing and reached out his hand, and we held hands and cried together. He passed away on January 19, 96 years young.
Another gem that I found at the house, not in a shoebox but sitting out on his nightstand, was an envelope, addressed “To my darling, Francis”.
Inside, there was a card, with pink carnations, a baby bluebird, and sheet music.
I opened it, and found Mom’s easily-recognizable cursive, in perfect straight lines.
On the left, a poem:
Please accept this little card –
as my valentine to you –
’cause you’re so very sweet, dear –
and a loving husband too.
My darling, ‘I love you’ –
more than I can every say –
you’re my very heart dear –
on this and every day.
And on the right, a letter:
I’m not a poet but I want you to know – on this day of hearts – that my heart belongs to only you – today – and all the days that remain.
Tho’ you may travel far, you’ll never be any farther from me than my own heart. I love you that much.
Always remember this, darling.
Always, your Ruth.
I also found another gem. In Dad’s pantry, where he kept his dress clothes, more shoeboxes stuffed with old photos, and a tattered copy of The Poems of Francis Thompson…
there was a 78 rpm record with a label that simply said “home recording”. I remember one time, when I was a teenager, Dad and I were hanging out together in the living room and for some reason he decided to get that record out and play it for me. It was a recording of himself that he had made when he worked at the radio station, overdubbed, just him singing four-part harmony – a love song to Mom. That’s the only time he every played it for me, and my sisters didn’t know it existed.
I needed to get that record home safely and find someone who could digitize it. Of all Dad’s possessions, that’s the one thing I valued more than anything else. I considered carrying it home with me, but it didn’t fit in my laptop backpack and I didn’t trust airport security, or myself, to handle it with sufficient care during hours of air travel. So I mailed it home. I packed it with extreme care – one record and a ridicules amount of bubble wrap. That was one of four packages I shipped via USPS on January 20. When asked “Would you like insurance?” I paused. How much is this record worth? It’s priceless. The maximum insurance coverage offered by USPS is $5000, and that doesn’t come close. So I declined. Three of the four packages arrived within a couple days. The fourth – the one with the record – did not. I have a tracking number, and I filed a lost mail claim on January 27, but over two weeks later, and still no updates, I’ve lost hope that it will show up at all, and if it does show up someday, I don’t expect it to still be intact.
Initially I was angry. But now, the more I reflect on the situation, there’s a part of me that accepts that Dad’s love record to Mom may be lost forever, and I appreciate that maybe that’s meant to be. He shared it with me that one time – and I’m eternally grateful for that – but it was her song, not mine, Francis’s love song to Ruth.