Get tissues, then search for faith

One of the most common complaints heard by newspaper publishers and editors (other than the claim that their news teams often mangle religion news) is that they do not offer their readers enough news that is inspiring, uplifting and touching. In other words, where is the “good” news that is supposed to balance all of that “bad” news that you make us read day after day, year after year?

OK, readers — grab your box of tissues and brace yourselves. What we have here is a beautiful weeper from the front page of the Washington Post metro section. Obviously, the editors wanted a Valentine’s Day story and reporter Caitlin Gibson delivered an epic, one packed with the kinds of specific details that grab readers. Here’s the first act of this news feature:

When they were young, they might have gone dancing on Valentine’s Day. That’s the sort of date they often had back then, beginning when they were teenagers and their high school hosted a formal dance every month — and not with a DJ, George Guiles says emphatically, but a proper 14-piece orchestra.

“We danced to the end of every dance,” George says.

George and Catherine “Kay” Guiles started dating when they were 15, which was a long time ago — before the Roosevelt administration, before George began his 30-year career at the bank, before they bought their new house for $4,750. It was before the arrival of their two children, their two grandchildren, their four great-grandchildren and their three great-great-grandchildren. And it was before they had to leave their beloved rowhouse in Upper Darby, Pa., where they had lived for 67 years, for a continuing-care facility just a few miles away from their family in Silver Spring.

This year, George and Kay will celebrate their 80th Valentine’s Day as a couple. In the final chapter of their life together, they don’t go out dancing all night anymore as they did when they were young and romantic. Their affection for each other is not expressed with jewelry or roses, but in the acts of devotion that define what it means to grow old with someone — the realities of commitment that young lovers might not think about or want to think about.

“We were 16 once,” George says. “Now we are both 95.”

“How did we get there so fast?” Kay asks him.

Obviously, this is a story about the rites of the present, which are based on commitments made in the past. Every night they play the word games that help keep Kay’s brain as sharp as it can be, given the realities of Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, he struggles with physical tasks, with her help. They always, we are told, say “please” and “thank you.”

So what makes this a GetReligion story? Where’s the religion ghost?

Well, there is one and it makes a brief and strangely vague appearance in this story that is expertly constructed with layers of precise, beautiful details.

After George and Kay both fell down the stairs of their old house, it was time to let go of it. That also meant leaving behind weekly bridge games with friends, golf outings and the church where Kay was a charter member. …

Kay might not remember how to dress herself or what she had for lunch, but her mind holds fast to her family and a few important facts, which she often repeats. “The best thing I ever did was marry George,” she says firmly. A soft cloud of white hair frames her face, carefully combed; George learned how to help her do that.

What are we to make of that one quick church reference? Note the specific detail that they were part of a church in which Kay was a charter member. The most logical assumption, then, is that her role in that church predates her marriage to George. Spent a long time in that one church, a church that her family helped build.

Thus, let me make another point about that “charter” reference. As someone who once helped start a small church, a mission, from scratch, I would like to note that this is hard work that isn’t for everyone. In the Orthodox tradition, a parish remembers its charter members, it’s founders, in every Divine Liturgy — because they did the hard, hard, hard work of building a community of faith.

This means that Kay and George (we must assume both of them, lacking other details) have lived and served through decades of changes in one faith community. They have watched friends come and go, live and die. Final the changes in their own health required them to leave.

Might we at least know the name of this church? Catholic? United Methodist? Baptist? How about one clue?

It sounds as if they were faithful to this church, and to their faith, as they were to each other. Is there a connection there? Was their Christian faith part of their amazing marriage and, thus, part of the story?

Just asking. Anyway, grab another tissue and read the end of the piece:

But at the end of the night, George will help Kay change out of her clothes and into her nightgown. He will carefully smooth the sheets in exactly the way she likes when he tucks her into bed. He’ll lie down next to her and scratch her back for a little while.

She always tells him, “You take such good care of me.”

He always answers, “I promised.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    That also meant leaving behind weekly bridge games with friends, golf outings and the church where Kay was a charter member.

    I’ve been thinking about your request for the church’s name for a bit. The main purpose of the story was obviously to tell of a couple’s love for each other “in sickness and in health…” so knowing the name of the church is not necessary for a print story. But this is one case where something could have been done online to make the word church into a link pointing to more information about the church. That would allow those interested to find out more without interrupting the flow of the story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I guess it depends on whether, in the context of American religion, you think that keeping marriage vows has anything to do with the kind of devotion they showed to the church that she helped found.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I was hoping someone would comment with information about where they attended church for all those years!

    I wonder if some writers/editors don’t realize how much that information adds to a story.

  • Jerry

    I guess it depends on whether, in the context of American religion, you think that keeping marriage vows has anything to do with the kind of devotion they showed to the church that she helped found.

    My opinion was colored by my 41 years of marriage with my wife not being religious at all and me finding a non-traditional belief after marriage. Certainly religion can help build commitment to a marriage especially during rough periods and the general question about why they stayed together would have been worth asking.

  • Mike

    I didn’t find the omission of the name of the church a bothersome lapse. If they had talked about their faith and how that had helped hold their marriage together for so many years, then the name would have been important. In this story, however, the church was simply there among other things they had to leave behind. To me, this was piece about the present — where they are today in the lives and the power of commitment and love in a marriage. It was a great read and perfect for Valentine’s Day.

  • dan

    clarity – that is if the Washington Post article was supposed
    to be a religious article, it failed completely, not the Get Tissues, then Search for Faith article

  • http://www.kristenwestmcguire.com Kristen McGuire

    Whatever denomination she was, she was not a “charter member” of a Catholic church, not honored in the any subsequent liturgy as such. That is an alien concept to Catholics.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Kristen:

    In the prayers of the people, there is not a prayer for founders of the parish?

    I would predict that there is one in the Eastern Rite.

    I meant no disrespect. There may be differences in East and West on that point.

    See this search:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=Orthodox%2C+prayers%2C+Founders%2C+temple&hl=en#hl=en&sugexp=ldymls&xhr=t&q=Orthodox%2C+litany%2C+%22founders+of+this+holy+Temple%22&cp=16&pf=p&sclient=psy&safe=off&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=Orthodox,+litany,+%22founders+of+this+holy+Temple%22&pbx=1&bav=on.1,or.&fp=8077e84e2fa921e0


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