College represented freedom. It was the first time in my life I didn't have to live with my parents. Mama hadn't settled down in the least although she was growing older. Living on campus at the University of Alabama gave me the first reprieve of my life and I knew from then on I had become a new person.
I had a few boyfriends, but none I was serious over. I really liked boys, but my attentions were placed more firmly in classes and dreaming of the future. There were memorable days at college, like the football games where Alabama (Roll Tide!) smashed the competition and were National Champions under the intimidating Bear Bryant. There were parties and more parties. Coming home to the dorm from a dance for the ROTC one night I saw a girl being escorted by her date and he wore his ROTC jacket, his nice white shirt, but his pants were missing and he stood in his shorts, kissing her good-night.
There were trips to a limestone pit north of Tuscaloosa where a bunch of kids leaped off cliffs into deep blue waters. There were May days lying out with dozens of girls on the dorm's rooftop where we sunned ourselves, looking for a perfect tan. One day we heard a commotion and looking over the edge of the roof saw Joe Namath had returned to the campus for the day to visit his old Alma Mater.
There was a little too much drinking now and then, interesting college courses that made high school look like kindergarten, and good friends made all around. I met an older student in his twenties from Cuba. He'd emigrated to the US on his own, and his father owned all the largest department stories in Cuba still. We discussed America and I was a fire-brand when explaining to him our democracy was much preferred to Cuba's dictatorship. He made me back up my opinions with facts and we spent two hours with me clarifying for him all the reasons my country and my government were the best in the world.
This man later followed me around after I left the University, followed me to New York where my parents lived, kept in touch by letter, and finally one day asked me to marry him. "You don't have to love me. You don't even have to sleep with me. It can be a marriage in name-only."
"Why would you want to do that?" I asked, mystified.
"Because you're the most intelligent woman I've ever met and I want you for my wife. I want to spend my life with you. I'd give you everything. I've already inherited many of my father's department stores. Eventually they'll all belong to me. You'll never want for anything--travel, clothes, money, jewels--whatever you want. All you have to do is marry me."
This saddened me completely. I would never marry someone for things, for financial reasons. Marriage was much too precious an estate for that. "I can't do that. I don't love you and it wouldn't be fair. I can't marry someone for money."
"And I love you for that even more," he said, but his face was stricken and I knew he felt a loss so great I couldn't even fathom it. This was not like the rejections I'd given to other suitors. This was a serious man who saw himself lost in a great love affair.
Then my aunt died. My Aunt Marjorie lived in Galveston, Texas. I'd visited her a few times in her apartment there and she treated me with great care and understanding. Did I want a milkshake? Did I want to go down to the beach? She was a thin redhead, she liked to drink, and I just thought she was particularly bubbly and wonderful.
She'd died on the operating table during the fourth operation to repair her intestines—supposedly from her alcoholism. Her heart stopped and she just...went away.
I attended her funeral and while standing at the graveside I thought, Life is this short. She was just thirty-nine, still a pretty redheaded woman, and now she was gone, poof, it was over. I wondered why I was wasting my life at college. It was 1967, summer, school was almost out for the semester and I was about to finish my sophomore year. I knew the whole world was being shaken to bits by the Hippie Revolution. The center of it was in California—some fantastic land I longed to visit. I felt I was being left out of one of the most important events in history by not partaking in the revolution of these other young people. I should quit college! I should find a way to California! My favorite aunt was dead much too young. Life didn't wait around for us to finish everything we wanted to do and the “revolution” wasn't going to last forever. If I wanted to see and experience the world I had to get a move on. Writers needed to experience living above all, that's what I believed. I could study on my own, and as it turned out that's the best thing college taught me--how to study and to learn and to remain curious.
I talked to the Dean of Social Work, my part-time employer at that time. “I need to go,” I said. “I'm missing out on everything.”
“I quit college after my second year too. I went to work in the coal mines in Virginia. But I came back. Not many come back, you have to know that, Billie Sue, and you're such a bright student. I'd hate for you to drop out and never return. Odds are, though, you won't.”
“I know. But I just have to go. I have to see things. I want to live. I don't feel like a student anymore.”
The office workers and the Dean gave me a solid gold charm engraved with their thanks from the department and wished me good luck, good luck, please come back...
First I had to get some money together. No one was going to pay my way to California and I certainly wasn't going to hitchhike. A boyfriend discovered I was with an aunt in Atlanta looking for a job. He came to pick me up and drive me to Louisville, Kentucky where not only could I find a job, but we could date.
I worked first at the big department store downtown, a clerk at the candy counter. I found a cheap room with a bath and tiny studio-sized kitchenette in a run-down hotel. It was all I could afford. The linoleum was peeling off the floors, the sofa opened out for the bed, and outside the window, only feet away, were the barred windows of a juvenile delinquent center.
Across the street from this palace was the general hospital. I went looking for a better job there. I was told I had no experience, so... I came back. I came back and didn't stop coming back to apply and force them to let me have a job. I said, “I live right across the street, I can be here anytime you want!”
Finally I was hired to train in the admitting department. A real paycheck finally so I could save for a trip West.
I spent a year in Louisville, working, dating, and saving. On my birthday when I turned twenty-one I had my stash and was ready to head for California. I called my mother to tell her. What could she do now? I was of age and no one could tell me anything or stop me from what I wanted to do. She said, "Don't go." I said, "I will."
I took a bus to California and tasted my first Hippie experience in San Francisco. I stayed a week, wandering the famous Haight-Ashbury district, hanging out in free “pads” of hippies I'd just met, taking flowers from kids on the streets, and wallowing in the movement that defined my generation. It was like an unending party, but beneath the long hair, the beads, the bell-bottoms, and the pot smoke, these people really believed in what they were doing. They wanted things to change and they were dead serious about it. They wanted the war in Vietnam to end. They wanted the Establishment to admit life wasn't all about a corporate job, a paycheck, and a fancy car. I loved them, all of them, but I wasn't really a Hippie myself. I was an observer. I was mentally taking notes as a writer.
I left San Francisco for Los Angeles and ended up in an apartment with my first cousin who lived in Long Beach. After arriving there life speeded up as if someone had pulled a lever. One day the young man, Ron, who lived across the hall, knocked on my door and said, “Come to the party upstairs, everyone's there.”
I had a book in my hand and had been immersed in reading a novel. I was shy, awkward, and not very social. I said, “No, that's okay, I'm reading.”
Suddenly Ron swooped me into his arms, took the book out of my hands and put it on a table. He started down the hall carrying me in protest to the stairs. “Put me down!”
“No, you're going to a party. There's someone I want you to meet.”
Once upstairs at the apartment filled with tenants drinking and laughing, Ron deposited me on the floor next to a young Navy man who introduced himself as Lyle Mosiman. We talked and laughed. I thought he was handsome. He thought I was beautiful. We probably fell in love on that first meeting. I know we were really attracted to one another.
During the next two weeks Lyle and I went with other friends to “The Pike,” a beach side amusement park, to a Fourth of July picnic on the beach, and before we knew it he was telling me I was going to marry him.
I sat on my sofa reading. He had brought over a photo album. He opened it and began telling me this would be my father-in-law, this my mother-in-law, and his brothers and sister my other in-laws. He was from Michigan and he showed me photos of where his parents lived. I laughed at him, thinking him ridiculous. “I'm not getting married to you. I hardly know you. This is the craziest thing I ever heard.”
“That doesn't matter because I'm telling you right now, you're going to marry me.”
Within a week I received a phone call from Mama telling me my brother, Brent, had been in a terrible car accident and I needed to come home. She meant come home to New York where they still lived. I promised I would. I'd catch the very next flight. I got off the phone and explained to Lyle how I had to return east.
“You can't do that! You'll never come back!”
I had heard this before, from the Dean of Social Work, and he'd been right too.
I walked with Lyle down to the beach. It was dark, the waves coming onshore silver with grunion, their scales flickering in the moonlight. We climbed into the lifeguard's chair and I sat in Lyle's lap, laying my head on his shoulder. He was so strong, so wonderful, but I had to see about my brother, didn't I?
Lyle said, “Marry me. If you don't agree to marry me, you'll never come back and I'll never see you again. I can't live without you.”
It only took about five seconds. I'd been proposed to before, four times in fact, and never even gave the proposals a moment's real thought. This time thought was five seconds long. I suddenly realized I was in love with this big, handsome hunk of soldier and despite all my good intentions to keep myself footloose and free, I was going to say yes.
“Yes,” I said. “I'll marry you.”
He almost leaped from the high seat and dumped us onto the beach. He held me very tight and close and we watched the silver waves in the moonlight knowing we'd just made the most important decision ever. We were pledging our lives to one another.
I didn't even know how it happened. I'd only known him two weeks. I knew little about him. He hadn't gone to college, he wasn't an officer in the Navy, his prospects were probably small and dim. But the heart can't think, it has no brain, it operates on emotion, pure real emotion, and my heart told me this was right, this was good, I loved the man. We would be married.
* * *
The next day Lyle showed up at my door with wedding rings. He solemnly put the engagement ring on my finger and kept the wedding ring in the box. We talked about marrying after I returned from New York.
I flew home and Daddy met me at the airport. As he was carrying my bag I held out my left hand and showed him the ring.
His eyebrow lifted. “What's that? You're engaged? Your mother's going to be surprised.”
I told him about Lyle and how we were very much in love, it was going to be splendid.
Once home I discovered my brother wasn't in a hospital. In fact he just had a broken nose and a bruised ego about wrecking his car. Mama had made it sound like he was dying and I had to hurry home. What a joke. Yet it was her lie that threw me into the arms of the man I'd marry so I guess I can thank her for that.
At home Mama had a conniption as I expected she would. “You can't get married! You don't know him! Are you pregnant?”
Of course she would think that. “No, I'm not pregnant. I'm in love.”
When I insisted I was going to do it no matter what she said, she turned to Daddy and said, “Then we have to buy her a wedding gown and invite Mama from Alabama, and arrange for a church and a reception.”
I groaned inside. I hadn't wanted a big wedding. I just wanted to get married and get on with my life without all the fuss. But Mama would have her way.
Two weeks later Lyle showed up from California. Daddy rented him a tux. My grandmother and aunt came all the way from Alabama. My brother was the best man. We both had to have a counseling session with the Congregationalist preacher who was to marry us. He said to me, “You don't know this boy, not really. Why are you doing this? You don't know if he has insanity in his genetic background, you don't know if he wants children, you don't know anything about him.”
Oh, I could tell this man about insanity in one's background, but Mama was sitting right there so I said nothing.
“I'm marrying him because I love him and I want to be his wife.”
No one was going to talk me out of it.
“Well, I'm against it, but I'll do a special service for your wedding and add in that if either of you have kept any serious secrets from one another, you can get an annulment.”
I wore a thousand-dollar, long satin wedding dress studded with tiny pearls. The satin train was yards long. Mama hired a photographer, but he had a hard time getting me to smile, I was so nervous. I drank a glass of buttermilk, but my stomach was still upset.
Daddy drove me to the church and on the way I looked out at the flowered fields. It was July 28, 1968. I was twenty-one years old and so was Lyle. It was true I didn't know him well. Altogether we'd known one another four weeks. Two in California. Two apart with me in New York, my mother making wedding plans. This whole thing was...crazy. And I never did such crazy things.
“Daddy, I don't think I can go through with this!” My nerves had me jangled and tangled. I was ready to get out of the car and flee across the fields and disappear.
“Oh, that's just wedding nerves. Everyone gets them. You'll be all right. He's waiting for you at the church. We have to go.”
I calmed. I thought about Lyle, his aqua-blue eyes, his wide shoulders and beautifully muscled body. I thought of his humor and his wit. I thought of how he looked at me as if no one else existed in the world. And I stayed in the car until we reached the church.
After the ceremony, we had a small reception at a local restaurant. There was pink champagne and fine food. My Bigmama was there, my Aunt Dean and her son, Robert. It was small and beautiful and memorable.
That afternoon I returned to Mama's house to change into a suit for traveling and Lyle and I drove to Lake George, New York for a one-night honeymoon in a lovely motel near the lake.
At dinner that night he flirted with the waitress and I thought, “Oh no, we're just married and he's flirting!” But I came to know after some time Lyle was a man who appreciated all women and if he could get one to smile, he was going to do it, but his love? His love was all mine. It still is.
This year in 2013, we will celebrate our forty-fifth anniversary.
We're still deeply in love.
I made the right decision. Maybe I was lucky, maybe it was a chance meeting that was meant to be, and, after all, it was Fate. It really doesn't matter why I met and married a man after only knowing him two weeks. What matters is spending a long life together in fidelity and love and friendship. In the end, that's all that ever matters.