My Darling Wife, Sandra Faye Fernandes, nee Lyday, was born on September 1, 1942 in Port Arthur, Texas. Almost a year before my birth. I, of course, have relentlessly reminded her of her age seniority to me, saying that she fit right into my penchant for older women. I don’t think she ever thought it was funny. Still doesn’t. Her father, James Tilden Lyday, called “Tilt” by all, and his wife, Faye, had reluctantly left their farm in Fannin County, Texas for the promise of a high paying and patriotic job in one of the many petrochemical plants in South Texas supporting the war effort. That didn’t last long, but there Sandra was born. Tilt just couldn’t stay away from the rich, black soil of Northeast Texas and the somewhat mythic rewards of encouraging the earth to produce a crop, so they returned to the small frame farmhouse where she grew to womanhood.
We now live almost exactly where Sandra spent her early childhood on what we call the “home place.” She recalls with the clarity that only age can bring, laying on a pallet under a majestic pecan tree with her sister, Gail, while her mother, Faye, and Tilt worked the cotton patch that surrounded their house. If they were lucky, they would make enough cotton to fill out the few bales they needed for cash for the necessities of life that the land could not provide. The spoils of small black-land farms were physically meager, but provided just enough for them to survive. A garden provided fresh vegetables in the summer, and just enough excess for canning to last through the winter. A ham always hung in the smokehouse for that special meal. And chickens, of course, provided eggs…and when they reached a certain age, became provender for Sunday dinner.
Their farmhouse was set back about a quarter mile from the main road, and when the winter rains closed in, Tilt would load Sandra and her sister onto an old mare and walk them down the dirt road to the sturdier rock road where the schools bus could reach them. Not surprisingly, they didn’t miss many days of school, but a lot of what she learned didn’t always come from textbooks. Growing up in rural Texas was, in itself, a relentless teacher of what one needed to know in order to succeed in life. And she was a good student. She and her mother gleaned the cotton fields for the few extra pounds of cotton that provided the store-bought cloth that became her dresses. I asked her once if she thought of herself as being poor then, but I already knew the answer. In small town rural Texas there were few class distinctions, but she was indifferent to those that may have existed and thought herself the equal of all.
She was active and popular in high school, being selected, in fact, as Most Popular in her senior class. She was Band Queen, head majorette, even first chair trombone in the band, and although I hate to think about it, I’m sure she was highly sought after by the male of the species. I know I would have, sought her, that is – and indeed, later I did. She, like I, became a first generation college student, and while she had the capability to succeed in any school in the land, she headed twenty miles down the road to East Texas State College. Her parents, who had wisdom if not education, insisted that she live on campus even though that added to the cost that they could not easily afford. Their banker, who financed Tilt’s farm needs between crops, summoned Sandra to his office and told her that he knew she would succeed in school and that he would make sure she had the money when needed. And so he did. Sandra became a college student and a good one at that. If you asked her today, she would tell you she could have done better, grade-wise, but, nevertheless, she graduated in three and a half years, worked thirty hours a week in the college library, still achieved a grade point average that I could only aspire to, and had an active social life as well.
Six months after she graduated, we were married, and I wasn’t even old enough to buy beer yet. She was a case worker at the Methodist Children’s Home, and I was sacking groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, struggling to make my grades at Baylor. We had nothing in the way of physical possessions, but we were young, desperately in love and had nothing but hope for our future together. Looking back now with the perspective of over fifty years of life and living together, we had it just right. We trusted each other and we trusted in our ability to make our future together. I’d like to be able to claim equal credit, but I can’t. I often wondered what my life might have been like without Sandra., but, truthfully, I can’t even imagine it. She has been my true north when I was at sea. She provided balance when I was awobble. I could always look to her for the truth I needed when deceit or a lie might have been more convenient. Just think about that. Okay, maybe an unconscious little fib every great while, but about the important things, only the truth. She has been, in every way, authentic to herself and those around her.
I remember with great clarity a conversation I heard her having with the four-star Admiral, then Chief of Naval Operations, at a fancy dinner table at a Washington soiree. As I strained to listen in, I heard her ask, “Now tell me, what exactly is it you do as Chief?” He spent the next twenty minutes telling her of his whole career including his time as commander of the USS Enterprise. Only Sandra. She treats everyone around her, high and low, with the dignity that everyone deserves but seldom gets. She always gives far more than she gets. And yet, she is always at home with herself wherever she is and whoever she is with.
She has taste, style and grace that is both innate and acquired. She has an open mind to everything around her and has never ceased learning about the world and the people in it. She is equally at home in our garden at the farm or at the Tullierie Garden in Paris. She can do a chicken fried steak at Doc’s Cafe great justice, but will never pass up foie gras when it graces a menu. She can still quote from memory Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” in its entirety and enjoy reading a fantasy novel her son recommended to her.
Okay, she isn’t perfect. There are a few idiosyncrasies that should be disclosed. She has never yet put the top back on the toothpaste. She has far too many pairs of shoes she has never worn. Her make up drawer is littered with old receipts blotted with lipstick, and she has been known to hide her purse so well it will never be found. But these are small potatoes in the grand scheme of life and living together. Of course, we both struggle a bit now with those issues that confront those of us lucky enough to have a long life, but we confront them gladly…together. As the fellow said, it’s far better than the alternative.
I believe she would tell you, if asked, that she has had a busy and fulfilling life with more to come. A childhood in the arms of a loving family and friends, an education that she worked (and I mean worked) to obtain, a marriage that has endured, a short but rewarding professional career, motherhood to three wonderful children who have produced eight even more wonderful grandchildren, living and traveling around the country and around the world, and now time and capacity to enjoy it all. Yes, I would call that both busy and fulfilling.
We now spend virtually all of our time together, but we know to accord each other the private space we need. We talk, we reminisce, we look to the future. And from time to time, we still hold hands when we walk.