Love lost, found and lost again

Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2000

WOODBURN, Ore. -- Every morning, Lula's brother lifts her into the living room chair, and she sits there for hours, a blanket draped over her withered legs. She watches TV, or reads, or stares out at the golf course, where dry leaves skitter in the wind.

The days are short and dim now -- so different from last summer, when Lula Johnston, at age 94, walked through a world lit up by love.

Her college sweetheart had found her, 76 years after their first kiss, and romance bloomed once more. They married in June. Five weeks later, a car crash ended their honeymoon.

Now she is alone again.

''I know why you're here,'' she says, straightening in her chair, speaking so the tape recorder catches every word.

She's a curiosity, Lula understands, marrying at an age that most people don't even live to see. But she also knows her story reaches deeper, touching anyone who ever loved and then parted, only to wonder if someday there might be a second chance.

n n n n

In September 1923, Lula Packham was barely 18, a farm girl just starting classes at southern Idaho's Albion State Normal School.

She met Paul Johnston the first day. A second-year student at the two-year teaching school, he stood just 5-feet-4 but carried himself with confidence. He looked tall to Lula, who was 5-feet-2.

They gravitated toward each other at school functions: hay rides, picnics, dances. After one dance, Paul escorted Lula home. He stepped inside, kissed her and then quickly left.

The romance was on.

''I'd gone with boys in high school, but that was nothing,'' Lula says. ''They were just boys. Paul was really my first love.''

Paul graduated the next spring and left to teach at a school in eastern Idaho. Lula took summer courses, then quit school to teach first grade in Malad City, 80 miles from Paul.

For Christmas 1924, he gave Lula a book called ''101 Famous Poems.'' It was bound in leather, with a thin, red-ribbon bookmark tucked to page 107, a poem by Robert Browning called ''Summum Bonum.''

Lula loved that poem, especially the end:

Truth, that's brighter than gem,

Trust, that's purer than pearl --

Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe --

all were for me

In the kiss of one girl.

For two years, Paul and Lula kept up a long-distance relationship, writing letters and seeing each other infrequently. Neither had a car, and telephones were not for idle chat in those days.

Lula loved Paul, but she was puzzled. Since he never spoke of marriage, she started dating others. She assumed Paul was doing the same.

Lula socialized with a group of teachers in Malad City. A math teacher named Laurence Marschat seemed especially fond of her. They spent more and more time together, and she realized she was falling in love with him.

But what about Paul? Near the end of 1926, Lula wrote to him. Larry had asked her to marry him, she wrote, and she was thinking she'd probably say yes.

Paul never wrote back.

Lula didn't know -- how could she? -- that Paul was too heartbroken to reply. She didn't know -- for he had never told her -- that he had planned to marry Lula all along.

n n n n

Lula Packham became Mrs. Laurence Marschat in June 1927.

The newlyweds moved to Oregon, where Larry pursued a career in public education and Lula looked after their growing family. She had three children in all: Laurence Jr., Gerald and Marilyn.

Paul married, too, and he and his wife, Sara, eventually had four children.

Lula wondered about Paul every now and then.

''But he wasn't that important to me at that time of my life,'' Lula says. ''I had a husband, I had three children. I was very, very busy.''

In 1987, Larry died of a heart attack. Lula, age 82, was on her own after six decades of marriage.

Her health was excellent, her mind was sharp, and she didn't feel old. But she found the world made certain assumptions about her. People started speaking loudly to her, even though she could hear them fine. Strangers called her ''Lula'' instead of ''Mrs. Marschat.''

As for the world of passion, well, don't be silly. Old ladies don't fall in love -- even Lula believed that.

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Last April 21, a letter arrived in the mail. It was from Paul Johnston.

''Dear Lula,'' it began. ''I think of you often...''

She called him that night.

He told her his wife had died in 1997. He said he lived in Boise but had family in Oregon, and he wondered if Lula would mind a visitor.

She wouldn't mind at all, she told him.

Lula had wondered how they should greet. With a handshake? With a hug? What was proper? What did she want?

Three days later, the wondering ceased when she saw him at her doorstep. Paul had white hair and was slightly stooped, but he still looked tall to Lula.

''He held out his arms,'' she says, ''and I just walked into them.''

Paul proposed two weeks later, and they married June 10.

''At age 94, time is of the essence,'' Lula says.

The newlyweds were inseparable. They shopped for groceries together. They read poetry to each other. They knew their time could be short -- maybe no more than a year or two -- and they meant to make the most of it.

''When we die,'' Lula recalls Paul saying, ''I just hope we can die at the same time.''

Yes, Lula replied, that would be best.

n n n n

On July 18, Lula woke up ready for adventure. She wanted to pick peaches at an orchard 20 miles away.

Lula drove. About halfway there, along a straight stretch of two-lane highway, an oncoming car veered across the center line.

The crash broke Lula's leg, sternum and several ribs. Paul suffered a dislocated hip, a crushed hand, broken ribs and a fractured vertebra in his neck.

Nurses wheeled Paul into Lula's hospital room for visits, and the two commiserated over the indignity of it all.

''We would have died that day, if they'd just left us alone,'' Lula says.

Their fragile bones mended slowly. Paul was transferred to a nursing home Aug. 8, two days before Lula's 95th birthday. On Sept. 5, Lula moved into Paul's room at the nursing home.

They were in beds 10 feet apart. Lula's legs were paralyzed from a surgical complication. Paul couldn't hear well, and Lula had a bandage around her neck, making it hard to talk.

Two days after Lula arrived, Paul took ill in the night with an infection and high fever. Aides rushed him out of the room, and Lula knew he wasn't coming back.

''I didn't have time to say I love you,'' Lula says. ''As they took him out, I just said 'Goodbye, Paul.' There wasn't anything else I could do.''

n n n n

Paul died Sept. 9. Six weeks later, Lula moved out of the nursing home and in with Willis and Gena, her brother and sister-in-law.

Doctors predict she will walk again, though it may take a year of therapy. Friends tell her things will get better, but Lula has her doubts.

How is life for her now?

''Torture,'' she whispers. ''It's just hard work. I'm trying to survive each day, and hoping I'll do better the next.''

On a nearby table lies an old, leather-bound book. The thin red ribbon is still tucked to page 107, and Lula's visitor reads aloud:

''... All were for me in the kiss of one girl.''

Lula smiles.

On the day she wed Paul, there were showers in the morning, but the clouds soon parted, and raindrops sparkled everywhere. For the next month, it hardly rained at all, and to Lula it seemed as if the world was bathed in a golden glow.

''It was much brighter, happier,'' Lula says. ''Everything was beautiful. It didn't matter that he was old, or that I was. It didn't make any difference. Isn't that funny, what love does?''

David Foster is the AP's Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.

End Adv for Sunday, Dec. 24

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