The first part of this story ran as a Ledger-Enquirer feature article last year, on Sunday, May 6. A love story, it was called "A Rose for Mildred." It was about the lives of Mildred and John McLaurin, who met in high school during the Depression. She moved a continent away. He followed by hopping freight trains and hitch-hiking. Prevented by her relative from seeing her for a long, lonely year in Los Angeles, John showed up when the year ended with a dozen red roses. Once they were married, he presented her with a single red rose, in memory of that day, every third day of September for the next 72 years.
His experiences in World War II convinced John to remain in service. After moving steadily up the ranks, he retired, after 28 years, as a lieutenant colonel, Adjutant General's Corps, then was in real estate in Columbus for many more years. Mildred supported his professional life through years of Army stresses and moves, bore him a son and two daughters, and was famous for good cooking, gardening, a beautiful smile and one of the most sparkling personalities I've known.
I met the McLaurins several years ago, when we learned to our surprise that we came from the same place in North Carolina, had even known some of the same families, but not each other, and now lived just a few miles apart.
We became good friends. John drove over, bearing home grown vegetables, until his failing eyesight no longer allowed it. When I went to his place, he always asked me, using the old-time vernacular, to "come in and set a spell." We would compare childhood experiences, our good old days, even though we grew up years apart. We would talk about people, ideas, current events, hunting, food. John's mind ranged the universe. He made it fun to "set a spell."
When he became virtually homebound, almost blind and using a walker, I began taking my friend out to eat from time to time. Over Chinese buffet food or catfish at Ezell's, we continued to talk about everything. A lot about the Army. A lot about Scotland. John was proud of his Scottish heritage, had visited Scotland, and was immersed in his clan's history.
Mildred's sparkle remained strong, but her health deteriorated drastically. She battled cancer and then the effects of cancer treatments. Last April, at age 92, she died. The last of the 72 roses had been presented, and John's world was instantly and forever turned upside down. He had to move into a retirement home.
We continued to go out to eat. He mostly hid his sadness. He was, after all, as folks used to say, "tough as whit-leather." We still enjoyed our conversations, but it couldn't ever be the same when he knew he was not going home to his life's companion when the evening was over. He might still reminisce about great meals he had enjoyed, but now he ate sparingly. He told me he'd had no appetite since Mildred's death.
He still thought like a younger man, though, eager to learn. He would call me, as he called others, to ask my opinion of a governmental policy, a speech, an idea.
Just a few weeks before his death, age 93, he called me one night to say he'd been thinking about a poem he'd always liked, and wondered if I could remember the name of it. He then recited, flawlessly, the first and last stanzas of "Invictus." I was lucky I could remember the name. He thanked me and said goodnight.
Now he's gone, an unassuming, not famous man, of humble beginnings, who lived a good life in the best sense of the phrase. And helped others around him live better lives than they would have without him. Would that more of us could do that.
Rather than remember John's failing health, his loneliness without Mildred, I prefer to think of him, no longer alone, on a future day. I imagine seeing him and Mildred sitting together on a rocky ledge, watching the sun burn away the morning mist in the highlands of Scotland.
They look happy, and there's no sign of canes or walkers. I'll join them, and we'll set a spell and talk about the good old days, when all of us were young.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."