The long wait was over. A surrender had been signed on the deck of the USS Missouri, and troops were returning home. Bill was one of them. He had survived unscathed from all the hell he discovered in war.
And his purpose in life, his reason for surviving all the blood and guts of combat, and all the separation in time and miles from family and home, was for one person. Hazel.
For Hazel, Bill was like a layaway gift. Back in the days before credit cards, that’s how you purchased things you couldn’t afford right away. The shop put it up in their storeroom while you made layaway payments. After the final payment you could pick it up and take it home.
Each letter Bill and Hazel exchanged while he was away fighting the Japanese was like a layaway payment. The handwritten missives helped preserve their feelings for each other. And when the day finally came where he could step down off that ship onto dry ground forever, she was waiting for him. She picked up her layaway gift and took it home.
They had already been engaged for over four years. Now it was time to plan the wedding. And one of the first orders of business was to shop for wedding rings.
Bill’s strength was his exuberance and unbridled pursuit of all the wonders of life. Hazel loved that wildness about him. But her strength was her self-discipline and circumspect approach to life. Bill recognized and appreciated the fact that he needed someone like her, to keep him from a Gadarene plunge off of some sort of cliff of disaster.
“Pick a nice one!” Bill cajoled. Hazel peered through the glass at all the clinquant shiny circles resting upon their satin beds. She saw many nice ones. But she also saw the price tags. And she knew that Bill didn’t have much money. Military pay was just a little higher than a beggar’s salary in those days, and Bill wasn’t much of a saver, anyway.
“That one, right there,” she pointed. It was a thin little gold band, priced at $11.99.
“Awe, come on Hazel!” he shoved her shoulder kind of hard. “That’s the cheapest one in the shop! Pick a nice one!” He shoved her again. “Pick a diamond, an emerald, a ruby. I want you to wear a gorgeous wedding ring. Come on!” He slapped her on the back goodheartedly.
That ired her. How could she show this damn fool what a stupid spendthrift he was? How could she persuade him to back off with his pushfulness and allow prudence to prevail?
Her temper flared, and she paused and remained silent for a long moment. That was Hazel’s discipline. She refused to act until she calmed down, and could think clearly. Finally a rational idea struck her cooling mind. Hazel stepped over to a spot at the counter that displayed the biggest, brightest, finest, and most expensive ring in the jewelry shop.
“That one, Bill! Buy me that one!”
Bill’s face went instantly grim. “That one? Are you sure?” he murmured.
“Oh yes, Bill, that one! I just love it! Isn’t it gorgeous! I’d just LOVE to have a ring like that!”
Bill shoved his hand in his pocket and fiddled around with a small wad of cash. He gazed hard at the thick, shiny ring with the giant stone. And at the $599.99 price tag. Now was HIS time for a moment of silence. He gulped hard.
“H-Hazel, I-I just don’t know. You know that I love you, and I want you to have anything in the world. But . . . but I just don’t think I can afford this ring.”
The argument was won that day by the self-disciplinarian. Bill swallowed his pride and made the provident choice. He purchased the thin gold band for $11.99.
During the early years of their marriage they had a few more disputes about money. But Hazel’s patience allowed her to gradually rein in her profligate husband, and get the spending under control. And they actually began to grow a little nest egg.
Their love for each other grew also. Who would have thought this odd couple could stay together for so long? But they allowed their disparate qualities to complement each other, rather than clash.
Their tenth anniversary rolled around, and Christmas soon followed. On Christmas morning, Hazel and Bill were pulled out of bed by their excited young son. While the child was tearing open a present, Hazel noticed something in the tree. It was a most unusual looking ornament, small and glittery. She examined it more closely.
What she saw lifted her eyebrows in shock.
It was the ring.
It was the selfsame expensive wedding ring she had picked out at the jewelry store ten years before, to convince Bill to buy the cheap wedding ring.
“Bill! Oh my God! How did you get this?!”
Bill smiled in delight at her. “Honey, you know that I love you, and I want you to have anything in the world that you desire. You wanted that ring, but I couldn’t afford it. So after I bought the cheap ring, I put this ring on layaway. I’ve been making payments on it for the past ten years.”
Fifty years later, Hazel became a customer at my wife’s beauty salon. My wife met Bill and was impressed with the love and warmth of this elderly couple.
Then Bill passed away, leaving Hazel to live alone. After Bill died, Hazel told my wife that her son would call her every evening to tuck her into bed. But one day she lamented that her son was going on vacation, and could not make the ritualistic evening phone call.
My wife offered to stop by her house and do the tucking in. That evening was when my wife spotted the ring. It was pinned to a blouse beneath Hazel’s dress, close to her heart. As Hazel climbed into bed, she explained that her old, withered fingers had shrank too small to retain the ring, but she didn’t want to stop wearing it.
And then Hazel told the story about how she got the ring.
This is how my wife learned about the bigness of a man’s heart. And a story about the power of patience. But most of all, a story about the love of this couple.
Love, with a little help from layaway.