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Sweethearts

April 16, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN

Last December, more than 60 years after she met Malcolm Manning at a church tent meeting near Callaway, Va., Jessie Humphrey sent him a Christmas card.

She didn't know his address. "I just guessed at it," she said. The card went to and from Lynchburg, Va., a couple of times before Manning's daughter-in-law, a post office employee, saw his name and sent it to the right place. "See how the Lord works things out?" the 78-year-old Hagerstown woman recently asked.

She included a note that read, in part: "I think about you often. I have sweet memories of the wonderful times I spent with you as a teenager." She went on to say that although many changes have happened, "I still can't keep you out of my mind."

She wished him good health, a good Christmas and God's blessings.

Manning responded with a card and a note of his own: "Dearest Jessie, You gave me a big surprise, although I think of you a lot. I hate what I missed not having you like I should."

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His wife had died three years earlier, but not knowing if his childhood sweetheart was married, he asked if he could write to her without making trouble for her. He closed with: "I still have love for you, and don't you forget it."

Humphrey's hands were trembling as she opened the card. After all those years, she remembered Malcolm Manning's handwriting. The pair exchanged three letters apiece.

What happened next?

After a few weeks, Manning came to Maryland for her. "I can't figure out how it all came around," he said with a grin.

Although she was just 16 and he 14 years old when they met, Jessie Guilliams and Malcolm Manning were in love and hoped to marry someday. Their families' farms were seven miles apart, and Manning occasionally walked those seven miles to visit his sweetheart. Another young lady lived closer, and Jessie learned Malcolm also visited her. Jessie didn't visit Malcolm, because, in rural Virginia in the 1930s, girls didn't do things like that, she said. "I figured the other girl had him, so I let go. But it didn't kill my love."

Neither did the passage of six decades.

Earlier this year, Manning took the bus to Hagerstown. Although they had run into each other a few times over the years, they had not kept in touch. It took them a few minutes to recognize each other, but when they did, the years melted away.

"Sister Jess" surprised the Rev. Gregory Tyler, pastor of Church of God Universal in Hagerstown, when she asked him on Wednesday, Feb. 18, to perform a wedding ceremony for her and Manning. Tyler asked her when - thinking it would be in April or May.

"Tomorrow," was her response.

"Tomorrow?" he asked.

"We've waited all these years. We don't want to wait anymore," she said.

The service in her Hagerstown living room was simple, with a few friends and family members present. Humphrey's daughter got a bouquet of roses, but the bride was so excited she forgot to hold them.

As Malcolm Manning, 76, recited his vows, there was something about the look in his eyes that was just like a teenager, according to Tyler. The Mannings are the oldest couple he's ever married.

One of Jessie Manning's seven children, daughter Norma McPherson, lives in Hagerstown and was present at the wedding. She is thrilled for her mother.

"I have never seen her more happy than she is right now. She just glows," McPherson said.

Before the wedding, she expressed some concern. Her mother is always "going and traveling and can work circles" around her. Malcolm Manning had triple bypass open heart surgery. Her mother's response was to tell her as long as she has Malcolm, she'll be happy to take care of him the rest of her life.

McPherson said her new stepfather always has been part of the family. She and her siblings always knew about Malcolm Manning, their mother's "first love."

Jessie Humphrey spoke of "changes" in that Christmas card to Malcolm Manning. They weren't the kids of a long time ago. She had been married and divorced twice and has seven children.

Manning was wounded in France during World War II, also had seven children - six still are living - and lost parts of several fingers when he worked at a furniture factory.

There were some hard times, but their love survived.

The newlyweds are enjoying their life together. They've discovered they both like doing word puzzles and eating Whoppers from Burger King and fish from Long John Silver's. He has a new Dobro guitar and is learning to play.

Their favorite song is Alan Jackson's "Livin' on Love." Its last verse tells about two old people, side by side, "livin' on love."

"If you don't have love in your life, you don't have anything to live for," Jessie Manning said.

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