When I was young, at least one out of every three visits to my grandparents’ house involved me asking to hear their love story. My grandpa would smile softly and lean back in his chair. He enjoyed hearing Grandma tell the story as much as I did.
As she got older, some of the details got fuzzy. Her memories would get tangled and the story would be muddled by, “No, that’s not right,” and, “Well, I suppose that actually happened after this.” But no matter how confused she got, the story always started the same way: “15-year-old Betty Twillman had her life mapped out to a T.”
“I had a plan,” Grandma would say. “I was going to finish high school, and then I was going to go to college. I didn’t see myself going steady with any of the boys at the high school, so I decided that finding a husband could wait until after I got my teaching certificate. I’d get comfortable in the classroom while I searched for a man fit to marry. Then I’d get married, have a couple children.”
At this point, she always liked to interject that her plan was tethered to the belief that it was important to be a life-long learner. Yes, she would learn at school. But once she was done with college, she would need time to learn how to be a good teacher. Then once she was married, she’d need time to learn to be a good wife before she could, God willing, learn to be a good mother. Of course, she’d continue learning in all three stations of her life, but her 15-year-old self was certain it would be much more manageable if she added each job one at a time.
“Of course, before I managed to start that degree, something happened. I was three days away from my 16th birthday, I was in the middle of a very good book, and then suddenly, I met my plot twist. His name was Martin Byrd.” She would look straight at Grandpa, the corners of her lips stretching up toward her warm, happy eyes, and she would continue, as if he weren’t in the room. “You see, Marty Byrd was new in town and rather handsome. We bumped into each other a few times. Eventually, he asked if he could walk me home after school. He accompanied me on my walk every day for two weeks before I learned that he lived in the opposite direction.
“When he asked me to let him take me to dinner, I said ‘Yes,’ even though it interrupted my plans. When he asked me to be his girlfriend, I told him I was going to go to college. He said he knew, he thought it was a great idea. So, I agreed to a more official courtship. I told myself my plan wasn’t truly changing.”
At this point in the story, my grandma would sit up straighter as if she was preparing herself to relive the fears and uncertainties of Grandpa’s military service. “After six months of going steady, he told me he was going to enlist. It was short term. He promised he’d be back in time for my high school graduation.” Even 65 years later, my grandma’s eyes got shiny as she described waiting for him to come home. But young Marty Byrd kept his promise. He was there to watch Betty Twillman accept her diploma. And then he asked her to accept a ring and a name change.
“This was the difference between when he asked me to be his girlfriend and when he asked me to be his wife: the second time around, I didn’t even think about what would happen to my plan. I simply said ‘Yes.’ There was no other answer.” And the smile that always accompanied that memory made it clear to every listener that she was telling the truth. Betty Twillman never had a moment of doubt that this change in her plan was exactly what she wanted.
My grandparents got married nine months later. Within a year, Grandma was pregnant. Three beautiful children later — that was the other consistent piece of the story, the children were always beautiful — she finally went to college.
“Betty Twillman believed that by 29, she would be a seasoned teacher, married five years, a mother of toddlers. But by 29, Betty Byrd had been married a little over a decade, her oldest child was almost ten and she was proudly accepting her teaching certificate. And I’ll let you in on a secret, she couldn’t have been happier.”
My grandma was a strong believer in plans when she was a child. She wanted to plan everything — she thought she could plan her whole future. But she found that just like the plot twists in her favorite novels, the things she hadn’t planned brought her life the most vibrant happiness. In her career as an English teacher, she told her students that surprises and changed plans could make all the difference in a story.
“One of the beautiful things about these surprises is that sometimes they even surprise the author,” she’d tell them. “And those are the best surprises of all.”