The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 15, 2013

For Mabel, with Love

'She was my wife; she was my best friend'

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— When Dennis Williams’ phone rang in Clear Creek in May, it was a call he hadn’t expected.

The caller, Lisa Myhrens, told him that she’d been walking with her daughter at the lake, and they’d found a yellow balloon with his phone number on the shore.

Williams was surprised. The balloons had been released on May 3 at Ewing Creek Church in Clear Creek at a memorial celebration honoring his late wife, Mabel Ann Williams.

Mabel, 61, had passed away at the Williams home on March 28, following a battle with breast cancer.

“All the balloons were yellow, because they were Mabel’s favorite color,” said Ewing Youth Pastor Diann Collins, 59, of Clear Creek, an organizer of the event.

Collins, along with her daughters Lisa England and Tena Dunbar and other church members, had helped release 35 balloons, all yellow and tied with a pink ribbon.

Grief-stricken, Williams said he’d attended the balloon release, too, but he had doubted any would make it too far.

“I figured they would end up in a tree or a field, land on the side of the road, nobody would find one,” he said. “I’m thinking this (caller) is somebody over in Beckley somewhere, I’m thinking Lake Stephens.”

Myhrens and her daughter had walked a little farther than usual that day and found the balloon, deflated and tangled on the shores of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, close to Canada.

When Williams heard that Myhrens had discovered the balloon 1,000 miles away, he became “choked up,” he said.

“I couldn’t talk. All I could do was cry,” he admitted. “I wish you could’ve known my Mabel.

“The love she had for her fellow man ... it was breathtaking to watch how she treated people.

“I wish every man and woman would have a marriage like we had.”

So he told the love story of a lifetime.

— — —

Williams was 18 when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam.

He’d grown up in Clear Creek and had a good job working the steel mills in Cleveland when his number was called.

He promised his mom that he’d stay alive.

“I’d never seen a dead body before I went to Vietnam,” he said. “When I got to Vietnam, reality hit me.

He moved up the ranks quickly, earning privileges and extra duties with his commanding officers.

In the midst of the destruction around him, he found solace in bringing mail to his fellow soldiers.

“How we treat others, I think, is how we’re judged by God,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘When you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to Me.’”

He said God spoke the strangest thing to him while in Vietnam: To ask his mom to send a football and a pump.

“God laid it on my heart to get something somebody could enjoy,” he said. “People looked at me like I was stupid, but if you listen, God will talk to you.

“We were 18, 19-year-old kids,” he said. “In one day’s time, that football looked like it was 12 years old.

“That’s all God asks us, to have time for our fellow man, not just walk around them.”

He kept his promise to his mom and arrived back in Clear Creek alive, but traumatized by the war.

“I was so angry,” he recalled. “I was drafted, and in my community, if you were drafted, you went.

“There wasn’t choices,” said Williams. “All the things I had to do to keep me alive, keep my platoon alive ... I left there so dirty, and my mind was filled with so much anger.”

He was at the funeral of a friend in Clear Creek who’d gotten killed in Vietnam when his life changed, again.

“My mind was focused on the coffin and flag and this and that, and the guns went off, and it scared me cause I’d just got back from Vietnam,” he said. “I jumped.”

Embarrassed, he noticed that a “beautiful, young lady” was looking at him.

“She didn’t look at me like I was something dirty or look at me like she felt sorry for me,” he recalled. “She just looked at me with kindness.”

After the funeral, he told his mother that he needed to leave because the funeral had really “gotten” to him.

He added, “But I seen a beautiful young lady, and I wished I’d got her name.”

But before he could leave, Williams had a visit to make.

“My grandfather was my life,” he said. “So I said I better go see my grandfather before I leave.”

He’d just stepped out of the car at his grandpa’s house when he saw the girl from the funeral, standing not far away from him.

“She had a smile on her face,” he said. “All the bad stuff I had to do to stay alive and all the things that troubled my sleep, when I looked at her, I didn’t feel anything but kindness.

“She was like a breath of sunshine.

“I went up to her and said, ‘I’m Dennis Williams.’”

According to Williams, she said, “I know.”

“I said, ‘Who are you?’

“She said, ‘Well, everybody calls me Mabel, but my name’s Mabel Ann Maynard.’”

Williams asked her if she wanted to see a movie, and she said “no.”

“I said, ‘You’re gonna turn me down, huh?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I gotta go home with my mom.’”

From his next duty station, Williams wrote Mabel a letter.

“I told her (in the letter) I was still interested, and she was still on my mind,” he recalled. “I had leave coming, and she wrote me back and told me she would (go out with me).

“From there, we were inseparable. We just liked the same things. I asked her to marry me after two or three months.”

They weren’t married immediately, though.

Mabel didn’t want to leave her mother and father to become a military wife.

After leaving the military, Williams went to Indiana to work for DuPont.

“I worked my way up in six months and was head of a department,” he said. “I asked her to marry me again.”

She said “no.”

“I said, ‘Making the money I’m making? You’ll never see a dirt road, you don’t have to go out and wash the car every day, you don’t have to wash the clothes and hang them on the line and re-wash them because of the dust,” he recalled. “Life will be a lot easier.”

During a two-week visit to Clear Creek, he asked her, “What’s it going to take?”

She told him that if he’d come home, they could talk about it.

“I said, ‘You don’t love me.’”

Williams said Mabel replied, “I do love you, but I don’t want to leave my parents, and you shouldn’t leave your parents.”

“And she didn’t want to leave her church (Ewing Community),” he added. “I said ‘All right.’”

When Williams got back to Indiana, his boss told him he was being promoted to department head in St. Louis, Mo., where he’d get “a good salary and a car.”

With his boss’ secretary watching, Williams told him that he wouldn’t be able to take the job.

“I said, ‘I appreciate the opportunity, I truly do, and I want to give you my one day’s notice.

“‘It might seem silly, but I’m in love, and I can’t stand to be away from her.

“‘I don’t ever want to feel as empty as it feels right now.

“‘I’m going to go home and get me a job, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life making her happy.’”

His supervisor wasn’t impressed by the romantic speech, he recalled.

“I said, ‘Sir, have you ever been in love?’ and (the boss) said, ‘I’m married, aren’t I?’

“I said, ‘Would you turn down a job for her?’

“He said, ‘Not the job I’m offering you.’”

His former boss wouldn’t shake his hand, but when Williams left the office, he said, the secretary was crying.

“She hugged me,” he recalled. “She said, ‘You go home and you make her happy as long as she lives.’

“I said, “You don’t got any worries there.’

“And we had ‘one of those’ marriages.”

— — —

One passion in Mabel’s life was serving veterans.

Williams said when they went in local grocery stores and saw an older veteran in a new hat sitting out front, Mabel sat down and talked to him.

“They don’t sit there with a brand new veteran’s hat for no reason,” Williams said Mabel told him. “They are sitting there hoping somebody will recognize the hat and say, ‘How are you today?’

“I’m going to be that one.”

She’d stop and thank the men for serving the country, said Williams.

“These old guys would just tear up, and she’d hug them and say ‘thank you’ again,” he recalled. “If they started talking, she’d sit down and listen.

“I’m there, leaning on a buggy, thinking, ‘Who but Mabel Ann would take five minutes out of a busy day and sit down and talk?’”

Mabel also started the Veteran’s Day celebration at church and sewed one quilt each year to donate during the veteran’s service.

She had a passion for older people and sewed lap throws for nursing home residents.

“No charge,” said Williams. “I am so amazed at the hearts and minds she has touched.

“She touched me, every day. She taught me so much about how to treat your fellow man.

“She didn’t look at people for what they had done or what they’d been accused of doing,” he said. “She looked for the good in everybody, and she brought out the good in everybody.”

Williams said a lesson Mabel taught him is that “just one word might be what it takes to change” someone’s life.

“Mabel said she asked God all the time, ‘Don’t let me miss an opportunity to tell someone about my Jesus,’” Williams recalled. “She said, ‘The worst thing you can do is let somebody sit and stare out, and think, ‘Nobody sees me.’”

On more than one occasion, a stranger would ask for money while the Williamses were out shopping.

The couple would go to spend time with that stranger at a local fast-food place, buying a meal and spending time talking.

She’d say, on the way home, that she’d cook beans for awhile to save money on what they’d just spent.

Williams said he didn’t mind eating beans.

“She did impossible things,” he said. “She was able to do that because of her love for her Jesus.

“The Bible says, ‘What you do for others, you do for me,’ and that’s how she looked at life.”

As he saw her life of service, Williams also became involved in church functions, he said.

“Everything we did, we did as a family,” he said. “If she went to visit somebody, I went to visit somebody.”

He was proud of her, he said.

“She was my wife, but she was my best friend,” remembered Williams. “When I would go out, and people would see me ... they’d snap their fingers: ‘Oh, you’re Mabel’s husband.’

“And when they said that, my head rose far above everyone else’s, and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’”

Williams said Mabel won both of the two fights they had during their 41-year marriage.

“I never missed a moment telling her how thankful I was that God put her in my life,” he said. “I felt that God loved me so much to let me keep her as long as He did.”

— — —

Just as Mabel was a source of strength for Williams after Vietnam, Williams became Mabel’s strength after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“We went through every treatment together,” he said. “I didn’t drop her off and go somewhere else.”

They went to Charleston more than 200 times during her illness, he said.

During the last eight months of her life, she was bedridden.

Williams gave away the living room furniture and moved Mabel’s bed into the living room so that he wouldn’t have “to go hunt for her” in the bedroom.

Despite a painful vertebrae issue, he slept beside her, on a recliner or a mattress.

“I didn’t want to miss one, not one, moment with her,” he recalled.

As the illness progressed, Williams struggled with acceptance of why Mabel was dying first.

Williams says Mabel helped him to understand.

“She said, ‘Don’t you ever question God about this, because I told Him I wanted somebody to love me and take care of me. I didn’t want to lay in a nursing home by myself. Who else would’ve sat beside my hospital bed and held my hand?’”

Williams said Mabel praised how he had taken care of her.

“I told her that was the soldier in me,” he said. “She said, ‘Yeah, but you do it with love.’

“I said, ‘I’m going to miss you every day. I promise.’”

— — —

When Myhrens called him to say she’d found the balloon, Williams said he called Collins to let her know.

 “It was almost like Mabel was saying, ‘I’m all right,’” said Collins.

Collins added that she and her daughters — including Lisa England, whose idea it was to let the balloons go — have also started a telephone and Facebook friendship with Myhrens.

Williams said he’s enjoyed sharing stories about Mabel with Myhrens, and Myhrens has told him she’s enjoyed learning about Mabel Ann Maynard Williams, and her life in Clear Creek with Williams.

“Mabel’s still touching people's lives,” he said.