WWII – 75th anniversary with a wedding that great-grandparents never had

“As people grow up in Appalachia, they are cradled in the arms of mountains and valleys. We are as familiar with the woods, rivers, and hidden hollers as we are with our names. It’s no surprise, then, that the love that has been built here feels old and sacred. My great-grandparents have the kind of love that fairytales are made of sweet, eternal love. Their love story has always been a triumph in our family, a brilliant example of what it means to discover your soulmate. Their devotion to one other and their ever-growing family remains unrivaled after 75 years of marriage and nearly a century on this planet.

couple holding each other close on a pier by a lake
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Great-grandma Lorraine and Great-grandpa Ulysses (nicknamed “Kenvil” by his family and friends) were born in the early twentieth century. Lorraine, my great-grandmother, was born on June 2, 1929, and is now 92 years old. Great-grandpa Kenvil was born on December 6, 1926, and will turn 95 in December 2021. Great-grandma was a state-sponsored youngster who grew up in foster care with her older brother, Henry Bias. Great-grandpa came from a long line of Dawsons who had lived in West Virginia for generations. They met for the first time in fifth grade at Sissonville Elementary School, and their story together began not long after that. Lorraine was immediately drawn to Kenvil because of his passion for God and his family, but they didn’t start dating until a few years later.

They weren’t permitted to go on dates without a chaperone when they were young teenagers. Great-grandpa had to be escorted outside the house if he wanted to take Great-grandma out on a date, which was usually Lorraine’s older brother, Henry. Great-grandma invited Great-grandpa over to her house for their first date to listen to The Grand Ole Opry in the family living room together. Their courtship lasted until 1943, when Great-grandpa entered the army during World War II. Great-grandpa was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for four years but returned to West Virginia on leave in August 1946.

During World War II, people in the United States hurried to marry and have children with their darlings. They intended to solidify their links with one another to be forever linked even if they died while serving. My great-grandparents were in the same boat as me. When my great-grandfather got home on leave, he and my great-grandmother decided that they couldn’t wait any longer to marry. They lacked the financial means and the time to organize a significant gathering of relatives and friends.

old photo of the couple from when they first met
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Their wedding was a small, peaceful affair in which they swore to devote themselves above all things to God and each other. My great-grandfather was dressed in his military uniform, and my great-grandmother was dressed in a lovely crimson gown with white polka dots. As witnesses to their marriage, only Great-older grandpa’s brother, Clyde, and Great-childhood grandma’s best friend, Emmagene, were there. In their view, the small ceremony was ideal at the time.

Great-grandpa had to return to his military service for another year before being honorably discharged, so the happy couple couldn’t spend as much time together as they wished. Lorraine agreed to reside with Kenvil’s family on Cicerone Road, the original Dawson settlers’ homestead site, until Kenvil ended his duty. Great-grandma, who was just 17 years old at the time, was nervous and sad as she awaited her new husband’s return from the war.

The delicious delight and balm she received in 1947 was Great-return grandpa’s home. After years of waiting and worrying, the two were finally reunited permanently as husband and wife.

The new couple faced many challenges and tribulations years after their marriage, but they rode the storm of their poverty with faith and grace. Great-grandpa worked various jobs after returning from the war to support his increasing family. He lay asphalt, worked in glassblowing and worked on the docks for a firm named Bell Lines, for whom he would eventually serve as a truck driver. The first of their ten children, Gary was born in 1948 to Great-grandma and Great-grandpa.

great greandparents hugging and being cute on holiday
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Laverna, Neil, Vivian, Randy, Rita, and my Mawmaw, Judy, were born in the 1950s. Timmy, Janet Marie, and Donna, the youngest siblings, were born in the early 1960s. Janet Marie was born prematurely and died at barely six days. After Janet Marie’s birth, Great-grandma became ill with an infection, and it took her nearly three months to fully recover. Great-grandpa was her rock throughout it, providing her with all the love and support she required.

It was usual in rural Appalachia for most individuals to give birth at home with the help of midwives. Even today, hospitals are few in West Virginia, so Great-grandma and Great-first grandpa’s three children were born with the assistance of a midwife. All of their children were delivered to a hospital from Randy to Donna. However, Vivian, their fourth child, was an outlier. The region along the Poca River where they lived was entirely inundated when Great-grandma gave Vivian birth.

The family didn’t have a car at the time, so their only forms of transportation were their own two feet and a boat. So, while still in labor, Great-grandma started on foot to find a suitable location to deliver her baby girl. She had unbelievable strength as she walked and paddled for miles down the enormous, flooded river. She gave Vivian to the Salvation Army after a long and painful journey. Great-love grandma’s for her family, her confidence in God, and her husband’s support motivated her to keep going even when circumstances became terrible.

The Dawson family as a whole was a force to be reckoned with. Their living conditions were less than ideal, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, when their homes lacked luxury housing features. The family utilized an outhouse as their lavatory, and a giant hole in the floor served as the family’s natural refrigerator. Great-grandma had washboards and a tub in which to do laundry. Great-grandpa toiled at his various jobs, while great-grandma cared for their nine children at home. The vast family’s first few homes were frequently too tiny to accommodate them all. My Mawmaw Judy remembers the older kids sleeping in dresser drawers in their parents’ bedrooms when they were little. Their initial home was small, with only one bedroom and three rooms.

New home for the Dawson's and their nine kids.
Courtesy of Harley Crites

When Great-grandpa joined the Teamster union as a truck driver in the mid-1960s, things started to look up for the family. The family was able to move into a house with more modern amenities due to the union salaries, a house on King Street that the children affectionately referred to as a mansion.’ The King Street home resembled a mansion to the enormous family who had previously lived in such cramped quarters.

For the first time, the family had a home with an inside bathroom, hot water, and enough rooms for the siblings to sleep comfortably segregated by gender. My Mawmaw Judy laughs as she recalls the children squabbling over who got to use the shower first so they could soak up the hot water. Great-grandma and Great-grandpa were relieved that their financial situation improved with time. Their efforts in raising their children and advancing their careers paid off handsomely.

They’ve had the good fortune of seeing their family grow—their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren having children of their own. Their affection for one another established the foundation for generations to come. For decades, Great-grandma and Great-current grandpa’s house on Harmons Branch Road has served as the focal point for family gatherings and festivities. Generations of youngsters have enjoyed corn hole in the front yard, bordered by Great-brilliant grandma’s flower beds.

Kids dashed from the old tyre swing outside the property’s crumbling one-room schoolhouse to the massive barn a few yards away, trailed by old barn cats fighting for attention. If we were lucky, Great-grandpa would take us into his woodworking shed and, over the screaming shrieking of machines, exclaim details about the wood he was carving—he crafted gleaming bowls, cups, and dishes, rewards made especially for us.

couple taking a photo at an event
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Great-grandma, aunts, and cousins would swarm the kitchen in the evenings to prepare dinner. The kids sat on the well-worn living room carpet, playing with whichever elderly dog happened to be in the house at the time. When I was younger, Bingo, a droopy-eyed basset hound, was my pet. Sugar, a small mutt with enough enthusiasm to rival the sun, grew up with the grandkids younger than me.

The house is brimming with old images of Great-grandpa and Great-earlier grandma’s years, as well as the family they formed; their memories are woven like a tapestry across every room. The love in that house is palpable—you can hear it in the way Great-grandma and Great-grandpa tease each other, in Great-sudden grandpa’s harmonica solos, and in the quiet conversations between Great-children, grandma’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren as we all sit together in the front porch’s shade.

On the same porch, Great-grandma, Mawmaw Judy, and Mawmaw Judy’s daughter, Bethany, and I started talking about what Great-grandma and Great-grandpa intended to do on their 75th wedding anniversary. Great-grandma decided she wanted to have the church wedding that she had missed in 1946.

couple sitting on the stoop of their new home
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Bethany contacted aunts, uncles, and cousins to ask if they wanted to help arrange the wedding. Vivian, Rita, Timmy, and his wife, Sandy, Donna’s daughter, Tia, Gary’s daughter, Melonie, and my Aunt Bethany were in charge of the preparations. Because yellow is one of Great-favorite Grandma’s colors, Bethany chose yellow for the wedding colors, and the wedding planning began in earnest.

However, there were a few stumbling blocks on the way to the wedding. Gary was hospitalized with COVID a week before the planned initially August celebration. The ceremony was postponed while Gary recovered since Great-grandma wanted him to escort her down the aisle as her eldest son. The wedding was rescheduled for early October to hope that everyone would be well enough to attend.

Laverna created the lovely bouquets, while other family members purchased a duplicate army outfit for Great-Grandpa to wear. For the first time in her life, Great-grandma wore a wedding gown from David’s Bridal, which the family assisted in selecting.

Great-grandpa wears replica WWII uniform to celebrate his years in the service.
Courtesy of Harley Crites

The ceremony, which was officiated by Reverend Mayford Witt and a family member, Chris Wills, was held at Reverend Mayford Witt’s church, God’s Lighthouse Church, to honor Great-grandpa and Great-life-long grandma’s commitment to their family and each other. Gary Jr. contacted many television stations, seeking to share this once-in-a-lifetime love tale with the rest of the globe. WCHS quickly responded and went to the wedding to cover the memorable occasion.

couple holding hands at their wedding
Courtesy of Harley Crites
Great-grandparents feed each other wedding cake.
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Even though my Aunt Bethany and several other family members were unable to attend the ceremony due to COVID, they could watch the wedding through live stream and join in the celebrations. As she was taken down the aisle to meet her husband, Great-grandma was all smiles and excitement. Great-grandpa exuded the same joy when he saw her approaching, and tears welled up in his eyes.

Cousins were reunited for the first time in years at the wedding celebration packed with family. Five generations gathered to honor Great-grandma and Great-love, grandpa’s, weathered trials such as war and poverty. Great-grandma and Great-grandpa lived and thrived because of their faith in God and one another, leaving a legacy of devotion, laughter, and strong wills for future generations.

‘A partnership is not 80/20; it’s 50/50,’ Great-grandma stated when asked what advice she would provide to couples wishing a good marriage. And that has always been the tale of my great-grandparents’ love—the even, constant give and take, the sureness with which the tide hits the shore. In fairytales, eternal love can only exist if founded on mutual compassion, respect, and determination. My Great-grandma Lorraine and Great-grandpa Kenvil are deserving of this beautiful love story.”

couple kissing at their vow renewal
Courtesy of Harley Crites

Is there someone you know who would benefit from reading this? SHARE this story with your family and friends on Facebook.

Facebook Comments