Edith YaDeau was born on September 20, 1915. Ten days later, William Stuart Congalton entered the world. Woodrow Wilson was president. Titanic had sunk just three years prior. Our nation was poised on the brink of world war.
William’s mother, a woman he loved more than life itself, died suddenly, unexpectedly, when he was still a young boy. Her death forced William to grow up sooner than expected.
William and Edith first met as teenagers at a church in New Jersey. William was down in the basement recreation room one night when he was drawn to the piano music coming from down the hall. He recognized the young woman with the curly red hair sitting at the piano. They spoke briefly and went their separate ways.
William’s father remarried and this second mother was the opposite of the first. Cool. Cruel. Demanding. The family moved to Richmond, Virginia where things only deteriorated further. William ran away from home at the age of 16 and headed back to New Jersey. He never forgave his father. They never spoke again. Never reconciled.
Living with an aunt, William went back to school and crossed paths again with the girl with the curly red hair. They stayed in touch and eventually began dating, both getting retail jobs in New York City.
William and Edith were married on Easter Sunday, 1939 at the local Presbyterian church. They drove to Washington, D.C. for their honeymoon, not bothering to make hotel reservations. April in Washington, D.C. without reservations. They did, however, manage to get the very last available hotel room in town.
Edith became pregnant in 1942. The baby was named James. He lived exactly four days before dying from spina bifida. His name was never mentioned until a family history was published in 1995.
The country was again at war. William enlisted in the army and was sent to South Carolina. He never could quite figure out how to shoot a rifle and his commanding officer took sympathy on him. The rest of the guys shipped out to Europe. William was sent to upstate New York to do public affairs work.
After the war, William returned to retail. Edith gave birth to Bruce, then John, and finally David. Three sons. They bought a small house in Teaneck, New Jersey. Things looked promising.
Then a spate of bad luck began. William somehow decided that his destiny lay in Spokane, Washington so they sold their house, moved the family across country to a place where they knew no one. It was a terrible, horrible mistake. William lost his job after one year. They had no money. They had to sell all their belongings. William scoured the West Coast for another job. Nothing. Swallowing his pride, he telegraphed back East and borrowed $100 to bring his family home.
Back in New Jersey, the family moved in with relatives. Then another curve ball: five-year-old David was diagnosed with congenital cataracts and required four major, expensive, surgeries to save his eyesight. William had no insurance. No savings account. No collateral. But somehow he persuaded an up and coming ophthalmologist at the top hospital in New York to operate on his son.
In 1960, William, still infected by wanderlust, brought his family to Chicago. William and Edith would live there for the next 24 years. They always rented. Edith never bothered to learn how to drive a car. She remained totally dependent on her husband.
These were dark days. Childhood demons chased William through a variety of retail jobs. He drank. They argued. He drank some more. They kept to themselves and didn’t have many friends. But they remained devoted to their three sons
Bruce became an engineer, then a vice-president for Mitsubishi. John went to Harvard and practiced law. David wandered a bit, but eventually settled into radio and writing.
William finally retired from retail in 1982. He made $11,000 that last year. He and Edith moved to Seattle. Two years later, William suffered a heart attack and had quintuple bypass surgery. Doctors warned him that he would die if he kept drinking. He stopped and a kinder, gentler William magically emerged.
William and Edith grew old together. The demons went away and love blossomed anew. The two became inseparable. They celebrated their 50th anniversary and then their 60th and even hit their 68th.
They left Seattle for Los Angeles in 1999. Their last hurrah. William had a stroke in 2005. Edith suffered a mild stroke one year later.
So now their lives are confined to a single room they share in a nursing home in Los Angeles. Two beds. Two dressers. Two closets. One bathroom. They were born ten days apart in another century; they’ll likely die ten feet apart.
Hollywood would not be interested in this story. William and Edith didn’t live happily-ever-after. They didn’t ride off into the sunset together. There is no possibility for a sequel.
But if you want to understand love, true love, read this story again. William and Edith had so little and endured so much. Yet they’ve never been closer than they are today.
To me, that’s a happy ending.
SLO City News (May 2007)
Author’s Note: William Congalton died on February 12, 2010. Edith YaDeau Congalton passed away on January 23, 2013. R.I.P.