By Tom Holmes
Doug and Barbara Wyman renewed their wedding vows on Sunday, June 29, during the 9 a.m. Mass at Ascension Catholic Church, three days before their 65th wedding anniversary.
Rev. Larry McNally, Ascension's pastor, presided at the ceremony.
"Doug wheeled Barbara in her wheelchair to the front of the altar," McNally said. "I had a chair for Doug. They sat looking at each other. Barbara is in the state of dementia [her 10th year of Alzheimer's] but she did respond with a 'yes' twice and an 'I do' once. I blessed their rings. The congregation stood with their hands extended in blessing. Then Doug gave Barbara quite a kiss, not a little one but a big juicy one right on the lips. Those in attendance gave them both a prolonged standing ovation."
Upon observing the kiss, Fr. Bob Hutmacher, who had given the homily, said to the congregation, "Hey all you people, pay attention. That's how to kiss a lady."
Mary, who is number five in the birth order of Barbara and Doug's nine children, said that the dramatic kiss was an everyday occurrence in the Wyman household as she was growing up.
"When my father would come home from work," she recalled, "he would take off his hat and take my mother in his arms, tilt her back and do that dramatic, movie-star-type kiss. He seemed to kiss her for a long time. They would both have a twinkle in their eyes.
"When I asked my dad about how to achieve a long and rich marriage, he said, 'You keep falling in love over and over.'"
Learning to dance
Doug and Barbara began the process of falling in love on a blind date in 1947. According to Doug, the first date didn't go too well, and when he told his mother about it, she replied, "Son, if you want to impress the girls, you've got to learn how to dance."
He took his mother's advice. He and Barbara would frequent the Olympic Dance Hall in Detroit where they would move to the music of great swing bands like the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
"Barbara was a great dancer," Doug recalled. "She'd say the only reason she went out with me was that I was a good dancer. About the third time we went out, she said I was a great dancer. After the fourth date, she said, "You're not too bad a guy!'"
Ann Wyman-Amtower, Doug and Barbara's sixth child, tells the story of how her parents fell in love from her mother's point of view:
"My favorite memories were evenings with my mom when she'd make a pot of tea after my three younger brothers went to bed, and she would share stories with me about how she was attracted to my father for his fun-loving spirit," Wyman-Amtower recalled. "She grew up in a strict German household, but an evening at the Wyman home was always full of dramatic antics, storytelling and laughter. My mom would say, 'Your dad can make fun out of walking down the street.'"
Barbara and Doug both grew up in religious families and attended Catholic schools.
"We always prayed before meals and when we went to bed," Doug said. "The prayers were always in thanksgiving. We never asked for a new car or a better bike. My parents would say, 'You don't ask for things like that because God doesn't give away cars or bicycles. You earn them, and you thank God for everything you have.'"
The story of Doug's first communion illustrates his family's spirituality. After he received the sacrament for the first time, the whole extended family came over to their house for a meal to celebrate the milestone. The next day when he went to school, all his classmates were talking about the money they received from their relatives.
Instead of explaining that his family didn't have much money, Doug's mother, who came to the U.S. when she was 18, chose to respond to his questions by saying, "Sure, I don't know what the money is really about except that I do know, me boy, that you are at the age when you actually receive the body of Christ. Now what dollars could pay for that?"
Barbara grew up with an alcoholic father who could be a "good man" when he was sober, Doug said, but it was her mother who held the family together.
"Barbara's mother was very religious," he explained. "She was very involved with the church. Her father insisted that all his children go to Mass, but he never went himself. During the Depression she would make soap to sell or sew or take in children for daycare. Barbara's mother kept the family afloat."
Making ends meet
Barbara and Doug were married on July 2, 1949 on Belle Isle in the Detroit River because it was the coolest place in Detroit in the summer. The invitations said "no gifts, money please" because the couple didn't have the money to pay for rental of the pavilion and the drinks.
"Three months after the wedding," said Doug, "Barbara was pregnant with David. Then came Larry, Mark, Jim, Mary, Ann, Joe, John and Jerry, all in 13 years. I still don't know to this day how she did what she did. I asked her one time if she felt bad that she was a stay-at-home mom and didn't have a job. She replied, 'I have a job. I'm a mother. You try it, buddy, and see how long you'd last!'
"I never heard her say, 'Oh my God, why is God doing this to me?' I think that attitude came partly from the way she was brought up, that Catholic thing. The reason you are getting married is for procreation, and I think part of it was she really enjoyed raising children."
Doug supported the family as a salesman, selling everything from Electrolux Vacuum Cleaners to Kessler Radar sandwiches to garages, sometimes selling all three at the same time. He finally got "a real job," as his wife put it, as a regional sales director for an office supply company, a job he loved and through which he made a good living. His email address to this day is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even so, Barbara would sometimes worry about how they would feed nine children and pay the bills. Ann said that whenever her mother would worry, her father — perhaps remembering what his mother had told him after his first communion — would say, "Barbara, we have nine beautiful children. We are the richest people in the world!"
"Between Barbara's practical nature and Douglas' vibrant enthusiasm," Ann concluded, "they were able to raise a family surrounded by love."
Doug acknowledged that the diagnosis of Barbara's Alzheimer's 10 years ago "was a shock," and he naturally turned to his faith. "I know you're going to help me through this," he recalls praying. "I don't know what lies ahead. I don't know what to do, but I know you're just going to be with me."
He joined an Alzheimer's caregiver group and leaned heavily on people he refers to as his angels.
"This angel here," he said, pointing to Sheila Barnes, the caregiver they hired, "is absolutely fabulous with Barbara. Neighbors will sit with Barbara while I take the dog for a walk."
Members of Ascension parish have put the couple on their "angel list" and bring them a meal once a week.
"When people ask me how Barbara is doing," he added, "I say she is slipping. When they ask if I need help, I say, 'Yup, yes I do.'"
Jerry, the youngest of the Wyman children, said, "Dealing with the effects of the Alzheimer's disease has truly been a labor of love that our family and the church community have embraced."
What is striking to people who are close to the Wymans is that Alzheimer's has not been able to weaken their marriage. Doug tells the story of being in Montana a couple of months ago to officiate at his granddaughter Tessala's wedding. At her request, he had gotten "ordained" online and helped the couple plan the ceremony, which was to be held in her parents' backyard.
Everything was ready except for the weather. Rain was forecast for the big day, and sure enough it was raining when they got up that morning.
"I called home," Doug said, "and talked to Barbara. 'Honey,' I said, 'it's raining and the wedding is going to be on in about 15 minutes. I need to ask you for a special prayer.'"
Sheila said Barbara seemed to understand and put her hands together in the posture of prayer. When Doug got up on the platform set up in the backyard to begin the ceremony, it was still raining, so he held up his hands and said, "Holy Spirit, I know you are listening to my wife, Barbara, and I'm just chiming in with her. Could you just turn off the spigot for about half an hour? It would really be appreciated, and then you can bring it right back again."
"One minute before 3," Doug recalls with a smile, "the rain stopped, and two minutes after the ceremony ended, it began again."
Doug knows he sometimes gets accused of taking after his grandfather who never let the facts get in the way of a good story, so just to prove that in this case he was not exaggerating, he pulls out a printout of an email sent to him by his daughter-in-law Laura.
"Doug," she wrote, "the wedding was fabulous. The people loved the food and the music, but they can't get over the rain stopping one minute before the ceremony and starting two minutes after."
"I thanked Laura," Doug said with a laugh and an authentic Irish accent, "because I can show this to friends who say, 'Ah sure, you're exaggerating again, me boy.'"
When asked if divine intervention played a role in the wedding and other good things in his life, Doug replied, "Did God have something to do with it? I think God has everything to do with it. How? I have no idea how to explain it to you. All I know is that's the way I think and that's the way I feel. Barbara does as well, and she does it in such a natural way. It's just who she is, even now with the physical condition she's going through."
"My mom has always been the glue," said Ann, "so over the last 10 years it has been heartwarming to watch my father step in and take care of the household."
In an email, Fr. McNally said, "Doug is taking such great, great care of Barbara in her illness. When Doug said on their wedding day 'in sickness and health,' He meant it!"
Adds Ann, "Even though my mother has moved toward more advanced Alzheimer's, she still has that sparkle in her eyes when he talks to her. And when I ask my dad how his day was, he answers, 'Lovely, because I was able to spend another day with your mother!'"