RALEIGH — In 1945, after serving in the Navy, Bob Gardner made his way into a post of the United Service Organizations on Morris Street in Durham.
Betty Mooney was on the dance floor that night, and Bob worked up the courage to ask for a dance. It’s a good thing he did. The two wasted no time becoming close friends, and Betty became Mrs. Gardner two years after they first met.
The couple was married for more than six decades, living much of that in Raleigh. They were separated by Betty’s death last July. After the funeral, Bob found a vivid reminder of their journey together: a black-and-gold tin box, filled with journals of poetry and letters written by Betty over the years.
Bob compiled a book he printed for friends and family members.
“This is an attempt to recapture the magic, the ecstasy and dreams of young love found in the collection of Betty’s poems and letters,” he wrote.
‘Before My Time’
Among the letters and poems were several written to and about past loves. Instead of tossing those aside and pretending no one else existed, Bob put those thoughts at the front of the book in a section titled “Before My Time.”
“They were a part of her life, a part of who she became,” he said. “That was all before my time with her.”
Betty wrote poems about high school sweethearts in 1942 and the ones that got away.
Just a couple of months before meeting Bob, Betty wrote about some of the guys she met while working events at the USO:
Although I sit at home tonight,
My heart is really doing all right.
It’s climbing mountains, crossing streams,
Counting stars, dreaming dreams.
While I sway in a rocking chair
My heart packs a bag
And goes out there on the ship and train, bus and car,
My heart’s always where you are.
But then Bob wandered in that night, and “none of them mattered anymore,” he said. “It didn’t take long.”
After the war ended and USO posts closed, Bob wrote a letter from his hometown of Columbia, Tenn., where he was spending the summer tending to his family farm.
He ended by saying, “Write and tell me how things are going – if you are still working or married? Give me all the latest dope.”
She was working, but she wasn’t married.
Spring of 1947
“We started going steady that fall, and we never stopped,” he said.
They traded Christmas Day letters that year, him writing from Columbia and her from Durham. They were engaged the night he returned to Durham for a final semester of law school.
She wrote a poem a week later called “Time”:
Time is an apple
I eat bite by bite
Little by little
Until you’re in sight.
Time is a song
Sung bar by bar
At the point where you are.
1950: back to war
The couple married in 1947, but Bob returned to the Navy during the Korean War.
The first of their five children was born in his absence. He wrote her one Sunday night:
“I didn’t start this letter to talk about what we have been doing here but rather to write how much I love you.
“Tuesday will be your birthday. …
“The gifts cannot begin to tell you how much I love you and how much I need you. I really wonder how you have put up with me at times when I think how overbearing I have been at times – forgive me Bet.
“I love you so much. … We feel so much alike about everything and this helps me so or else I would think I was so peculiar.
“When I think that I have you and Carl, I can’t complain. Everything else is minor. I want to be a good husband and father.”
2013: until we meet again
“Society has changed a lot, and I don’t think it’ll go back,” said Bob, now 87, from his apartment in Springmoor.
“I’m not saying it should. The time was good for us, our relationship was more good than anything.
“But a lot of women were pawns in the hand of men. Now they’ve been liberated, and that’s a good thing.
“But I don’t think it would have mattered if we were young then or now.”
Kevin Gardner, the youngest son, said the end reveals what it really meant.
They had ups and downs just like any couple, financial troubles that came and went, clashes because of his father’s stern and lawyerly personality, Kevin said.
“They didn’t bail out just because something bad came along. They didn’t give up on each other. That’s what true love is – what you do when things are bad.”
These days, Bob enjoys politics and stays apprised of what’s going on in the world. He reads the paper, writes letters to the editor and stays involved in the community as he can.
Of course the kids and 11 grandchildren keep him busy.
But it’s been tough.
“Going back through the letters and things, it’s almost like talking to her. It’s sad and emotional, but it’s also therapeutic,” he said. “You can’t understand unless you’ve lost a spouse. You just can’t understand.”