Ed Talley always told his children it was love at first sight. He met his wife Evelyn 60 years ago at the old Jubilee Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Calvary CME. That was only a year or two after Evelyn moved to Buffalo from Tennessee, to join two of her sisters.
Evelyn was newly graduated from Lane College, a historically black college in Tennessee. She had spent much of her childhood working in the fields of her parents’ farm, and her aspirations went beyond that backbreaking labor. In search of a career, her sisters first went to Chicago, but the place where they lived, to them, seemed too grim, too gray.
“Too something!” Evelyn said, with her explosive laugh. She followed them to Buffalo and wanted to teach, but the school district would not accept her degree from Lane. Evelyn kept going. She took a job at a drug store and joined Jubilee Temple, forerunner of the church she still attends.
A young man in the congregation noticed her one day, a saxophone-playing, jazz-loving Korean War veteran who had been a high school football standout at Hutchinson Central High School.
“What’s that, honey?” Ed said last week, settled back deeply next to her, on the couch. His forehead and Evelyn's were just inches apart, the intimacy of 58 years of marriage. Ed, 89, has Alzheimer’s, the same disease that claimed two of his brothers. He was devoted to them as they endured that struggle, and Evelyn knows he began to worry the disease might also come for him.
Maybe four years ago, she noticed the early signs. They would be in a store, and he would not recognize an old friend, a small ripple at the onset of a wave.
Ed, a stocky all-high lineman when he played high school ball, began dropping weight. While Evelyn and their daughter, Sandra Ann Talley, help him now with putting on his clothes, Ed still insists that he will climb the stairs himself. He was always a gardener, and sometimes – when Evelyn least expects it – he will walk into the kitchen with a rose he picked for her, from a bush he's tended for years.
At the end of another World Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, in a nation where an estimated 5.7 million Americans live with the disease and countless more cope with the repercussions, Evelyn is certain of one thing.
“I thought if anyone could take care of him and have the patience to do it,” she said, “it would be me.”
Her greatest asset, she said, is the deep and patient support of her children and their extended family, and she has also found respite help from senior services at Erie County. In whatever spare time she finds, she reads what she can about Alzheimer's. Her thoughts go out, she said, to spouses who face this struggle alone.
About 80 years ago, when Ed was a child, he came to Buffalo from Tennessee with his parents. Ed, no relation to Darryl Talley of Buffalo Bills fame, has spent most of his life on Buffalo's East Side, in two houses on Northland Avenue – the one in which he was raised and the one next door, which he lives in with his wife.
“They call him the mayor of Northland,” Evelyn said, near a dining room wall that reflects those deep connections. There is a proclamation from Mayor Byron Brown honoring one of Ed's birthdays, and many plaques proclaiming his devotion to the Masons. Evelyn said he was part of the wedding party on the day civic legends Arthur and Constance Eve were married.
Even now, the mayor of Northland has a favorite vantage point, an old chair on the porch from which he watches the neighborhood.
The house is a duplex, a classic Buffalo home with front porches on two levels. Any thought they ever gave to moving – as they grew older, the stairs began to seem a little steeper – ended when Sandra Ann moved home from Houston to live in the bottom flat, a situation that is ideal for her parents. Their son Timothy, who lives in Rochester, often travels to Buffalo to lend a hand.
Evelyn speaks with pride of her children. She spent 20 years as a teacher’s aide in the city schools, while Ed worked for decades at an old Trico plant. Sandra Ann remembers the warmth of quiet family routines, the trips each Sunday to a Dairy Queen on Niagara Falls Boulevard. She and Timothy grew up knowing their parents asked one thing: Their daughter and son would go to college and build careers, which they both did.
At 82, Evelyn is witnessing a fundamental, reassuring truth: The test of any family is what happens amid long struggle, and her extended family has rallied around Ed. She reached down to touch the wedding ring on her finger, and her husband – suddenly aware – asked what she was doing.
“Do you know where we got our rings?” Evelyn said, thinking back on the days when they first met. He repeated the question out loud, then shook his head with regret. He could not find the answer.
Sandra Ann said her dad never forgets what matters most.
“He’s always saying, ‘I love my wife,’” she said.
Evelyn cares for Ed because she knows, absolutely knows, he would do the same for her. She watched with admiration when her niece, Beverly Pugh, offered endless patience as Beverly's father, John Talley, went through the same disease. Beverly retained humor and patience even as things grew more difficult.
When Evelyn learned Ed had Alzheimer’s, she offered up a prayer.
“I just hope God lets me live long enough to take care of him for as long he needs me,” she said.
Ed, once an early riser, sleeps deeply now for much of the day, and sometimes does not want to sleep at night. At unexpected moments, often in frustration, he will weep. His devotion to his wife is more powerful than ever, and he sometimes grows distraught if she leaves the room.
To her, it is no burden. It is a testament.
“I’m thankful we’re still together after all these years,” she said, “and that we still love each other.”
Evelyn, every day, said she is adapting. Handling Alzheimer’s is almost like learning to speak a language. Often, as she recalled their lives, Ed would ask in a soft voice what she was saying. She would stop to explain, repeatedly when necessary, and the conversation would resume when his attention again wandered.
Sometimes there was a burst of revelation, moments that reaffirm everything to Evelyn. When she spoke of their early days as a couple, for instance, Edward wondered out loud what she was saying. She turned and said to him, “The day we met!”
Their eyes locked, as he tried to understand.
“The day we met,” she said again. Deep within him, something clicked.
“First time I saw her,” Ed said with clarity, speaking to all of us but looking at his wife, “and it wasn’t long after that I was asking who that is.”
Evelyn laughed, deeply moved, but her husband was totally absorbed in the thought. “Oh boy, oh boy,” he said, almost as a song, the awestruck voice of someone who has just witnessed great beauty.
This is Ed's nature. When Evelyn needs it, he still will bring a rose.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.
Story topics: Alzheimer's disease