Pearle Gay Shepard was a part of our family since the 1920’s. She and my father went to school together, traveled in the same circles in St. Petersburg, and corresponded with each other from two sides of the earth while my dad was in the army during WWII. She saved every letter my father had written her. These pages he wrote her from New Guinea became the autobiography that my dad didn’t live long enough to tell me about in person.
When I first heard about her when I was a kid, I asked my mother, “What happened to that Pearle lady?” She didn’t know. Nobody knew. No one even had a picture of her. She wasn’t in the phone book, and back then that was what our search options were limited to. Mom said, “I’m sure she got married and had a good life.” Well, she was half right.
The letters my father wrote her always started with, “Dear Pearle,” and the collection amounted to about 400 pages. Not all the letters were dated, so it was a big chore, five or six years ago, for me to try to put them in chronological order and then re-read them, start to finish, so I could make sense of the relationship the two of them had. In this pile of paper, there is one single undated page that just reads, “Dear Pearle, I love you, I love you, I love you.” That’s all it says. There is no explanation in any of the other letters as to why he wrote that.
Now I know that my dad wasn’t in love with Pearle, even though she probably had been with him.
Right before I found Pearle in 2010, I Googled “Pearle Shepard obituary” because I didn’t think there could be a chance that she was still alive. But I didn’t get a result until after I removed the word obituary, and then I was floored to see on my computer screen, “Pearle Gay Shepard, 98, West Palm Beach, Florida” and a phone number.
Initially I just figured this was a mistake. I waited a while before I picked up the phone, because I wondered: What is the likelihood that a 98-year-old woman would be healthy enough to take my call? And if she was, what if I told her who I was, and she had a heart attack? And frankly, what are the chances that this is the same Pearle Shepard, who wrote to my father from Tallahassee, Arizona, and California in the 1940’s? How is it possible that someone so well-traveled is living just an hour away from me? What are the chances she never married or took some man’s surname? I pondered all these realities, but I decided the risk of a wrong number was worth an amazing surprise. So I picked up the phone, and a strong voice answered hello.
“Hello, is this Pearle Shepard?” I asked.
“Who’s calling, please?” She snapped. She probably figured I was just a telemarketer.
“Uh, my name is Bill Wiley. Is this the Pearle Shepard who wrote my father in New Guinea during World War 2?”
There was a sustained silence. Then she said cautiously, “Maybe.”
I knew she had been a school teacher, but I had come to class unprepared for the pop quiz she then proceeded to task me with. She asked:
Where did your father go to high school?
What year did he graduate?
Where was he born?
How many siblings did he have, and what were their names?
What did he do for a living?
I think I got all the answers right, except maybe I was off on his graduation date by a year. She, on the other hand, knew all the answers. At 98.
This interaction, the first few things I heard Pearle say, defined exactly the person she was. She may have been ancient, but she was nobody’s fool, and she would never allow herself to be taken advantage of.
We continued talking, and as she realized that I was who I said I was, and I realized that I had found someone alive who not only knew my father, but who gave me the gift of learning all about my father’s history—we both became very excited, although both of us were a little freaked out with disbelief. The odds of this happening were just so miniscule.
During the call she told me that she didn’t go by Pearle anymore. She now went by Gay. I said, “Oh, your middle name.”
“How in the world did you know that?” she asked.
“It’s in the letters,” I said. It was all in the letters.
“What letters?” she asked.
“The letters he wrote you when he was in New Guinea.”
“You read those letters?”
“Yes!” I said. “I still have them.”
It was a little too much to absorb. For both of us.
One thing had been bothering me for years. In those hundreds of pages, there were a few letters from Gay, and it was very clear that she had much more than just a passing interest in my father. But there were a couple of letters from my dad which explained what everyone hates hearing: The “I only like you as a friend” line. So I asked Gay on the phone the question that had been eating at me for years.
“Did my father break your heart?”
She laughed for a second and said, “A little bit. But I got over it. I’ve had a very full life.”
And for the next few years, we did what we could to keep it full.
We read my dad’s old letters out loud and talked relentlessly. We went out to lunch. Delis. Chinese. Mexican. Burgers and sandwiches, salads and soups. Sometimes we cooked and ate in. Once we choked down a botched meatloaf that she relentlessly teased Bill about for months afterward. We had picnics and went swimming and grocery shopped and ran errands. And while we continued to do that, she wouldn’t let obstacles like hearing aids or new dentures stand in her way. Even after she retired her walker and was forced to use a wheelchair, we were still traveling to restaurants, parks, and movie theaters.
The last time we went out, which was Christmas of 2012, we wheeled her out on the floating dock on the Palm Beach waterfront. She was wrapped up in a sweater, and even though it was chilly, you could tell she was loving being outside in the fresh air, bobbing up and down with the rise and fall of the floating dock. The sun was shining and the wind blew her fine, white hair. And it was then I remembered the two-line letter that my father penned to her,
I love you, I love you, I love you.
How could you not love this woman? Even though her vision and hearing were severely impaired, and even though she could no longer bring fork to mouth, she still maintained her sense of humor, her love of the outdoors, and her impenetrable compassion and devotion to her friends whom she made into her family. Even from her bed, and even after turning 100, she maintained her southern charm and protocol, dictating lovely, grateful letters of thanks, congratulations, birthday greetings and her annual Christmas letter. I’m sure everyone here has received a letter at one time or another from Gay, and although I don’t have 300 pages of letters from her, I am so very grateful for the ones I do have. They bring to me an even stronger bond with my father, whom I lost when I was just six.
I’m so grateful and honored that Gay allowed me to be a part of her life, even if it was for just a short time. She didn’t have to. She could have easily held a grudge against my family and not reopened a part of her life that was probably best left on the shelf. But Gay had such strong faith, such compassion, and such a forgiving nature, and I think that she saw that I needed her more than she needed me.
Thank you, Pearle Gay Shepard, for enriching my life. We love you, we love you, we love you.