50 Years

Written by Lydia Benedict.


Fifty years ago today, my parents were married. It was 1966 and the world was changing. Women were attending college in record numbers. Civil Rights laws were being passed. Students around the world were protesting the Vietnam War. Yet in Farmington, New Mexico, Shirley Jackson and Dwight Hansen were in love. Tall and handsome, Dwight was head-over-heels for the feisty, pretty Jackson girl. But Dwight was very shy. Shirley had to take the lead.

“If I had waited for Dwight to ask me to marry him, we’d never gotten married,” my mom once said.

“We had gone on a few dates, but he never even held my hand,” she explained. “Then we went to the drive-in to watch a movie. That’s when I reached for his hand.” Too shy to move forward, Dwight had been ready to give up on Shirley, he later confessed. That night at the drive-in was to be their last date. Shirley had unknowingly saved their relationship.

Shirley also recalled their first kiss—just a peck on the cheek. “He said goodbye, kissed me on the cheek, and was back in his car and down the road before I’d realized what had happened.” But those early years were carefree. They enjoyed fishing together or riding on Dwight’s scooter. Sometimes they even drove Dwight’s green and white ’54 Chevy three hours to Durango, Colorado, to waterski. Dwight parked on an incline so he could start the car by popping the clutch.

Dwight graduated high school a year before Shirley. In light of the Vietnam War and the draft, Dwight and two of his brothers joined the Army Reserves on the same day. They also bought a small, two-seater airplane together. Dwight had sold his scooter to help pay for it.

During Shirley’s senior year, it wasn’t unusual for Dwight to pick her up after school. One day as he waited for her, he knew he would marry her. Still, proposing scared him. Once again, Shirley pushed him. “We were coming out of the movies one night,” she said. “We walked right by a jewelry store on Main Street. I just told him which ring I wanted.” Then one day, as Dwight was boarding the bus headed for his Army Reserve training, he handed her the ring. “Well, that’s not the most romantic proposal,” Shirley told Dwight. But at least they were engaged.

On April 18, 1966, Dwight and Shirley married in the Mormon temple in Logan, Utah. They were only 19 years old. Almost two years later, they had their first child. It was December 1967 and they were living in Washington where Dwight worked for Boeing. But Dwight’s parent needed help running the family motel so they returned to Farmington. That’s where I was born.

Douglas and Lydia with Dad

Those early years of marriage included many moves. By the time their third child was born they were living in their own house in Lake Stevens, Washington.

Lake Stevens

After my father completed three-months of schooling in Virginia to become a helicopter mechanic, my parents moved for the last time. When they settled into their new house, it seemed big. But it wasn’t. It was only 1,300-square feet. There was one bathroom, no basement, and the attic consisted of a crawl space.

New house under construction

By then, my dad crafted sheet metal to repair helicopters for the Army—something he would do for the rest of his working days. On weekends and in the summer, he fulfilled his duties to the Army Reserves where he worked as a cook. He brought home surplus cartons of milk and cold cereal, practically dessert in the Hansen home where powdered milk was the norm.

Army Camp Army Chinook

In the Reserves, he also served as the flight crew chief on helicopters and chinooks. He was even aboard a chinook that went down due to engine problem. But Dad loved flying. I still remember him taking us to see a nearby airshow where we could climb aboard small airplanes and watch flying stunts overhead.

The family had grown quickly: by 1979 we were up to seven children and the little house was full.

Top left to right: Mom, Douglas, Lydia. Middle row from left: Kimber, Dad, Paul, Robin. Front: Ethan (infant) and Travis

Waiting for the bathroom became standard procedure and each tiny bedroom housed multiple children. It was time to add on to the house.

Construction of addition

We gained a den, another bedroom and a comparatively spacious living room. But the most important addition was a second bathroom. I was in eighth grade when my youngest sibling—child number nine—was born. By that point, I was like a second mother.

Callie and K.C.

With a large family and a small budget, an annual garden was a necessity. Ours was huge: 50’ x 100’. Each spring my dad would revive the old rototiller and turn over the dirt. I loved walking behind him, my bare feet touching the warm soil as I tried to step into each footprint he left behind. We grew as much produce as we could including carrots, green beans, cucumbers, and an abundance of zucchini. But my favorite was the raspberries. They were a lot of work to prune, weed and harvest—we picked gallons every other day for weeks—but there was nothing like fresh berries, raspberry jam, and raspberry cobbler.

My sister Kimber and I also helped my mom can everything from green beans and tomatoes to peaches and pears, which my mom ordered in bulk from eastern Washington. And in the Hansen home, bulk meant stacks of boxes filled with produce. We canned for weeks.

From left to right: Paul, Robin, Ethan, Callie, KC (in the cannon!)

Although we worked hard, life was good. Kimber pointed out recently as we looked at childhood photos that Mom and Dad made sure we had fun too. Whether it was a family picnic, campout or a water fight, we spent lots of time together. Water fights were serious stuff: there was no such thing as water guns. Instead we used buckets and hoses. And my mom was always in the thick of it. One time, my dad was climbing a ladder to use the top of the house to his advantage. Mom ran inside the boys’ bedroom, opened the window, and threw a bucket of water at Dwight. My dad then ran into the house, water still dripping off him, and poured his bucket on Shirley. Needless to say, the boys’ room got a little wet that day. Water fights were a rite of passage; the bigger the bucket the better. The record breaker was a 50-gallon trash can!

“When you got wet, you got wet!” Shirley recalled.

After a waterfight

I was lucky to have grown up with parents who loved each other. Even today, their love is obvious. My dad suffered a debilitating stroke in his early 60’s which left him partially paralyzed. Even worse, it robbed him of his ability to speak. But that hasn’t stopped him from communicating—especially with my mom. He speaks with his eyes now, she explains. I agree: I’ve seen the way he looks at my mom. It’s the same way he’s always looked at my mom: with love and adoration.

Due to complications from his stroke, my dad’s right leg was amputated just above the knee in 2013. On a recent visit with my parents, I observed just how much my mom does each day to care for my dad. I was tired just watching my mom’s routine for attaching his prosthetic leg each morning. I wondered why she bothered since he spends most of his time in a wheelchair anyway. But I learned that he entertains unruly children especially at church by showing off his “leg.”

Still, I worry about my mom’s physical and mental health when I see how hard she works to care for my dad. But she doesn’t see it that way. She’s just happy to have more time with the man she loves. I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song by Diamond Rio.

One more day
One more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again
I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still, for one more day with you