Writer Marjorie Holmes Celebrates a Marriage Made in Heaven and Set to Words and Music in Pittsburgh
updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
On the same evening, some 300 miles north, George Schmieler was alone in his Pittsburgh bedroom, aching with despair over the loss of his wife six months earlier. Now he sat near their bed, "calling God every curse word," he says, as he sorted through her knitting. Beneath an unfinished afghan, he discovered a book his wife had been reading, I've Got to Talk to Somebody, God by Marjorie Holmes. The author's comforting words were a balm to his broken heart. Six weeks later he traced Holmes through relatives, dialed her unlisted number and announced, "I love you. You saved my life." His call was no shock—Holmes often hears from bereft strangers. "He didn't sound like a nut," she says. "His voice was rich and pleasant." She agreed to meet him. "I didn't know what to expect," says Holmes. "It might have been some tiny man with no hair."
But, lo! when the 4'10½" Holmes opened her front door, she beheld a striking six-footer who turned out to be devout, healthy, successful, intelligent, sexy, ardent, nimble in the art of conversation and an apprentice Astaire on the dance floor. Nineteen weeks after they met, Holmes and Schmieler were married. "We are convinced that this was the work of God," says Holmes. "We're two people who were absolutely right for one another, brought together under unusual circumstances."
If indeed the Holmes-Schmieler union was God's work, He was apparently in no rush. "We've raised our children and accomplished what we set out to do in our careers," says Holmes. "Our only responsibility now is to one another and to enjoy the rewards of lives lived separately yet fruitfully."
Schmieler began his life as the son of a Mount Oliver, Pa., shoemaker. He made his way through the University of Pittsburgh on a swimming scholarship, went on to medical school and met his first wife, Caroline Koerberlein, in 1932 while working as a lifeguard at a public swimming pool. (She, not trusting to divine intervention, threw herself into the deep end and cried for help.) Throughout their marriage, which produced three children, their lives were inseparably entwined. She worked as his nurse; they took a cruise each spring and summered every year at a cottage overlooking Lake Erie. It was there, in June 1980, that Caroline, 67, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. "I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to walk the dogs," Schmieler remembers. "The moon was on the lake, and I was thinking I was the luckiest man in the world. When I returned, she was all shriveled up and purple." Overcome with grief and certain that he could not live without her, he poured out a handful of sleeping pills. "And then," says Schmieler, "I just started screaming. Our dog was so startled, he knocked the pills from my hand, and that brought me back to my senses."
Holmes, a fundamentalist Christian turned Episcopalian, was a tractor salesman's daughter from Storm Lake, Iowa. After graduating from Cornell College, she married engineering student Lynn Mighell and rumbled off in a $35 jalopy to raise cabbages in the Rio Grande valley. After Holmes gave birth to the first of four children, her white-picket-fence fantasies wilted with the cabbages. "Oh God, we were so poor," she says with a shudder. Holmes began selling short stories and poems to magazines and in 1943 published her first novel, World by the Tail, a romance set in the Depression. She attracted a loyal audience of needy souls with her commonsense parables and pick-me-ups published in the Washington Star and Woman's Day magazine and in such volumes as Hold Me up a Little Longer, Lord and Secrets of Health, Energy, and Staying Young, an ode to the miraculous properties of nutritional supplements. On Christmas Eve 1963, Holmes was inspired to write about Mary and Joseph when she was seated behind a manger tableau at midnight Mass. "I could smell the fresh hay," she recalls, "and it struck me that this was the greatest love story of all time." She called her novel Two From Galilee, and with it she prospered mightily.
Through the years Holmes was often sustained by her writing. "My husband was a good provider," she says, "but he was a workaholic. Sometimes it was lonely. He loved me, but it was hard for him to show affection." Mighell rose eventually to become a top executive with the Carrier Corporation. When he died of cancer in 1979 after years of illness, Holmes imagined she would soon be back in circulation but was not above asking for help. "Each day," she reports, "I would stand on my terrace and say, 'Please God, send me a wonderful man.' "
And so it came to pass that George Schmieler called. The night they met, Marjorie wore her good black suit and a little white blouse, and George recalls that "she was pretty cute." She wasn't wild about his gray Vandyke beard, but during a quiet dinner she began to realize that here was a most unusual and uninhibited man. After dessert, he burst into song: "How'd you ever come to me, Marjorie darling? Tell me that you love me too, Marjorie darling...." When he had driven her home, he opened his black doctor's bag and pulled out a collection of family pictures, explaining that he had been a faithful husband for 44 years. Holmes was impressed by Schmieler's courtliness—"I wouldn't consider marrying some guy who would grab me and wrestle with me on the first date, for goodness sakes"—but was positively stunned when, just before midnight, he proposed. She politely declined. "He seemed desperately lonely," she says. "I believed he was still traumatized by his loss."
But Schmieler persisted. Four weeks later, when Holmes arrived home from a research trip to Israel, he surprised her with an armful of roses and swept her off to the Maryland seashore for a romantic vacation. "We went swimming every day, and he made the most wonderful coffee," she says. "He really knows how to treat a woman. I realized he was an honorable man, and I was very much in love." They married on the Fourth of July.
It took a year to get adjusted. For months George habitually called his new wife Caroline. "It is definitely an adventure to marry when you are older," says Marjorie, who moved into Schmieler's Pittsburgh home, which was filled with mementos of his first marriage. "George knew it was difficult, bless his heart. He said, 'You are the lady of the house. Do with it what you like.' " She called her decorator.
Today, six years later, Holmes and Schmieler have settled into a comfortable and companionable domestic routine. George awakes regularly at 6 a.m., meditates for an hour, makes coffee, arranges fresh flowers on the breakfast table and reads the morning paper, which he embellishes for his wife with goofy headlines and captions in green ink. Just before 8 o'clock, Holmes rings a bell and Schmieler joins her in the bathroom, where he serenades her with My Blue Heaven, Deep Purple and other golden oldies while she showers. After ballet stretches and a bounce on her trampoline, Holmes prepares a breakfast fairly bristling with vitamins. Then Schmieler reads to her—passages from the Bible, medical news, jokes and poems. At 10 a.m. it is time for them to tell each other, "I love you." (Several clocks in the house are set permanently at 10, just to allow for extra nuzzling.) Marjorie tends to her writing and correspondence, while George clears up medical paperwork, reads and cares for their two dogs. The magic words are repeated at 10 p.m., followed by more reading, more vitamins and a dish of ice cream before bed.
If all this sounds too rosy, Holmes hastens to point out that even the brightest life has its gray days. Shortly after they were married, Schmieler developed such severe circulation problems in his right leg that amputation was recommended, but Holmes fought back with massages and double doses of vitamins, which seemed to set the matter to right. Then last January George discovered a malignant tumor in his left lung, which was later removed and had not metastasized. "As a physician, I know that the spread of the cancer I have is so common that eventually you become subject to the terrible tragedy of succumbing to the disease," Schmieler says calmly. "Not always," objects Holmes, shaking her tiny fist. "Not with faith." Later she says, "George and I tell ourselves this is paradise now, wherever we are. And as people of faith we know that there is an equally beautiful afterlife."
Schmieler retired following his operation, but persuading his exuberant wife to do the same would be akin to putting a cyclone on hold. There are lectures to give and writing conferences to attend. And when Holmes embarks on a six-city tour in November to promote The Messiah, the final novel in her life-of-Christ trilogy, Schmieler as always will be at her side. For now at least, the afterlife will just have to wait.