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Notebook Lifestyle

Love at long distance

Glenn and Kathy with nine of their 10 grandchildren (Handout)

Lifestyle

Love at long distance

A stressful Navy career often kept Glenn and Kathy Palmer apart, but dependence on God helped their relationship persevere

18TH IN A SERIES ON LONG MARRIAGES

It was Sept. 25, 1976, and the New York International Bible Society was holding a fundraising dinner in New York City. Kathy Cornell, an 18-year-old employee, found herself sitting at a table beside Glenn Palmer, a 21-year-old Navy sailor in a white service uniform. Glenn was quiet, not knowing anyone at the table, but Kathy had fun chatting with friends. She remembers thinking he looked like an egghead because of his Navy-issued black rimmed glasses. A few days later, she felt guilty and wrote him a letter. He answered, and thus began their correspondence.

They didn’t see each other for three months, but they enjoyed writing letters. In December Glenn came home for Christmas, and he began courting Kathy. Navy duties kept Glenn away for long stretches: He saw her again only once before proposing to her at his family’s house in Vermont in May 1978. They married a year later. “I had actually seen her eight weeks total in the first 2½ years of our courtship,” Glenn said.

Being involuntarily apart, it turned out, would be a theme of their marriage. The Palmers trusted God and stuck together, but loneliness and parenting made long months of separation difficult.

For the first 20 years of marriage, Glenn was gone on Navy deployments and ship duties about a third of the time. Back home in Norfolk, Va., Kathy said, “I had a really hard time just being in the house by myself.” She remembers leaving the lights and the radio on and still feeling bored and lonely when she got home from church or her job at a Christian bookstore. Meanwhile, Glenn was tired of seeing only men his age, in the same clothes, every day, and he missed his wife. To stay connected, the couple followed the same Bible reading plan and wrote letters to each other, numbering the envelopes to keep them in order.

During Glenn’s long deployments, they made a paper chain and tore one link for every day he was gone.

Eventually, their six children replaced Kathy’s loneliness with busyness. At one point, she had four children ages 5 and under: She went grocery shopping with one baby in a backpack, one in a front pack, one in the shopping cart, and one walking beside her. Kathy planned out the days to keep her sanity: She had the children listen to cassette tapes, read books, and play with neighbors and church friends. During Glenn’s long deployments, they made a paper chain and tore one link for every day he was gone. When he returned, Kathy said, the small children sometimes struggled to adjust: “Who is this man coming home? I don’t remember him.” 

The Palmers made financial sacrifices to put all their kids through Christian school and invested in family vacations to historical places. Daughter Rebecca Vandermolen remembers visiting museums on their trips: Her dad became so animated explaining the history of the place to the children that others would think he was a museum tour guide and listen. She also said her parents were hospitable and let her and the other children bring their friends home with them at any time.

On April 14, 1988, Glenn’s ship hit a mine while patrolling the Persian Gulf and almost sank. Kathy saw the news about the USS Samuel B. Roberts on the television but had to wait a few days before Glenn could call her. After he came home that June, Kathy sank into six months of depression from the stress. “It was sort of a delayed reaction,” she said. She found comfort in the book of Psalms and in playing hymns on the piano: “I don’t know how people would get through things like that without the Lord.”

Glenn retired from the Navy a commander in 1998. The Palmers’ youngest son moved out this year, but their house is not empty. Kathy’s sister lives with them, as does a deacon from their church who rents a room. Glenn, 65, serves as an elder at their church in Norfolk, teaches Sunday school, and runs a side business. Kathy, 62, serves with the church’s music ministry. Their children have moved to other states, but the family stays in touch and meets together at Christmas and in the summer. 

Remembering nearly 41 years of marriage, Kathy said, “I could go back and say, ‘Lord, this was from You.’ It was a calling. There was no escape hatch.”