Gene Crumbley walks over to the stove. “I’m making Norma’s famous banana pudding,” he says, turning on the electric burner under a ready double boiler. “You notice I don’t wear an apron,” he adds, smiling. A self-proclaimed “dessert man,” he says this recipe is one of his favorites.
Stirring the custard for the pudding, Crumbley doesn’t look down at the open cookbook next to him. It’s really there just for show; he knows many of the recipes by heart. This is the book he lovingly assembled, a collection of Norma’s recipes throughout the years. “Most of the time, you’d look on them and see she had changed one thing here, another there,” he says. “Add more, take away some. Just about every recipe, she tweaked.”
Vibrant blue walls frame white cabinets and appliances like a scene from a Delft pottery plate. A 1920s-era enamel stove sits in the kitchen corner, one of a number of antiques decorating the Crumbley home. Pictures line the fridge, the walls, the end tables—images of children, grandchildren, and Norma.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since, in his words, “she left me for another man.”
Gene Crumbley doesn’t remember what he had for breakfast the morning of Sept. 10, 2011. Up before his wife, he stole a few rare moments of down time at the kitchen table. The weeks and months had become increasingly difficult in caring for Norma, who’d been battling health complications from osteoporosis. One day he counted the number of times—19—he had to lift her out of her wheelchair. Despite being in fantastic shape for his age, the constant care was wearing him down.
When he woke her that morning, he heard a gurgling sound in her lungs. “I said, ‘Honey, I’m going to have to call the paramedics and get you to the hospital—you’ve got too much fluid.’” Norma resisted, fearing what would happen there; they had an agreement, no resuscitation. But he decided he had to make the phone call.
At the hospital, the doctor told Crumbley that they’d have to insert a breathing tube or Norma would drown. Assured it could be taken out when no longer needed, he reluctantly agreed.
He now regrets the timing—it was never removed. “To this day I wish I had gone in there before they put the tube in, to have hugged and kissed her.”
Three days later, with her husband and four children by her side, Norma Crumbley died. It was a week shy of their 58th wedding anniversary.
Gene and Norma met like any other couple in the late 1940s. To 21-year-old Crumbley, fresh out of serving in the Navy following World War II, Norma Simpson was just “his friend’s kid sister.” She sat in the audience when he starred in a production of Dear Ruth, a popular play about a teen girl who uses her older sister’s picture and name to become pen pals with a soldier overseas. He didn’t know it at the time, but that night Norma developed a crush on him that would last a lifetime.
One night Crumbley and Norma’s brother Marion had plans to attend a dance stag. Crumbley showed up at the Simpson home to find Marion had changed his mind—and now had a date. Ready to leave without him, Crumbley was stopped by Norma. “Mother said you had something to ask me.” It was the first time he had seen her in a dress and makeup. He quickly asked her to the dance.
“We fell in love that night,” he said.
He later found out why she was dressed up: Norma was waiting for another young man who had stood her up in the past. He finally arrived that night, only to find “his girl” off with another guy. “She never did date him again, and I never did go out with another person,” he said. A couple of years later, they were married.
The Crumbleys considered themselves good people. “We went to church every Sunday, but we weren’t Christians,” he said. Though he led a Bible study at a nearby church, he had little interaction with the One whom he claimed to teach about. At that time, Norma started attending a Bible study led by a woman who really knew the Scriptures. And it was to her they turned when, one day, they knew they needed God to fill a void they themselves couldn’t.
“There’s the old saying, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ It doesn’t actually heal anything, I think, but it allows you to get through it.”
Norma invited her husband to meet this woman, who proceeded to tell them all about the Bible and God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ. Yet she wouldn’t pray with them for salvation, instead telling them to go home and individually call out to the Lord, repenting of sin. They did exactly that. Later, Crumbley asked her why she wouldn’t pray with them on the spot. Her reply: “Because if you go home and do it, it’ll be sincere.”
The timer beeps and I offer to take the banana pudding from the oven. The peaks in the meringue are a light shade of brown, just as they should be, Crumbley points out. That’s when you can tell it’s done.
We come to the table and sit down to hot banana pudding, a pecan pie baked earlier in the day, and cups of black coffee. Crumbley is a natural conversationalist. With the charisma of a man half his age, he’s energized by an audience. Sharing stories. Telling jokes. Making people laugh. And he expresses his desire to get married again, should it be God’s will for him. He and Norma talked about it before she died, and she joked that her girlfriends would be lining up at her funeral. “But that’s okay, because they’d all be bringing casseroles,” she had said. Crumbley hates casseroles.
Underneath the humor, there’s the evident sadness that comes when your best friend, your companion for nearly six decades, is gone. Crumbley’s personality is large enough to fill an arena, yet in the quiet moments of our time together, his loss is palpable.
That first wedding anniversary without her, a week after she passed away, he continued their tradition of going to the Olive Garden. Worried about him, his son and daughter-in-law joined in. Crumbley asked his son what he thought about him “taking a younger lady out to dinner.” When his son bristled, he pulled an old photograph of Norma from his chest pocket.
“There’s the old saying, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ It doesn’t actually heal anything, I think, but it allows you to get through it,” he says.
Even today Crumbley has a hard time describing the loss. In a letter he wrote me months after our meeting, he said:
I had no idea how to comfort someone who had lost a spouse until Norma’s going home to be with her Lord Jesus. The depth of the hurt and the grief is of such a magnitude that unless you’ve been through it yourself, you absolutely have no idea what it is like. I don’t know that I can describe it even now except to say that half of me is missing, for she was such an important part of my life for all those precious years.
Yet he believes God left him here for a reason. He credits his great health to decades of practicing chiropractic. And he keeps himself busy serving others. A volunteer with In Touch Ministries, Crumbley also assists on Sundays at First Baptist Atlanta as the much-loved train conductor character for children’s church. Recently, he also was helping care for a friend’s 103-year-old mother until she passed away. And he spends his time on projects like Norma’s cookbook, something he created to honor her memory and bless other people.
Out front, Crumbley points to an old plum tree in the corner of his yard, its aged branches reaching heavenward. “I was about to cut it down, but I saw green buds. I thought it was on its last leg, but it’s not.”
It looks as if there’s more life to live.