January 9, 2015

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

An epic love story atop the family tree

It had an echo of Nicholas Sparks to it, but it was real life, and the story went viral: an Ohio couple married for 73 years died just 28 hours apart.

Reporters across the globe culled bits of Hollywood drama from the marriage, chronicling a young Joseph Auer surviving the horrors of D-Day and missing the birth of his second child. He and his wife, Helen, enduring financial hardship as they raised 10 children.

When Helen passed away in their Cincinnati condo on a quiet Wednesday evening last October, 100-year-old Joe kissed his wife and whispered, “Mama, call me home.”

She honored his request promptly.

But the part that wasn’t reported, the part that the Catholic reader might have sniffed out based on the names, the location or the family size, was the Catholic faith that undergirded Helen and Joe’s union. It was like oatmeal, giving them sustenance. It was like a full daily planner, lending them purpose. It was like star dust, offering them hope.

Helen and Joe combatted stresses—a night job, farm chores, miscarriages, never-ending diaper wringing, Catholic-school tuition—with Mass, weekly confession and nightly rosary. All the kids knew of Helen’s devotion to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whom she petitioned fiercely when her firstborn contracted spinal meningitis as a boy.

“They always put God first,” said Mary Jo Reiners, the Auers’ fifth child. “That’s one of the things I’ll take away from their marriage.”

They weren’t particularly demonstrative, but the kids never doubted their parents’ commitment. It was visible in the little ways they cared for each other and the tender nicknames they used; he called her “Helen Baby,” and she called him “Daddy.”

Their legacy includes 16 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. A second great-great grandchild is due this month.

Reflecting on what it means to inherit and honor that legacy is a weighty matter, said Joe Bianco Jr., a 35-year-old mortgage loan officer and the firstborn of Joe and Helen’s sixth child, Jeanne.

“I’m trying to instill the same values,” said Joe Jr., a father of three.

But sometimes the gulf between his grandparents’ way of life, with its simplicity and nobility, and his 21st-century grind feels unbridgeable. His grandpa risked his life in World War II; Joe Jr. is waging iPad wars among the kids in the living room.

He remembers his grandpa reading The Cincinnati Enquirer with a magnifying glass and referring to the TV as “the idiot box.”

These days, Joe Jr. finds himself repeating the parental mandates he grew up with: work hard, finish your meal, say please, go to church. His kids attend a Catholic school and attend Mass, as a family, every week. He and his wife, Missy, were married in the same church as his parents and his late grandparents. He hopes the sacrament and setting can have the same effect on his 12-year marriage as it did on their 73-year one.

Their back-to-back deaths deepens his trust in God. “It just proves that God truly has a plan for all of us,” Joe Jr. said. “He had it all mapped out.”

His big-picture thoughts about honoring his grandparents are tinged with New Year’s resolve. The goal for 2015, he says: power off the iPhone and spend more time with his family. He may still have to log 55-hour work weeks, but once he’s home, he wants to be available to play with his 11-year-old son or read Pete the Cat to his 4-year-old daughter.

“My kids are growing up quickly,” he said. “Maybe I’ve already missed some things, but I don’t want to miss any more.”

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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