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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY When empty-nest syndrome becomes a reality



Published: Tue, July 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Spring and early summer bring weddings and with them, empty nests.

George Heller, barrel-chested, with a shaved head and bushy mustache (not exactly your wimpy-looking dad), tears up when he talks about it.

This year, his two daughters follow in their brother George III's flight path. It's a bittersweet occasion for Heller and his wife, Vickie.

The wedding of Allison, 26, in May was the first of two for the Hellers this wedding season. Daughter Katherine, 21, walks down the aisle this month. Already living in Illinois, her marriage will make it official. The Heller nest will be empty.

A sidebar is that George almost didn't live to see Allison's wedding. A few days before the ceremony, he reached for a shirt stored on a closet shelf. As the shirt came down, so did a souvenir bayonet, hidden from the kids years earlier. It severed George's radial artery, causing blood to spurt, and he, his wife and Allison raced to the hospital.

Later, bruised and bandaged, George talked about the wedding, life and his best friend. We sat in his office at YSU's Maag library, where he's been a reference librarian for seven years.

He doesn't look the part. In fact, he jokes, a co-worker calls him, & quot;Conan the Librarian." George's looks fit his earlier occupations -- bulldozing and loading boards at 12 in his dad's sawmill; bill collecting at 16; truck driving and foundry work as an adult.

"After recovering from a back injury, I had to decide whether to go onto disability or finish my education," Heller said. "I had kids, and I had to show them what's right."

He majored in education, but when teaching jobs got scarce, he switched to library science.

True romance: Through it all, George has had the companionship of his wife, whom he calls his best friend. The two met when Vickie was 15, and he was 18.

"We ran away to Michigan and got married when she was 18," George said. Ohio required parental permission to marry before 21, and Vickie's mother objected.

"At [Allison's] wedding, my mother-in-law said, 'I had a lot of misgivings when you two got married, but I've been proven wrong on every one." George and Vickie celebrated their 30th anniversary in December.

George dipped into his pants pocket. He uncrumpled a piece of paper and handed it to me.

It read, "My darling. You are my best friend. I enjoyed our evening together. It's nice to have this freedom and a little time to enjoy each other. You are my only love. My heart is yours. XXXOOO Vickie."

Such romance is what got me interested in talking to Heller to begin with. While commiserating on the difficulties of raising 16-year-old sons, he mentioned "dancing with Vickie" in the kitchen while their children watched.

"We do a lot of things together. We take classes. We're about to take a tai chi class," Heller said. "We walk together. We're known around East Palestine as the couple who walks and holds hands. One night we were holding hands across the table at a restaurant. We laughed. We thought the waiters must think we're married to someone else!"

All this points up the interesting phenomenon of empty nesting -- an ironic mix of joy and sorrow. "The hard part was Sunday [following the wedding] when my second daughter visiting from Illinois left. I walked in Allison's room ..." Heller said. He swallowed hard and continued, "I couldn't stand looking at everything. I had to leave."

In the mean time, he has his best friend to share the melancholy memories of school band concerts, family dinners and even car crashes (remember that 16-year-old son?), not to mention new ones. "I'll always be a part of my children's lives," he said. Maybe the empty nest won't feel so empty.

murphy@vindy.com




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