"Her heart stopped
because his stopped. Their hearts beat together."
Kyndra, daughter-in-law of Clara and Tom Payne of Lancaster
LANCASTER -- The footsteps of two knockout girls left tracks along the dusty dirt country road in the summer of 1952.
Clara Mae Payne, 19, a brunette beauty so stunning the omnipresent cotton-field crows surely stopped and whistled, was walking home with her sister. A car came up toward them, fast with a dust plume behind it like a comet's tail. The driver came upon this sight of Clara and her sister and slammed the brakes on that old Ford until the coupe came to a shuddering halt right smack in the middle of the road.
"Need a ride?" asked the driver through the open window. A short, rangy, muscles-jumping-out-of-his-short-sleeved-shirt cotton field guy named James Stroud was attached to that voice. "Call me Tom. Everybody does. Whoever's got the most money can ride in front."
Clara had a dollar. She climbed in the shotgun seat and the stars came out in the daytime on that bench seat when the eyes of Tom Stroud met hers. She needed no dollar. The sister with nothing but change in her little clutch purse got in back and ceased to exist in the world now filled with only Tom and Clara.
"She used to tell us he drove so fast, showing off, that she bumped her head on the roof," said a man named Myron Stroud, who should know, because Clara was his mother and Tom was his father. "Apparently, a few bumps didn't bother her too much."
So Tom, 20, from out in the cotton-chopping country where Lancaster and Kershaw counties meet, one of 15 children, started courting Clara, one of 13 children from out in the same cotton-chopping country. Tom joined the Navy and wrote love letters from Guam and the mysterious Far East. Clara saved them all in a tiny box with Tom's name on it. When Clara wasn't waitressing for exactly 17 cents an hour, plus tips if there were any, she sat nights in that country house miles from anywhere and waited for Tom to come home.
And when home he came, the couple wasted no time getting married. Springs had jobs in Lancaster for everybody willing to work hard on their feet all day or night, and the couple took two jobs at the Grace Bleachery. Tom stayed 30-plus years in that mill, working the third shift that starts around midnight and ends after dawn. Clara worked at two plants on first shift for an even 40 years.
John was born first, 50 years ago, then twins Byron and Myron a few years later.
"Daddy could work a dollar and a half out of a dollar," John said. After that tiny rental house near the Bleachery, the Strouds had their own house in the Elgin community just a long length of Springs yarn south of Lancaster.
"They struggled to make it, never had much," Myron said. "I shelled so much butter beans they grew right there in that garden ... that I used to sneak some into the trash to keep from shellin' any more."
The boys grew into men, married and started to raise their own families. Still, Clara and Tom worked. Tom left the mill to run a barbecue joint inside the Lancaster American Legion Hall, "Ole TJ's," and Clara waitressed there, too -- while still working her mill job.
Clara and Tom fished together, ate together, did everything together.
"They sure were never apart," said John's wife, Karen.
Clara and Tom, together so much, yet there was little people saw to suggest these were lovebirds.
"He was tough on her, didn't show a lot of affection, but they had this love you could feel around them," said Kyndra, Myron's wife. "You could sense it in the air. You could almost touch it."
The Strouds in later years moved to a small humble place near the river, south in Kershaw County at Lake Wateree. Tom still chopped wood and burned it for heat and for that kitchen wood stove, where Clara made biscuits that were so good and flaky and tender a preacher would probably risk damnation and steal them if he could.
The grown children, and all the grandchildren, were down there almost all the time because Tom and Clara wanted them there.
"Clara Mae!" was the call from Tom. Pronounced "Clar-May!" in one word.
Clara was always the mother who had the sons in church. Baptist, be it Sherwood early in life or White Bluff later, every Sunday without fail. Tom was more distant from the church.
Then in 2003, son Byron died. For the first time, Tom started telling people around him he loved them, where for decades his love was unspoken but understood.
Tom had heart trouble, like so many who worked so hard for so long. He survived four heart attacks and a bypass operation. He started going to church and Sunday school. Tom Stroud "got saved" last year and was baptized last summer. He became a church deacon just last month, as his wife read Bible verses to him at night, even with his failing health and a heart that Myron and John, his sons, each said simultaneously, "was about to give out."
The couple would listen to tapes of the church choir as they drove to where they went. Doctors, the pharmacy, maybe fishing. She drove because his eyes were failing.
Monday of this week started out like any other Monday in a house with Tom's weak heart: Tom chopping wood. Myron was coming down from Lancaster to help fix a thermostat, John was coming from Lancaster with a wheelbarrow to replace the one Tom wore out from carrying a million loads of chopped wood.
But Tom told his wife he wasn't well. She called her sons, but they and the emergency workers were too late. Tom Stroud died of a worn-out heart at age 75, right there in his river house, at 3:30 in the afternoon.
"She said to me on the phone, 'I can't live without him,'" John Stroud said. "She kept saying, 'What am I gonna do without him?'"
Clara admitted then she didn't feel well herself and the medics turned their attention to her. She was clammy, hot and cold, clearly stricken.
But she didn't want to leave.
"I really think she wanted to lay down and die right there with him," John said.
But the sons demanded a trip to the hospital in Camden that turned into an immediate emergency helicopter flight to the heart center at a hospital in Columbia. Clara herself had had a heart attack.
"All this time that evening, we already lost Daddy, we still thought she would be all right after a couple of weeks," Myron said.
"We even were worrying about how to have a funeral without Momma able to be there," John said.
Late in the night, the family filed in that hospital room and Clara told everybody she loved them. Really she whispered, but all heard it booming as if from a loudspeaker.
Then at 12:19 a.m., less than nine hours after Tom Stroud died at age 75, Clara Mae Stroud, at age 74, died herself.
A medical worker in tears who had heard all about the death of Tom just hours before, saw Clara's condition and knew from family what this couple meant to each other, and said out loud: "She's on to be with her husband, where she wanted to be."
Medically, two heart attacks. Yet these two sons, their longtime wives and all their children from young kids to grown-ups, each said of Clara Mae Payne, who watched her husband of 54 years die just hours before, "She died of a broken heart."
Kyndra, the daughter-in-law, said, "Her heart stopped because his stopped. Their hearts beat together."
After the sobs stopped, in the past couple days, John and Myron, and their wives and Byron's widow, Donna, said the same thing to each other so many times. It came through tears and smiles. It came Thursday as Tom and Clara Mae Stroud lay in the same room, caskets end to end, at Hartley Funeral Home in Lancaster, waiting to be buried side by side today.
Myron looked at his brother John and said one last time: "Daddy never could go nowhere without Momma."