On April 19, 1995 — the day of the Oklahoma City bombing — David Phillips ran into Wanda Hannah at Borders bookstore in Houston. The acquaintances discovered they were both single.
Tall, expansive book salesman Phillips, now 69, had wed three times previously. Shorter, shy librarian Hannah, now 77, already had tied the knot twice.
“After 19 years of marriage, Hannah said she didn’t want to be married any more,” Phillips says. “Still, I got her phone number.”
Over dinner at upscale Vargo’s, Phillips reached over and took Hannah’s hand.
“I don’t know if you are seeing anyone,” he said. “But I let you get away from me 20 years ago, and I’m not going to let it happen a second time.”
“When he said that, I lost my appetite,” Hannah says. “I took the rest of my dinner home.”
The romantic appeal triumphed. (How could it not?) The couple, who have lived in a small retirement village near McDade since 1999, have, after multiple attempts, found their soul mates.
One detects the residue of that fond discovery in every post of Phillips’ charming blog, “Miss Wanda and I,” which chronicles their late-life thoughts and experiences (read entries at misswandaandi.com).
“Wanda is the Mother Teresa of the ranch,” Phillips says about their small community. “She is ‘Miss Wanda’ to them. Every single article begins with ‘Miss Wanda and I …’”
Phillips was born in Louisville, Ky., the only child of a Marine who married a drug store manager. Hannah was born in tiny Eupora, Miss., her father an RC Cola truck driver, her mother a “homemaker extraordinaire.”
“She tended gardens, learned how to can, make jelly, raised chickens,” Hannah says. “Learned how to kill a chicken and pluck it.”
The couple’s distant past often informs stories on the blog.
“Since she and I are both from the South, a lot of what I’m writing is about the parallel paths of our lives,” says Phillips, whose literary model is folksy longtime Houston Chronicle — and, before that, Houston Post — columnist Leon Hale.
On “Miss Wanda and I” — Hannah prefers to appear only incognito behind a spray of wildflowers — Phillips weaves together interviews, meditations and hay bales of local color, never condescending or judgmental. One of his recent posts explains how to build a frog house but begins in a typically discursive manner.
“Miss Wanda and I live 15, 20, and 30+ miles from the nearest centers of commerce,” Philips writes. “So we spend a lot of time driving together. ‘What shall we talk about now?’ is a question I frequently ask, and given my stream of consciousness thinking, one subject prompts another. These discussions are more fruitful if it is before lunch.”
The drought-dry humor builds slowly.
“After lunch, my nattering leads Miss Wanda to napping,” he continues. “This is somewhat disconcerting, since she’ll drop off silently, and she doesn’t snore, so I never know how many of my valuable insights she has missed. Sometimes, she is so eager to enter Dreamland, that, like the inveterate subway strap hanger, she drifts off, still clinging to the handle over the passenger door.”
Phillips, who attended Kentucky Wesleyan College, at one point prepared to become a minister at Atlanta’s Candler School of Theology, part of Emory University.
“I shouldn’t have answered that call to the ministry,” he says. “It was a wrong number.”
In 1967, he worked at the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville and later sold textbooks, library books, trade books and college-test preps. He retired five years ago.
Phillips met Hannah in 1976 when she was head librarian at Houston’s private Kinkaid School. As a well-behaved child, she had tried to remain invisible.
“I’d hide in the shrubbery and read when it was time to dust,” she says. “Hated to dust. Still do.”
She loved histories and historical fiction and excelled at school.
“When you are a librarian you don’t have time to read,” she says. “So you make lists of all the wonderful books you are going to read when you retire, but then you don’t because you are too busy.”
She retired from Kinkaid in 1998 and keeps an eye on the subjects in the blog that bears her name if not her image.
“Sometimes he tells me,” Hannah says. “Sometimes he just shows me.”
“I don’t put out anything she hasn’t read,” Phillips says. “I have the mind of an editor, but I’ve got the nose of the reporter.”
Hannah’s favorite post to date was a long one on barbed wire fences. To learn more about fencing, Phillips followed around ranching neighbor Art Behrend.
“Art’s grandfather used to attach fencing to trees, but Art does not: ‘They sway or die,” Phillips writes. “‘Build a good H’ refers to the corner, which determines the quality of a fence. A wire stretcher (sort of a modified come-along) tests the tensile strength of the wire as it pulls the wire tight. The particular wire Art used in this fence is ‘Gaucho,’ which happens to be a product of a company in Belgium which manufactures a boatload (literally) of metal and wire products: tire-wrapping cord, champagne cork wire (500 million ‘twisties’ a year), suspension bridge cable, concrete rebar, electronic wiring, and fence wire.”
Behrend told Phillips that, in the 1970s, there was a shortage of good baling and fencing wire.
“It came from overseas, and it rusted quickly and easily,” he writes. “Modern galvanizing has mirrored 100-year-old technology to create wire which should last 50-100 years without rusting. Art has remnants of 100-year old wire which are still rust-free. He is 55, and he earnestly figures that if all his current replacement fencing lasts 50-100 years, he’ll leave the fences better than he found them.”
Who reads such musings in “Miss Wanda and I”?
“I’ve tried to establish a base of regular readers from all over,” Phillips says. “The daughter of one of our neighbors lives in England. She writes one, and we mention each other’s blogs. Wanda’s cousin in Mississippi has a husband who is a sax player and performs on YouTube. You never know where the connections will go.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.