As is custom in parts of the South, Shalyn Nelson calls her grandparents “mamaw and papaw,” and both are as constant in her world as points on a compass.
“They are, without a doubt, the best people I know. I call them my heroes,” Nelson told InsideEdition.com Tuesday. “We are very, very close... They have always loved and supported me.”
And as a testament to how much she loves them, Nelson decided to get them all dressed up and use her professional skills as a photographer to illustrate the love that binds them and shines from their faces like sunlight.
The photos, taken two years ago to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of Joe Ray and Billie Wanda Johnson, are now burning up the internet.
And the Johnsons are still going strong.
Joe Ray, 86, and Billie Wanda, 83, cavorting for their granddaughter's camera. (Shalyn Nelson)
“They have taught me the true meaning of marriage,” Nelson said.
It’s not champagne and roses and head-over-heels euphoria. “It’s a promise that can’t be broken. No matter how messy life gets, when you say ‘I do,’ that means forever.”
Her grandparents met when Joe Ray saw Billie Wanda walking down a Texas street and pulled his car to the curb. He asked her for a date. She was in high school, he was in college.
On Dec. 28, 1950, they were engaged. Two years later, they were married.
When they built their ranch house in Jewett, Joe planted a rose bush outside their bedroom window. “Billie Wanda is the rose of my life, but it does have a few thorns here and there,” her husband said.
She’s used to his carrying on, but that doesn’t mean she won’t give him a pinch that makes him sit up straight. “She wants me to quit,” he said in a video that his granddaughter made as part of her anniversary tribute.
Asked what she dislikes most about her husband of six-plus decades, Wanda said, “When he gets mad.” Joe answered the same question with a groan, bemoaning that his bride had never, ever, thrown anything away.
That earned him another pinch.
After more than 60 years, the Johnsons know the value of being silly. (Shalyn Nelson)
Nelson’s visual paean is part of a project she calls “Love, the Nelsons,” a collection of couples still together after many, many years. She has heard from people around the world anxious to tell their stories. She is working on finding a way to raise money so she can travel to where they are and capture their history on film and video.
But her grandparents’ story will always be the fondest of her heart.
“They have shown me what marriage should be like,” she said. “They never gave up. Only love matters at the end of this life. Love always wins.”