Photo: Dulcemaría Elleby, originally from Costa Rica, and her American spouse, Douglas Elleby, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Dec. 28.
ATLANTA--Their marriage has survived 12 United States presidencies and conflicts from World War II to the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their love began before Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and their story contains more memories than pages, with a relationship that is still going strong after seven decades.
But for Dulcemaría, who is originally from Costa Rica, and her American spouse, Douglas Elleby,
their 70-year marriage, which they celebrated on Dec. 28, by renewing their wedding vows, has passed in the blink of an eye.
At a retirement home in Marietta, Ga., Dulcemaría sits next to her husband, gently stroking his face. There is a sparkle that speaks of a life full of love and peace.
The summer sun was warming up in Minnesota when Douglas first came into Dulcemaría’s life. She, a college student, had taken on a summer job, and he, having recently returned from World War II, arrived looking for work. Dulcemaría was the person who interviewed Douglas for the job.
“When we saw each other, we forgot about the job. He asked me out, and I said yes. I told him: ‘I can go out tomorrow.’ And he said, ‘No, tomorrow is the only day I can’t because I have another commitment, but I can any day after tomorrow,’” explained Dulcemaría, age 93.
As fate would have it, the next day was Dulcemaría’s birthday, and her friends had planned a surprise party for her. Without realizing whose birthday it was, Douglas had been invited. From that day on, they were never apart.
Several days later, Douglas asked her to marry him. Dulcemaría, believing the proposal was a joke, said yes. Douglas invited her to meet his parents on Thanksgiving, and they in turn asked when the wedding would take place. One month later, the couple made it to the altar.
Shortly after the wedding, Dulcemaría’s father fell ill and the couple moved to Costa Rica, where Douglas worked and learned Spanish. An opportunity with the United States government would take the couple all over Latin America, including to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador and Panama.
“We’ve been blessed, because our lives have been so different. Most people don’t get the opportunities that we’ve had. We’ve travelled a lot, and our children learned many languages. It’s easier for them to adapt to new situations, unlike a lot of people here,” said Dulcemaría.
After a long career with the government, Douglas and Dulcemaría moved to Georgia, where their son began practicing medicine. The couple has resided in the Peach State since 1978.
‘Wito’ and ‘Wita’
Dulcemaría and Douglas have four children, who in turn have given the couple 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren to date.
Their first granddaughter gave them the nicknames ‘wito’ and ‘wita,’ her way of pronouncing abuelito and abuelita.
“They have touched so many lives that they don’t even realize how big their legacy is. For me, their legacy is a true understanding of what marriage is. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the prince and the princess; it’s hard work. You take it day by day, and you love unconditionally, no matter what happens,” said Katy Sudano, the couple’s eldest granddaughter.
Douglas assures that there are no secrets or formulas to the success of his marriage.
“I think that we’re normal, our lives were changed. I never feel like it’s been 70 years. We live extremely well, understanding each other, in spite of the language,” explained Douglas, who is 94.
With divorce consistently on the rise, Dulcemaría and Douglas point out the importance of patience, commitment and unconditional dedication.
“Now divorce is like nothing, there isn’t that responsibility that we had back then,” said Dulcemaría. “I recommend for couples to have a lot of patience and to never stop communicating, because communication is very important, and don’t harbor resentment, because that deteriorates [a marriage].”
The couple’s long life together and adventures all over the world have often put them to the test. Some scientific studies suggest that marriage helps people to live longer. For University of Georgia, Atlanta, gerontologist Kerstin Gerst, however, happiness in marriage is key.
“Marriage has great benefits –- financial, better access to health benefits –- but it also gives meaning to your life, someone to live for. But being happy is key, because if you have a terrible and stressful marriage, that’s harmful,” Gerst explained.
According to Gerst, the presence of a partner with whom one can talk can result in health benefits.
She noted, “They have had to adjust to many circumstances constantly throughout their lives. For some people getting older can be a very stressful process, because they’re not used to managing change. It appears that for this couple, however, they have had to deal with change all their life.”
Center of the Family
A few days before their anniversary, Dulcemaría reflected, “I feel satisfied, I feel that I’ve tried to be the best that I could. I feel complete. Dying wouldn’t worry me; I’m not afraid of death, because I feel at peace.” However, the couple, who has made arrangements for when they do pass, make a point of make new plans every day to live better.
Laughing, their daughter, Darcy, spoke about how her mother asked her not to throw a party for the couple’s 80th anniversary. Turning serious, though, Darcy said she fears the changes in family dynamic when her parents are no longer here.
“They legacy that they have left us with is the importance of family. You always have to put family first, before anything else,” she said.
Following the celebration, their granddaughter, Katy Sudano, observed, “It's their own personal growth and evolution of what love looks like that was so very touching to me and truly a defining
moment for their renewal of vows.” She went on, “They will forever be my Witos and I will forever do my best to remember the core essence of what a great love life and marriage is.”
Douglas gazes at his wife and thanks her for all the help she has given him these last seven decades. Dulcemaría says that what she likes most about her spouse is how he loves her, and what she likes least is that he can be slightly jealous.
Remembering that summer of 1946, when everything changed and she first met Douglas at his job interview, Dulcemaría jokes about having ‘hired’ her spouse. “I hired him for a long time,” she said, laughing.
Johanes Roselló wrote this article in Spanish for Atlanta’s Mundo Hispanico as part of a journalism fellowship awarded by New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP. A shorter English version appeared on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s AJC.com website.