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, México, 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.
Dulcemaría and Douglas have four children, who in turn have given the couple 11 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren to date.
“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. 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].”
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.
“The legacy that they have left us with is the importance of family. You always have to put family first, before anything else,” she said.
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.