A love for the record books

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The year was 1927. The setting was rural Nebraska, on the eve of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. She was 14 years old, a little shy and "too young to date," she recalls. He was 19, an outgoing, blue-eyed farm boy who made his living picking corn by hand.

"We met on the dance floor," he remembers, then turns to her for confirmation. "Wasn't it at a dance?"


Yes, she nods and smiles.

They married in 1930, just five days after she turned 17. "A neighbor told Grandma, 'That ain't gonna last,'" she says.

"Everyone who knew us and our families," he adds with a grin. "They all said it wouldn't last."

But Elza and Vivian Moses surprised them all. He is now 102, and she is 97. They have become minor celebrities in central Illinois since September, when they reached an astounding milestone of marital longevity: their 80th wedding anniversary.

No one tracks how many couples live long enough to mark eight decades of wedded commitment. Census statistics stop at the 50th anniversary because, according to a spokesman, "life expectancy usually doesn't go that much longer."

But Leonid Gavrilov, a biodemographer at the University of Chicago's Center on Aging, used actuarial tables to estimate the chances of a couple living as long as the Moseses and also remaining married to be about 1 in 7 million.

"Is that a true fact?" says Elza, raising his white, wispy eyebrows in surprise.

"You know, we are pretty fortunate," says Vivian. "To think of all the things that happened to us, and we are still here."


Not only are they still here, the Moseses are still remarkably healthy and living independently in a white two-story, aluminum-sided house in Tiskilwa, a village of 780 people about 50 miles north of Peoria.

On this afternoon, they're sitting in matching reclining chairs in their very warm living room, heated into the 80s because Elza is always cold. Vivian -- her white hair styled into short ringlets, her eyes bright -- is still a little shy, and so, at first, she lets Elza -- stooped with age but still as outgoing as ever -- begin the story.

Soon enough, she adds her two cents, and before long they are finishing each other's sentences and quibbling affectionately about minor points. She touches his arm. He takes her hand.

They first got to know each other at those country dances, they say. She loved to dance; he had two left feet. But he proved to be a fast learner. Spinning across that dance floor, they began to fall in love. One afternoon, he drove her home from the county fair in his Model T.

"I bought her a necklace and -- what else?" he says.

"Earrings," she remembers.

He didn't have any money for a ring, and so when they got engaged, he bought her a watch. "I still have it," she says. She pushes her walker into the bedroom and emerges with the watch, its band worn from time, the metal deteriorating from decades of use. "It's still very special to me."

After they married, they worked the land in Nebraska. But the drought and the heat were unrelenting, and so, in 1939, they headed for Illinois. On 80 acres they rented outside Tiskilwa, Elza raised corn, soybeans, hogs and dairy cows. Vivian tended to the garden, the house and their five daughters.


When Elza needed her, Vivian would tromp out into the fields. Elza, in turn, would lend a hand around the house, helping dress the children or put them to bed, canning vegetables and bringing them to the basement for storage.

"For both of them, I think it was their first love," says daughter Judy Speers, 65. "They always totally relied on each other. And to this day they still do."

During World War II, Elza worked in a defense plant in Mendota. After they retired from farming, the couple made their living by driving school buses.

It has been a good life, the Moseses say. But it has not been without heartbreak. Their oldest daughter, Norma, died at age 14 after complications from spinal surgery in 1947. Their second oldest, Iona, was 74 when she died of cancer in 2005.

"We just went through a lot of things that we couldn't do without each other," she says. Then she turns to him and asks, "Would you know what to do without me?"

"I'd be completely lost," he says.

He doesn't hear well anymore, but seems to be able to tune into her voice. And so she acts as his interpreter, sitting next to him at family gatherings and attending his doctor appointments. A sore shoulder makes it difficult for her to move, and so he reaches for items on high shelves and, in the mornings, helps her dress.

Handling daily tasks together, Vivian says, is one of the ways they keep their marriage strong. She does the cooking; he does the dishes. She writes birthday cards to every child, grandchild (nine), great-grandchild (28) and great-great-grandchild (14, with four on the way); he takes the cards to the mailbox.


"We work together," she says. "We always have."

Theirs is not the longest union on the record books. That prize goes to a North Carolina couple who marked their 86th anniversary in May. But the Moseses' longevity has made them celebrated figures in Tiskilwa and beyond.

For their anniversary, they received a letter from Barack and Michelle Obama, who called their marriage "an example for us all." They rode in a local parade two summers ago, in an antique car with a sign that announced: "Historic Couple -- Elza Vivian Moses." Local schoolchildren sent more than 100 cards for Elza's birthday.

Vivian still whips up batches of cookies, including Elza's favorite maraschino-cherry cookies. Elza putters in his woodworking shop, making napkin holders and jewelry boxes. They hold hands every day and tell each other they love each other.

But when asked how they might spend Feb. 14, Elza looks confused. Having not heard the question, he turns to his wife, as he often does, for amplification.


"Oh," says Elza, with a shrug. "Probably nothing."

And that's OK with Vivian, who was never one for flowers and chocolates. She chuckles and says: "It would be pretty late to start now."

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