Siblings celebrate 391 years of marital bliss

February 14, 2008 8:26:02 AM PST
Newlyweds could probably learn a few things from the five Estes sisters and their two brothers, who collectively have lived through 391 years of marriage. In an age when nearly half of new marriages are expected to end in divorce, the seven surviving children of C.M. and Minnie Estes have all been wed 50 or more years.

The youngest, Sue Bass, completed the streak of golden anniversaries Saturday when she and husband Edwin marked their 50 years together in a laughter-filled banquet room, surrounded by Sue's six surviving siblings and many of the couples' 71 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"We're the last. We made it," Sue, 69, said after the Basses' celebratory spotlight dance. Added Edwin, 73: "The others made it and we weren't about to get beat!"

The Estes siblings, ages 69 to 84, attribute their marital success in large part to the moral example set by their late parents, who were married 58 years.

C.M. Estes was a Christian minister, and he and his wife raised their eight children -- one is deceased and a ninth died as a toddler -- with the belief that marriage is for life.

Seventy-four-year-old Joyce Samples said her parents endured hard financial times but set a loving example that she's emulated in her 57-year marriage to John Samples, 74, also a minister.

"They always showed respect for each other, which made us know that was part of marriage. There wasn't a lot of verbal advice. You just watched them and knew how it was done," she said.

Aside from Joyce and Sue and their husbands, the other Estes children and their spouses are: Agnes and Howard Byrd, wed 61 years; Douglas and Kathleen Estes, 60 years; Charles and Grace Estes, 57 years; Eula and L.B. Champion, 54 years; and Gladys and Bob Maple, who were married 52 years when Bob died in 1999.

An eighth Estes sibling, Joe, died in 1992, by which time he and his widow, Ruth, had been married 48 years. Their marriage boosts the Estes' matrimonial total to 439 years.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., said it's unusual for so many siblings to have such long marriages.

Coontz, who has studied marriage trends for 25 years, said many marriages that began in the 1950s ended as more women entered the work force in subsequent decades. That wasn't an issue for the Estes siblings; all the wives were homemakers.

David Popenoe, a professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, said religion, commitment to the marriage and a willingness to overlook problems are often factors in long unions.

"One wag says the most important thing for a marriage is having a bad memory -- in essence, you overlook things that would cause other people to break up," said Popenoe, co-director of Rutgers' National Marriage Project.

"They're committed through thick or thin to the other person and the marriage. They're willing to work through problems as they arise and overlook things."

The Basses' love story began in 1957 when they met at a Georgia grocery store, where Sue was a cashier and Edwin was a stock boy. After a few dates, they were smitten.

They tied the knot on Feb. 9, 1958, in the only traditional church wedding of the Estes children. All the others had low-key weddings, typically with only a minister in attendance.

A half-century on, the Basses, who have three daughters, agree that the key to a long marriage is listening to their mate's concerns and working together to overcome problems.

"A marriage is definitely teamwork. It's not one-sided, that's for sure," said Sue.

"You've got to let love grow," added Edwin. "You've both got to pitch in, in order for it to work. You have to work at it, and we still work at it every day."