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What makes love last?

Four couples reveal what they’ve learned in 50 years (or more) of marriage

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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Be kind. Listen. Spend time together. And also apart. That’s the wisdom on making marriage work, from those who know: couples who have been married 50 years or longer.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, the Globe asked four long-married couples for their secrets. They spoke about the joy they took in their children and grandchildren, the importance of caring for each other during illnesses, their volunteer work — and how true love sometimes means picking up your own dirty socks.

CHARLIE AND JOYCE WALSH

Charlie Walsh, 80, World War II veteran, retired principal of several elementary schools in Salem, and Joyce Walsh, 68, retired payroll worker, of Salem.

Married: 1961

Children: 2 Grandchildren: 2

You met at Almys department store in Salem in 1958. What was the spark?

Charlie: She was really sexy looking.

Joyce: That’s what he thinks. He has a nice personality.

Was your 11-year age difference an issue?

Joyce: My dad said, “He’s set in his ways, he’s never going to change,’’ and I said, “I know, Dad.’’

Charlie: That was the big surprise. I changed, she didn’t.

Joyce: As we got older, I got more mature than him.

How do you get along with another person for five decades?

Charlie: I make the big decisions — when to buy a new house and a new car. She makes the others. And you have to be kind to each other. My dad always said kindness was the word.

Joyce: We talk about everything and we listen to each other. There is give and take, patience, and tolerance. [They laugh.] I think he could be a little more low-key, but he’s never going to change. I have learned to tolerate it.

What have you learned about marriage?

Joyce: [Husbands] are all the same. My sister will tell me that she talks to her husband and he’s not listening to her. It’s like blah, blah, blah. I said, I know, the only time mine really listens to me is when he knows I’m mad at him and then won’t talk to him. Then he can’t talk to me enough.

Charlie: Sometimes friends complain that their wives won’t listen to them. I say, maybe you are trying to tell her the wrong thing. You have to learn to adapt. If you don’t adapt, the marriage doesn’t work.

Joyce: If you want to make it work, you have to let things go.

Bottom line:

Joyce: I lay his clothes out. People say I’m a dying breed.

Charlie: It’s like I told her, if she dies, I’m really screwed. I have no idea what the account numbers are or anything else. I’ve survived cancer, I’ve got three stents in my heart. I’m lucky to have a master sergeant watching over me.

FRANK AND JEAN BOCCHINO

Frank Bocchino, 77, retired purchasing manager, and Jean Bocchino, 75, retired bank teller, of Braintree

Married: 1956

Children: 2 Grandchildren: 3

Who’s in charge?

Frank: She is. That’s what makes it work. I know that’s the case and I accept it as such.

Jean: We’re both the boss. He’s not one to do something unless we talk and agree.

Frank: What she’s saying is, I need to have her affirmation.

What is “true love’’?

Frank: If you married properly, you just begin to accept the obligations you have. Both of you are working together to accomplish something. You don’t sit back and say, this isn’t my responsibility. It becomes love in a different sense. In 1958 I said to Jeanie I’d like to go to college. I went for nine years at Northeastern, nights. She was right beside me. Those are the things I think are love, not physical attraction.

Jean: Some of it is physical attraction [laughs].

Talk about building a life together.

Jean: You buy your house and furnish it and have children and raise them and make sure they are doing well and getting married.

Frank: What Jeanie’s trying to say — I don’t want to put words in your mouth — is that you do it together.

Jean: It’s hard work, but that goes behind you. You reach your goal and you glide from there. Today’s youngsters won’t accept responsibility. They think it’s one big party.

Frank: They want to get married and still be single.

What do you like to do together?

Frank: We like to travel. We like casinos. We’ll shovel together. No one says it’s my job or your job. We even go shopping together.

Jean: Not too often. He’s not too good in supermarkets or the mall. He says, “Can we go home yet? . . . Are you through looking yet?’’

Frank: You know how men are. We want to buy a shirt and go home. Women want to look at this rack and this rack. . .

You started dating as teenagers in Boston. Did you ever break up?

Frank: A few times. It was stupid stuff.

Jean: I’d dated other boys before him, and I said to myself, I think this is the best of the bunch.

Frank: If we hadn’t gotten back together I don’t think it would have been too good.

HERMAN AND LOIS WELLS

Herman Wells, 87, retired manager, Civil Rights division for a number of years for the Federal Aviation Administration New England region, member of the New England chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Lois Wells, 88, retired as a recruiting coordinator at Simmons College.

Married: 1947

Children: 3 (one deceased)Grandchildren: 4 Great-grandchildren: 4

You met at church in Rhode Island. What did you like about each other?

Lois: He was always a gentleman, in the way he took you on a date. He escorted you right.

Herman: I liked her looks. [They laugh.] She was an outstanding young lady. I liked her for herself and for her manners. Both our parents have raised us right, so that we respected each other.

What don’t young people know about marriage?

Lois: I don’t think they take their wedding vows seriously. No marriage runs completely smoothly. If there’s a problem, you have to sit down and work it out together. We have no bosses in this family. I am not his boss and he is not mine.

Herman: I’m with her 100 percent on that.

Lois: You work together. He always helped me with the children. If there was something to be done around the house, he took care of it. It’s a hand-in-hand situation.

How have you changed together?

Lois: We haven’t, except for getting older. We’re finding out we can’t do what we used to do.

Herman: But we don’t look our ages. We don’t act like old people.

Lois: Young people like to be around us.

Is keeping your mouth closed sometimes the best policy?

Herman: There are not too many bad things, but if there is something bad, I don’t say anything.

Lois: There’s not much bad he can think about.

Herman: That’s true.

What have you learned from each other in 64 years?

Lois: Oh my goodness. I can’t say what I’ve learned, there’s been so much. I’ve learned what love and kindness is about, and understanding and cooperation.

Herman: I learned cooking and the maintenance of the house and whatnot.

Lois: He loves me and he shows me in so many ways. It’s not by mouth, but by deed. He never forgets my birthday, or our anniversary, and he’s determined to try and please me.

Herman: I take her out to places she likes to go. Sometimes I’ll cook dinner, whatever she wants.

Lois: There’s a togetherness.

KENNETH AND IMOGENE FISH

Kenneth Fish, 87, a retired partner with Foley Hoag, and Imogene Fish, 78, a member of the 1952 US ski team at the Winter Olympics and a retired college administrator. The longtime Weston residents now live in North Hill, a retirement community in Needham.

Married: 1958

Children: 3 Grandchildren: 8

How did you start dating?

Kenneth: We met in the fall of 1957, and I would call her for a date every weekend, and of course she wasn’t going to be around because she was skiing. So our matchmaker friends had a dance . . . and my [law] partner said invite her, and she said yes.

Imogene: He wasn’t a skier, but he had lots of redeeming qualities. He was a lawyer and kind and responsible. I thought I’d give it a try. I was 26 — that was getting on — and it was time to find the right guy.

Kenneth: My twin sister was worried that no one would be around to take care of me in my old age. Here I am in my old age and [Imogene] is doing a wonderful job. She did a wonderful job all through the years.

What do you argue about?

Kenneth: We’ve never had a serious argument.

Imogene: I can think of a couple, dear, but let’s not go there. One of the wonderful things about Ken, he forgets the harder times, not that there were many.

How do you get along so well?

Ken: We’re very nice to each other.

Imogene: We always say please and thank you, even for the tiniest things. Neither one of us is a slob, so we don’t have to pick up after each other. Except Ken, your office.

Ken: I was a lawyer with a secretary.

Are you one of those couples who does everything together?

Imogene: We have some of our own sets of friends and interests and give ourselves space. Otherwise you can get caught up in, “What do you want to do?’’ . . . “I don’t know, what do you want to do?’’ We all need that occasional solitude and time away from the marriage.

Ken: Well, I don’t agree that I need time away from marriage, but we do have our own sets of friends.

What’s your secret?

Imogene: Listening to each other and respecting each other and taking time out to have fun. [Of course] there are times when we get on each other’s nerves.

Ken: You never get on my nerves.

Imogene: He’s so tolerant of me. Oh my gosh, I don’t deserve it.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.