They hold hands each day on the bus, en route to their noon meal. When they walk into the lunchroom, they are holding hands still.
“He’s my dove,” she tells me later, patting his cheek.
“And she is mine,” he says.
They leave arm in arm, like lovers once parted in a shipwreck who cannot bear the thought of ever being separated again.
Josefa and Isidro Diaz celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary four days before last Christmas, yet they still gaze at each other the way they did across the dance floor in rural Mexico those first days after they met.
The last few weeks or so I’ve been scouting around, trying to find the perfect love story--or something at least close to it--for my annual Valentine’s column. I happened to mention my quest to Margo Beverage, food services director at the Fullerton Senior Multi-Services Center. She immediately piped up: “You’ve got to meet the lovebirds.”
That would be the Diazes.
They’ve been coming by bus to the senior center for lunch each weekday for the last 12 years. They enjoy going early to mingle with friends. About the only time they don’t show up is when they’re traveling.
Isidro Diaz, 84, is retired from the Santa Fe Railroad, and one of his perks is a lifetime rail pass for the couple. They’ve been all over the country. Deeply religious Catholics, they are planning their next trip to San Antonio, Texas, because it has a beautiful Catholic church they want to see.
Because I don’t speak Spanish, their good friend, Joe Medina, volunteered to help us communicate. Though the Diazes speak very little English, Isidro Diaz picked up on it when I asked if they’ve had a great marriage.
Wide-eyed, he looked at me incredulously. “We had nine children,” he said with a chuckle. His notion was you can’t produce that many offspring without a great marriage.
When I inquired about the early days of their relationship, Josefa Diaz broke into a giggle. “He was so handsome,” she remembered. “And very polite.”
He was raised in the town of Jerez, in central Mexico. She was born in Arizona, but moved to Jerez when her family took over a ranch there. They both laughed as they described their courtship.
“In Mexico,” Medina told me in his own words, because they were laughing so hard, “you didn’t just ask a girl to marry you. You had to send an emissary to ask her parents.” Apparently that was a very nervous time for Isidro. Josefa was just 18. But her parents said yes, as Josefa knew they would.
He moved to the U.S. in 1955, and almost immediately went to work for the railroad. She joined him the next year. Most of those years they’ve lived in Fullerton. After nine children, 28 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren, Josefa Diaz says, “He is still my best friend.”
Isidro Diaz hugged her for saying so, and told me, “We have taught our children: If you want a successful marriage, learn to get along with each other, and not let little things become big things.”
Words to live by for so many of us. When I left the Diazes, they were walking back to the lunch room, hand in hand. I left thinking how wonderful it would be if, after 60 years of marriage, my wife would pat my cheek and call me her “dove.”
Good Times & Bad: Love at first sight makes a great story. But Judie Manto of Newport Beach can go one better:
“When I was in high school, I used to draw pictures of the man of my dreams. And when I met Carmelo, he looked exactly like my pictures.”
They met at what Manto calls “a Bohemian-style” restaurant. “I nearly jumped out of my bobby socks the first time I saw him,” she said. It was she who initiated conversation.
So how long, I asked casually, before she realized she was actually in love with Carmelo Manto?
“Let’s see, about 10 minutes,” she said. She meant it too. “I went home and told my mother that I had just met the man I wanted to live with forever.”
She was about to enter her freshman year at USC. Carmelo Manto was about to open an Italian sidewalk cafe on the Sunset Strip. They’ve been married 38 years.
Judie Manto led a storybook life. For years her husband operated Carmelo’s Ristorante on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. She maintained their beautiful home, enjoyed raising their three children, and, she says now with a laugh, “walked my dogs and went to a lot of ladies’ luncheons.” Most of her adult life, Judie Manto didn’t even have a social security card: She didn’t need one.
They traveled the world and enjoyed being in love. But in 1994, their dream world got a jolt: Carmelo Manto suffered a brain hemorrhage. He still spends most of his time in a wheelchair.
Judie Manto knew she’d either have to sell the restaurant or learn to run it. With help from their grown children and advice from her husband, she decided to keep it going.
“About the only thing I knew about restaurants was to complain if I didn’t like something,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot since then.”
Carmelo’s Ristorante has thrived under her leadership the last two years. She admits she’s proud of what she’s accomplished. But she also shared a private thought: “My husband has told me how proud he is of me. And that just makes me feel terrific.”
“Vital” is the word she used to describe their marriage.
“We’ve never let our marriage get quiet, we’ve never been stale,” she said. “And we have never, ever taken each other for granted.”
Wrap-Up: A favorite love story I’ve never forgotten comes from Dr. Toni Grant, the radio talk show psychologist. A woman had called to say she and her husband were like strangers after 40-plus years of marriage. He watched TV, she cleaned house. The children were grown and gone; they just never talked. She was miserable.
At Grant’s suggestion, this woman interrupted her stone-faced husband as he was reading the newspaper. Remember when times were tough after the war, she said, and he had to work two jobs to support their family? She just wanted him to know that she’d always been proud of him for that, though she’d never told him. Now--right out of the blue--she thought she’d let him know.
Old stone-face never said a word. Just went back to reading his paper. What she didn’t know then: He had buried his face in the newspaper to hide his tears. The next day he bought her flowers--for the first time in 40 years. They began to talk and to laugh, and to remember the times before they’d become strangers.
Friday, lest you forget, is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for lovers, and for remembering the good times.
Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by call-ing The Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org