Saint Valentine's Day: Sweethearts Even Now, After Decades of Love

Marshall and Dorella Anderson in front of the oldest building at Irving School, Riverside. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Dorella and Marshall Anderson met in the 5th grade at Irving School, in Riverside, but she had to think about it before she married him. "Oh, I looked at a lot of boys," Dorella said with a grin, setting up tables for a reception at Park Avenue Baptist Church after Marshall had brought all the tablecloths inside and then waited for his next assignment.

"She had those green eyes," Marshall said. Dorella laughed hard and added, "Yeah, I had to think about him. I wasn't gonna marry someone I couldn't whup." But then a look passed between them -- you know the kind, the one that says we have known each other all these years and we know what love and work mean. "And he didn't start out at Irving," she added, waving her hand in dismissal over the folding chairs.

Marshall said, "I started school at Longfellow. Then they told me I had to go to Irving. And look what I got!" They have been married since 1954, when Dorella's grandfather, Reverend Goodwin, a pioneer member of Riverside's black community, conducted the service at Dorella's mother's home. Dorella Anderson was the heart and soul of the Community Settlement Association, shepherding families through school and social events and life, for more than forty years. Two years ago, when Marshall became seriously ill, Dorella nursed him continuously, and now here they are, finishing up this banquet room with centerpieces for a party, then heading off to the movies, as they do every single week. (Romantic movies -- for the Andersons? Who talk about love and whupping on people, who still love football? They have just seen "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," but today will be "Gangster Squad," their favorite kind of action film.)

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Reggie and Susan Strickland at their home in Riverside. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

This is serious love. Their good friends, Reggie and Susan Strickland, were married 56 years ago at Park Avenue Baptist. Susan McCoy went to Irving School, too, and Reggie Strickland went there for 3rd grade, but they had already met before then -- when he stayed at his grandmother's house near Susan's home at 10th and Park Avenue. For decades, Susan worked as a teacher and volunteered tirelessly for both the Riverside African-American Historical Society and the Riverside Mexican-American Historical Society, while she wrote papers and graded papers, and Reggie ran his own newspaper, the Riverside Reporter, taking photos and writing the articles, and at night, playing in jazz bands at clubs all over Southern California.

When Reggie developed major heart trouble and was hospitalized, Susan was there every day. Everyone knows the traditional vows -- in sickness and in health. How many wedding shows are on television right now -- how many gowns and cakes and bridezillas and unsure grooms and unhappy bridesmaids? There are really no wedding weeks. There is a wedding day (well, yes, there are destination wedding weekends) and then there is the rest of your married life. Richer or poorer.

Tony and Sarah Lopez at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, Riverside. | Photo: Douglas McCullohYesterday, on Ash Wednesday, Tony and Sarah Lopez, who both went to Irving School, sat on a brick planter outside the church where they were married 73 ½ years ago. (They made sure to tell me about the half.) "They always ask me, why didn't you know Tony when you were at school together?" Sarah told me, her shoulder inches from his, and he lifted his face to the sky, knowing what she might say next. She turns to him and says, "You went to school to look at girls! I went to study!" His face lights up as if it's the first time he's been reminded.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, where Tony Lopez rang the bells for more than forty years, where Sarah Lopez' father, Felix Vasquez, opened the church at dawn and closed it long after dark, was built in 1929, on the corner of Ninth and Park in Riverside. "We met here, in church," Tony said. Sarah was nineteen, a soloist in the choir, which sang in Latin. "When I heard her voice, singing by herself..." "What did you feel?" Sarah demanded.

"I felt...something." Again, they both grin as if doing a show. A show about reality -- not the other version. It was 1937. They married in 1939, and here they were, with their daughter Theresa, receiving ashes on their foreheads, leaning into each other to tell the stories of their love. They are both 95 years old.

General and Alberta Sims, 1973, in the dining room, Riverside."He was so sick, and he almost died," Sarah said quietly to me when Tony got up to walk in the courtyard. "He couldn't go to a convalescent home -- he would never make it. And the doctor said we had to be closer to the hospital. So we moved back to my father's house." Sarah, who grew up on 11th Street, and Tony, who grew up on 14th Street, live on 9th Street, in view of the church.

On this Valentine's Day, as every year, I wish my own in-laws were still sitting in their recliners near the fireplace a few blocks from here. My mother-in-law, Alberta, went to Irving School with Susan Strickland, her best friend. She met General Sims when she was a senior at Riverside Poly High, and married him a few days after graduation. She died on February 20, 1995, at 61. I miss her every day. General died on October 19, 2008. They are buried together at Riverside National Cemetery, but today I like to look at this photo of them at home, when they are still young and in love, maybe heading out to a party with the Andersons or the Stricklands, maybe for a night on their own.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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Susan Straight never fails to hit the mark, when it comes to tellin' it like it 'tis! These three sketches are beautifully rendered portraiture's of the many faces of love, and how we make meaning out of loss, while continuing to belong.

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Susan Straight never fails to hit the mark, when it comes to tellin' it like it 'tis! These three sketches are beautifully rendered portraiture's of the many faces of love, and how we make meaning out of loss, while continuing to belong.