In the back of my parents’ closet sits a clear garment bag with a dress that I have never seen in its full glory, but I recognize it behind the clouded plastic. It’s my mother’s wedding dress; the very gown she wore back in January 1976 when she met my dad at the altar and said “I do.” I’ve seen pictures of their simple ceremony in all of its old-school style. Dad looked dapper in his suit and well-rounded afro; mom traded in her usual uniform for a gorgeous hooded gown that she set off with a slightly frosted beat of the face. They had come a long way rather quickly.
My folks, Samuel and Sandra Eskridge, first met while serving in the United States Army. It didn’t take long for Dad to put a ring on it, and 43 years later they’re still loving life and each other. In a time when people seem not to take marriage very seriously, my parents have been happily married for decades. With that much time in a loving, committed relationship, they must have some wisdom to share with the masses. So, I sat them down for a breakdown of how they’ve made it work for all of this time.
How did you meet?
Sandra: We met in the Army when I was being shown around Ft. Knox by another officer. He and Sam were friends, so it happened that we were in passing cars. So I stopped, and I looked at him, and I said, “Ooh, he’s cute. I’m gonna talk to him!” And he said, “She’s cute, I’m gonna talk to her!” Because all of my stuff hadn’t gotten in from [my previous station], I would watch the news in the community room. He would usually park on the other side of the building, but that day he came to the side of the building with the community room hoping to see me. He said he was nervous–he said he was like Charlie Brown with the little Red Headed Girl–but when he came in, we must have talked for several hours.
Sam: We talked for at least an hour and a half, and then I wound up asking her out. We went to a concert a couple of weeks later in Louisville and had a really nice time. That’s when we started dating, and the rest is history. Normally, I’m a very shy person with someone that I don’t know. So, it was very tough to work up my nerve to have that first conversation back in the community room, but [Sandi] has a talent of instantly putting people at ease. And we were just able to talk–and talk for a long, long time. I just thoroughly enjoyed it, and we had a great time at the concert. Here we are 43 years later–actually 45 years since that concert, and she’s still putting up with me.
What initially caught your eye?
Sandra: He was cute! [laughs]
Sam: What caught my eye was her smile. [Sandi] has a beautiful smile. Mom’s hair was on point. She was in her uniform, looking cute. And I guess I appealed to her, and we had the same thought about each other at the same time.
How long were you dating before you knew you found “The One”?
Sam: For me, we met in March of 1974. I knew that she was the one in November ’74 because being at Ft. Knox, it was only about a seven-and-a-half hour drive back Chicago. I’d go back to Chicago every chance I got. Well, Thanksgiving of ’74 I went back for vacation–we had several days off–and I remembered that this time, I could not wait to get back to Ft. Knox to see her. Everything I saw made me think of being with her, made me miss her. That’s when I knew she was the one. Then, I didn’t ask her to marry me until the following March because I wanted to be sure.
So you guys met and were engaged in, like, a year?
Sam: Yeah! We met in March of ’74; we got engaged in March of ’75. Then we were engaged for 10 months before we got married.
Sandra: I wanted a long engagement so that we could work things out and talk about stuff because [Sam] had to pass two tests before I was going to be marrying him. In fact, when he asked me to marry him, I wasn’t paying any attention. So, he went, “I’m serious!” And I said, “Well, okay then! We’ll get married!” I don’t know why I was distracted.
So he had to ask you twice? He had to repeat himself? [laughs]
Sandra: Well, he had his girlfriend before, and I had my boyfriend, so I wasn’t that serious at first like he was. But when we started dating, I was like, “Oh. We gotta figure this out if we’re going to be exclusive.” Because I was not going to be playing second fiddle to anybody. So, we had our understandings. I wasn’t telling him to quit his girlfriend because I wasn’t going to quit my boyfriend until I wanted to. But as it worked out, I was better for him.
You guys have been married for 43 years, and you both come from strong marriages. Your parents were married until the day they died. What would you say is the best relationship advice you ever received?
Sandra: From my mom, I got that you should start out the way you’re going to go. That’s the best advice I ever had. I told you that, and I told every other young lady that about marriage. Start out the way you’re going to go.
Sam: I don’t remember receiving any formal piece of advice from either my mom or my dad. What I remember is observing all my life the example that they set in the way that they conducted their relationship. My grandparents were the same way. I saw how they conducted their relationship. The examples that my father and grandfathers set informed me on how I should be in the relationship. The example that my mom and grandmothers set informed me of the type of woman I should be looking for.
Can you articulate what those examples were?
Sam: From my father and my grandfathers: always being faithful, being dependable, listening, communicating, and being strong without being too forceful or domineering. Just being gentle and showing her every day that you love her. From my mother and grandmothers showed me to look for an intelligent, kind woman, who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind–and knew that she was part of a relationship to which she should be committed. I learned from being committed in a relationship from my dad and my grandfathers, too.
What does commitment mean to you?
Sandra: Commitment means that if you are in a relationship, and if you want to be what that person, it means you stick with them no matter what– unless they do something crazy like becoming abusive. If he’s weak, I have to be strong. If something happens, I have to be strong until he gets back to where he wants to be. We have to talk with each other–not at each other. When I get really mad, I just won’t talk to him because if I am mad enough, I’m going to say something. You need to be careful of what you say to a person. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. You can be sorry but it takes a long time for someone to get over the hurt. We’re committed in that we support each other no matter what. Just like when we wanted to have kids, I told [Sam], “You helped me get these kids and you’re going to help me take care of these kids.”
I know who I am. I don’t need him to validate me. I already did that for myself. But that’s what commitment means to me: Stick together, work it out. Even when it doesn’t seem possible to work it out, stay calm and think and be quiet. When you have a quiet mind you can work things out and you can be committed. It doesn’t mean that you can’t think things, but you can’t be getting married and looking outside for your comforts. If there’s something you don’t like about your spouse, you talk to him and he talks to you. And it really means being forgiving. You have to learn to forgive each other no matter what because there is certainly going to come a time when you get really mad with each other and you’re going to have to learn how to say “I’m sorry” and mean it. [Sam] and I don’t go to bed angry. Now we sit up a couple nights, but we don’t go to bed angry. The one time that we did go to bed angry, we dreamed that we were dead. We had the exact same dream and had to apologize. So from that day on, we do not go to bed angry.
Sam: For me, just supporting her in everything she wants to do. Even if you don’t completely agree with it, support it because you know that this something she feels she needs to do for herself. That’s not to say that you can’t express any disagreements. Say, “I don’t really feel quite sure about this. Help me feel comfortable.” Have that discussion and let the commitment kick in and see how you can help. Or, when you sense that something is needed, do it without asking.
Sandra: We also compromise a lot. I will compromise because it is something that he might need. We’re kind of each other’s best friend. We talk a lot, and we laugh a lot. Also [Sam] is smart. If he was stupid, I don’t think we could be married. I don’t think I would be able to talk to him.
Was it hard to learn how to compromise?
Sandra: Oh, no. Not for me because I am not selfish. If you’re not selfish, you want to make your spouse happy. You want to do the things that will keep them at peace.
Sam: Learning how to compromise is something that you pick up as you’re growing up on your way to marriage. If you don’t do that, you’re going to have a tough time keeping the marriage successful. You should come into the marriage knowing that you’re going to need to be able to compromise to get through life successfully. If not, you’re going to have a tough time staying married until you learn that. You have to learn that compromise is not giving in. Compromise is reaching agreement on every element of whatever it is that you’re considering and moving forward with that.
Sandra: You don’t look at it like winner and loser. Like I won and you lost. It’s not that. We look at it like can we see if we can come together and keep the peace. It’s important to keep the peace in the family.
You two have 43 years of marriage under your belt. What is the best advice you would give to a young couple?
Sandra: One is learn to compromise. Second, work together. Third, don’t be critical. Fourth is be forgiving. Fifth is be understanding. Sixth is be supportive of each other. Do all you can to make them–your husband or your wife — happy. A happy husband and a happy wife make a happy life. And even when you’re having hard times, work together. Look to each other for support.
Sam: And then when you find somebody that you love, all of that becomes much easier. That’s the important thing: recognize when you have somebody that you love. All the things that [Sandi] just mentioned become much easier to do.
Sandra: Also you have to like the person you’re with. It’s one thing you to love the person, but you have to like them, too. I like [Sam] on top of loving him. There’s not any subject that comes up that we don’t discuss with each other. You have to work together and you have to want to work together.
Sam: Even in disagreement. We can support each other’s viewpoints.
Were there ever any rough times that you had to work through? You did a very good job of keeping that separate and apart from us kids.
Sandra: Children can’t handle adult problems. It is the responsibility of a parent to let you enjoy your life as a child because soon you’ll be an adult, and you’ll have adult problems. But we had problems, like when [Sam] was laid off. I was the only person working. It didn’t bother me. It made things financially difficult, but we discussed the situation and what we were going to do. This is where we are; this is what we’ve got to do; this is how we’re going to survive it. You can get angry, but the best thing is not to talk when you’re angry. Calm down. I learned after reading the Book of James [in the Bible] just shut your mouth until you’re not angry anymore. You know who you’ve got when the hard times come.
What has been the key to staying happy in marriage?
Sam: Just having the commitment to know that you’re going to get through anything together. And then getting through it.
Sandi: When he lost his job. I think he was a little depressed, and I had to work with that. When we did get through it, he said–
Sam: You were like a lighthouse. I told [Sandi] that she was like a lighthouse. So even though I was getting tossed around, I had something that I could focus on and keep me pointed in the right direction. It’s that success of being able to get through the tough times that’s one of the keys to staying happy in marriage–just knowing that the relationship is worth it and taking pleasure from that. Sometimes that’s all you have.
Why do you think your marriage has lasted as long as it has? I mean 43 years is an actual lifetime, and not a lot of couples make it that long anymore.
Sandra: One of the things is picking the right person to be with. Love is different in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end. I always knew the kind of man that I wanted to be with because if I couldn’t have had that, I made up my mind that I was just going to be by myself because I’m not going to put up with but so much. [Sam] had all the qualities I wanted. If he didn’t we wouldn’t have been together. I wasn’t going to marry just anybody just to say I have somebody. And we laugh a lot. You learn to laugh at each other and with each other. Laughter is very important!
Sam: I think that’s one of the things that has strengthened the relationship. We keep each other laughing.
Sandra: And one of the things that I like about [Sam] is that I have a temper, but he is very patient with me. That’s very important that he is patient with me.
What’s one of the most important things to remember about marriage overall?
Sandra: To know that the person you’re with loves you unconditionally.
Sam: Remember that the commitment–the relationship–is always, always, always worth fighting for. Recognize that and keep it going.
Sandra: And I’ll tell you, for us to stay together this long, we had to have faith. And sometimes after church, we’ll just ride out. We don’t have anywhere particular to go, but we’ll just ride around for an hour or so because we just enjoy each other’s company.
What is your favorite memory of each other?
Sandra: That’s a hard one…
Sam: One of my favorite memories is when I first sat down and talked with [Sandra] for a long time. I’d usually park at the other end of [the barracks] where my room was. But that particular day, I said, “Maybe if I go through the lobby, I’ll see [Sandi] and we can talk.” As I got near the lobby, I was getting more and more nervous. When I got to the lobby, I saw that she was sitting there, watching TV. My shyness was kicking in, but I just turned into the TV area, and I said, “Oh, hi! How are you?” And me and my shyness sat down, and the next thing you know we had been talking and laughing for an hour and a half. [Sandi] put me totally at ease; she brought me out of my shyness.
What’s your favorite thing about each other?
Sam: My favorite thing about her is how [Sandi] is able to just talk to anybody. She can start talking to a complete stranger, and five minutes into the conversation, you’d think they were old buddies. She has an ability to put anyone at ease and make them comfortable.
Sandra: I love the relationship that [you kids] have with [Sam]. I think it’s so beautiful. I just love to see the interaction. I think you’re very blessed to have [Sam] as your dad. He has a much calmer spirit than mine.
What has been the most wonderful thing about marriage for you?
Sam: We still enjoy each other’s company. Wherever we are, we’re going to have a good time.
Sandra: The fact that we stayed married. And the fact the [Sam] is very supportive of what I do. He doesn’t try to restrict me in any way–not that I would let him do it–but that’s really important. When we work together on things, I just know that everything is going to be alright.