Sophia George, 88, and always the life of the party, was even more radiant than usual in a midnight blue gown with metallic gold and silver accents, her eyes sparkling as she hugged her guests and welcomed them in; later that night she would lead a conga line through the banquet hall.
Her husband, Tony George, who has a dry sense of humor and is usually a man of few words, was just as gracious – and handsome, too, in a new gray suit the ever practical Sophia figured was a good investment because he’ll be able to wear it again to his funeral. He’s 93, and in addition to a severe hearing impairment and vision problems from macular degeneration, he had one of those mini strokes a few weeks ago that scared Sophia half to death.
They’ve been married 70 years. Which is why they’re throwing this late April party complete with a band, buffet, open bar (Sophia’s decided to bring the good liquor from home), and a renewal of their vows in front of 209 family members – children, grand children, great grandchildren, in-laws, cousins — and friends, so many friends.
“Don’t you think we deserve a party?” Sophia said.
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After all, 70 years of downs and ups, sicknesses and health, arguments and apologies, breakups and makeups – Sophia left Tony twice, three times if you count the breakup during their courtship – have to be worth something. It’s longer than anyone they know has been married. Researchers at Bowling Green State University say fewer than 1 percent of married couples stay together this long and that in the future, 70th anniversaries – platinum anniversaries – will become even more unusual; people are waiting longer to get married and won’t live long enough to reach the seven-decade milestone.
And that makes Sophia and Tony of Macomb Township one of the last of the platinum couples.
When people ask them how they got to this incredible point, how they managed to merge two strong personalities to create a life together, Sophia says it wasn’t easy, Tony says he’s Catholic and doesn’t believe in divorce, and they both say that they love each other.
But that’s only part of their story.
Love on wheels
Sophia Vitale, the oldest child in an Italian-American family with four kids, was 15, going on 16, and with her cousin at a popular 1940s spot, the Arcadia roller skating rink on Woodward in Detroit, when some guy, an older guy, skated into her and knocked her down. “He did it accidentally on purpose,” she says all these years later, recounting the meeting and revealing that the older guy was Tony George who, at 21, had just returned home from overseas duty in the Army.
Sophia wasn’t amused by Tony’s method of introduction, but he was handsome, so incredibly handsome with his dark eyes and dark hair. She allowed him to help her up and they got to talking about themselves, about their families – he was the youngest of eight from a Lebanese-American family – and spent the rest of the evening skating together. By the time she left the rink, Sophia – who’d dropped out of school after ninth grade to take care of her younger siblings and clean her family’s east-side Detroit home while her mother was away helping a sickly relative – had her first and, it would turn out, only boyfriend.
“I’ve loved you ever since I saw you,” Tony would say later.
Sophia’s mother didn’t allow her to talk to young men, let alone date, but she did allow Sophia to go to the roller rink. So that’s where Sophia went, week after week, to see Tony, her secret boyfriend. It was bliss – the handholding, the rides home in his car that ended with necking, the knowledge that there was more to her life than the drudgery of working around the house. She couldn’t believe her happiness. It was everything she wanted.
But then, trouble. Sophia’s mother found money in Sophia’s purse – money she’d given Sophia for roller rink admission, money Sophia hadn’t used because Tony paid her way. A neighbor also reported seeing Sophia kissing Tony at night in a car parked beneath an illuminating streetlight. Their secret relationship wasn’t secret any more. Her mother was livid; she yelled. Sophia cried.
The young couple parted ways.
A short time later, Sophia’s family moved to another neighborhood.
Tony didn’t know where to find her, though he never stopped thinking of her.
She never stopped thinking about him.
Was it fate?
Sophia who had a strong interest in makeup and beauty products – even now, in these ultra-casual times, she doesn’t like to leave the house without false eyelashes, drawn-on eyebrows, much jewelry and high heels – took a job working the cosmetics counter at Sam’s Cut-Rate Department Store in downtown Detroit. On her way home from there on a Jefferson Avenue streetcar one afternoon, she caught a glimpse of someone she hadn’t seen in almost a year: Tony!
Tony was on her streetcar, riding to Chrysler to work the afternoon shift.
Sophia felt chills up and down her body. Her eyes opened wide. She was so surprised to see him.
Tony pushed people aside to get to Sophia, and when he reached her, he said: I want to see you again.
This time, however, Sophia wanted to do things the right way; no sneaking around. Even though she dreaded asking, she knew she needed her parents’ permission to see Tony. Much to her surprise, they told her she could invite him over at 7:30 on a Saturday evening.
That night, Sophia waited. And waited – 7:30 came and went, so did 8 o’clock, and 8:30 and 9. She was a wreck, looking out the window when her parents weren’t watching; she didn’t want them to know how worried she was, how frightened she was that Tony would never show up.
When he finally arrived around 9:30 (he said he was playing cards with some guys and couldn’t leave), Sophia’s mother was furious. She announced she would not, under any circumstances, allow her daughter to date Tony. Maybe because he was less strict, maybe because he knew his daughter needed a life of her own, maybe because he knew how much she looked up to him and didn’t want to disappoint her, Sophia’s father overruled his wife. He gave Sophia permission to go out for a cup of coffee with Tony.
A year later, they eloped at the courthouse.
A ROUGH START
The early years of their marriage were no honeymoon.
Tony spent way too much time living like a bachelor. When he wasn’t working his job at Chrysler, he was out playing cards. Sometimes he kept his paycheck to himself, allotting only small amounts of money to Sophia for their family and for their household.
Sophia, always at home, felt trapped and lonely and angry – similar to the way she’d felt as a young girl, stuck at her parents’ house, with no choice but to take care of her siblings and do chores. Over and over, she asked herself: What kind of life do I have?
She packed up their baby daughter, Marsha, who was born 18 months after she and Tony married, and moved in with her parents. Tony begged her to come back, but she refused. Her father stood by her, telling Tony that he didn’t raise his girl to suffer through a bad marriage, that she was better off at home with her parents than being miserable with him. But Tony continued to beg, promising their life together would be different. And after a month or so, convinced he was sincere, Sophia returned to Tony. Later, she would tell friends: “I never had any problem with Tony and women. The only problem I had was the Queen of Hearts, the Queen of Diamonds, the Queen of clubs … ”
When things got bad again, when he wouldn’t take her out for dinner or a movie or anything, Sophia grabbed their daughter and — by this time — their baby son, Tony Jr., and went back to her parents’ house. Again, Tony visited, begged her to come back, kissed their kids and begged some more. He wanted his family. Deep down, Sophia knew she wasn’t going to leave him forever; she wanted to make a point. And when she felt she had, a couple weeks, maybe a month later, she returned to their home.
Always a hard worker, Sophia took a job to supplement her family’s income. She worked at a bakery. Then she moved to a factory. Then department stores. Then Sophia went to beauty school and opened a salon, which she ran for 10 years before selling. After that, she took a job in the dairy department of Chatham supermarkets. Later she became a cashier; shoppers loved her ebullience. She bought and sold some investment property and on and on.
Along the way, the relationship Sophia and Tony shared changed. “I brought some of the money home,” Sophia says. “I could reason with him. I handled the money. I put the money where it was most important. And if I felt he was gambling too much, I wasn’t giving him any.”
Which is to say the highs and lows continued, as they do in all relationships. But Sophia never left again.
She and Tony talked more.
Tony and Sophia listened to each other more.
They compromised more. “You have to open your eyes before you get married and keep them half-closed after you get married,” Sophia said every time someone asked her for marriage advice.
Always strong, Sophia became stronger.
When Tony was diagnosed with throat cancer and the doctor blamed Sophia’s smoking for contributing to it, she went home, threw away her cigarettes and quit her two-pack a day habit just like that. She committed herself to keeping up her husband’s spirits and her kids’ spirits. If she ever lost hope, if she was frightened, she never let it show.
When Sophia’s mother – who lived to be 102 years old – could no longer care for herself, she moved in with Tony and Sophia and they took care of her together, which is pretty much how they do everything now.
As a team.
They survived together, thrived even, by being stubborn and selfless and maybe even selfish, too, and learning from their mistakes. They grew and changed and, after some tumult, accepted each other’s changes. They committed themselves to something bigger than themselves: the institution of marriage and the family that came from it. They made it their life’s work.