Paula and Charles Graff met during the Kennedy administration and married the year the Beatles first hit number one. They've survived war, distance, kids, in-laws, a few crushing football losses—and they still can't get enough of each other. Dawn Porter checks out the view from happily ever after.
Paula Davis, RN, met Charles Graff, MD, in 1963 at the U.S. Army hospital in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Nurses have been dating doctors since the dawn of time, but for a while this match seemed like it might not get off the ground—Charles was on the verge of moving to California to finish his residency, and Paula had been warned by the other nurses that he was a notorious playboy. But when he phoned to ask her out, he addressed her as Miss Davis, and she realized something that pleased her: He was nervous. Paula found Charles funny and sweet; he thought she was smart and liked her legs. Neither entered into the relationship lightly, not least because Charles was white and Jewish and Paula was black and Christian. But their differences didn't stop them, and neither has anything else: Last year the Graffs celebrated their 45th anniversary.
The timeline of the highs—and lows—of their life together
First dinner date. Charles drops knife (down his sleeve) and cigarette (into Paula's coffee). Paula charmed. "He was terrific company, and the best kisser." Second date booked.
Parents horrified. Charles: "My parents were New York intellectuals who contributed to the United Negro College Fund. They were liberals—until they were faced with this." Paula: "My mother was so miserable, so mean, I didn't recognize her."
Charles moves to San Francisco to finish residency. He and Paula break up...until he proposes. "I knew my mother was going to kill me, but I couldn't stand being without him." Family pressures them to call off engagement. Ha.
November 23, 1964
Wedding day: Paula nervous, Charles calm. "He never wavered; he was certain this was the right thing. It meant everything to us to be married."
Interracial marriage still illegal in 19 states. Fears of social climate convince couple not to have children. Unplanned pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage change their minds. Paula: "When we imagined ourselves with a child, it felt so right. We started asking who were we protecting—the child or us?"
First dinner party. Charles: "We didn't know how to use the stove, so we baked the steaks." Months later Paula realizes she forgot to cook the fruit tarts.
Paula pregnant again. Parents thrilled, hatchet buried. Paula leaves nursing job. On trip to Hawaii, Charles severely sun-poisoned: first in lifelong series of vacation misadventures.
David born. Charles deploys to Vietnam. On last night home, holds infant son until morning.
Weeklong rendezvous in Japan. Paula wants to bring David; Charles asks her to come alone. Paula worries their lives are drifting apart.
Charles hates war, loves being army doctor. Receives Bronze Star, is offered chance to extend tour. Considers offer; Paula livid. Charles returns home.
Paula gets pregnant again, and Charles brings the family to Pennsylvania
Family moves to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and begins to reconnect. Paula soon pregnant again.
Charles takes surgical position in western Pennsylvania. Paula despondent. "The town was so ugly, I cried. There were just two restaurants, and Pittsburgh, the nearest city, was 25 miles away." On the bright side, shared obsession with Pittsburgh Steelers begins. Charles: "In the 15 years that followed, I missed two games. Two."
New friendships via local synagogue. Paula, after much practice since steak and tart debacle, establishes reputation as dinner party virtuoso.
Paula books family trip to Bahamas. Charles stays behind for Steelers game: "I had to see Franco Harris in the playoffs!" After game, calls Paula to say he's lonely. Paula tells him to call Franco.
Tenth anniversary: Charles buys large diamond. Paula delighted!
Attack of the 6-Foot Raccoon. A nocturnal marauder repeatedly scatters couple's trash while they sleep. Charles vows revenge. Raccoon stands to fight. Charles, grossly overestimating raccoon's height, flees to house, runs upstairs, jumps in bed. Bed nearly breaks. Paula: "I never laughed so hard in my life."
Paula considers leaving Charles, and 13-year-old David embraces Judaism
Charles always working.
Charles still always working.
Paula now de facto single parent, constantly exhausted, nerves frayed, temper short. Considers leaving Charles. Friends encourage her to open up to him; she struggles but follows through. "I learned that sometimes I had to put up my hand and say, 'Hey, I need help.'" Charles, stunned, vows to shoulder his share. Couple adopts full-disclosure/open-forum/ask-and-ye-shall-receive policy. Paula: "Asking for what we needed took practice—but it made us stronger people in a stronger marriage."
Diagnosis: Marriage needs more fun. Charles buys hot rod. "A Corvette with white racing stripes down the side. I drove it for years."
Thirteen-year-old David embraces Judaism. Charles and Paula pleased. Charles: "I didn't know it, but the rabbi taught David the Friday night service. We went to watch, and David was flawless—it brought tears to my eyes. Paula and I held hands the entire time."
20th wedding anniversary.
Paula's mother is stricken with cancer of the esophagus and stomach. Charles's timely diagnosis prolongs her life. (She will live comfortably until 1991.)
Charles moves the family again, this time to Kentucky; David studies law
Charles joins new practice in Louisville, Kentucky. Paula returns to work: "This was a great period—I was able to have a bigger chunk of being me." Charles works less, discovers something new: free time.
Trip to Europe. Charles falls ill in Rome, gets kidney stone in Venice. Both slammed with awful flu in Paris. Charles: "I'm telling you, we're jinxed!"
David studies law. Michael studies nursing.
Charles expands horizons, enters law school. Couple considers next step, visits Key West. Smitten. Paula: "Key West had everything—music, theater, lectures, great library, great people." They promptly buy a condo and eventually move there.
David marries. Two years later, Michael will, too.
First two grandchildren born. One more will follow.
Paula works at domestic abuse shelter; Charles fishes, takes up guitar. They read, volunteer. Famous dinner parties now include whole new group of friends.
Paula diagnosed with aortic aneurysm. Life saved by major surgery, but ongoing monitoring required. Dr. Charles brings home flowers often. Couple moves to Bonita Springs, Florida. House has pool—and space for visiting grandkids.
The sweet life: cooking for friends ("We have lobster dinners, no occasion necessary"); mini-spats while driving ("You can't turn on the radio, she forbids it!"); not traveling (Charles: "My New Year's resolution? Never leave home again"). Couple perfectly, wonderfully happy together—spats, Steelers, and all. Paula: "We've laughed, wept, been puzzled, angry, dumbfounded, amazed—and most of all, we've been grateful to whatever gave us the chutzpah, courage, or stupidity to love and marry, to have children, to face life's challenges and remain bonded together." Best of all: "Forty-five years later, I still like being with him. He is the best of me."
Editor's Note: Paula Graff passed away in late 2010.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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