Toms River, NJ / June 11, 2020 / Asbury Park Press — In an ideal world, Lester and Ethel Wunderlich would have commemorated 70 years of marriage with a big party, or in a nice restaurant, or even by taking a little shopping trip.
Quarantined in their assisted-living community by the coronavirus pandemic, the couple couldn’t do any of that. Instead, their family brought the celebration to them — right outside their window.
With balloons, signs, and yes, a little wine, three generations of descendants feted the couple’s platinum anniversary in improvised fashion Wednesday, out on the lawn at Brandywine Living. Speaking through a slightly-cracked window, Lester and Ethel raised a glass of chardonnay in their sitting room.
“We’re drinking as fast as we can,” he joked.
It was an occasion worth toasting, to be sure. The pair, now 89, wed as teens in 1950. They’d met at Rockaway Beach in Queens “and we never stopped talking,” Ethel said. They eventually settled in Freehold Township.
According to census data, about 6 percent of American couples reach their 50th wedding anniversary. That number drops to around 1 percent for the 60th. The odds of reaching a 70th are so long, there are no official statistics on it.
“You can’t even find a 70th anniversary card,” daughter Mimi Wunderlich said.
What’s the secret?
“We always seemed to work everything out,” Lester said. “Plus our kids kept us in line.”
Those three kids, upon learning that their parents got married in a simple ceremony, threw them a full-blown wedding reception to mark their golden anniversary in 2000. For the 60th, they took them to Napa Valley in 2010.
They were just starting to hash out plans for No. 70 when the pandemic shut everything down. Although life in New Jersey is starting to open back up, strict quarantine measures remain in place at Brandywine. Lester and Ethel have been coronavirus-free, but the isolation is frustrating, especially since both are still walking.
“The confinement is very hard, for us and everybody else,” Lester said.
Adding to the challenge: The onset of dementia for Ethel.
“My father is a wonderful caretaker, but she’s getting worse and they can’t get out,” said daughter Lynn Ducker, who lives in Toms River. “In the past I would pick them up and take them out shopping; they would come to my house a couple of times a week and sit on the deck. They haven’t had that outlet, so it’s been stressful and, I think, a little lonely.”
A surprise addition to Wednesday’s gathering lifted their spirits: Great-grandkids Kyle and Colleen Sperling, ages 12 and 9, came to the window with a homemade posterboard sign that read “Happy 70th Anniversary Pop and Grams!”
Colleen said she was “really happy” to see her great-grandparents, even with a window between them. Asked what she thought of them being married for 70 years, the young lady replied, “Wow. I couldn’t hold it together for that long.”
Both kids live in Toms River.
“That’s our dividend right there,” Lester said, beaming at the sight of them. “We used to see them all the time. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on them. I have two grandkids who grew up with me; now I want them to grow up with me.”
The event culminated with a sweet, symbolic moment. Wine glasses in hand, Lester and Ethel pulled their masks down to share a kiss.
“There is a word in Yiddish, ‘bashert,’” Lester said. “It means, ‘meant to be.’
“I think we were bashert.”